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Tea

Finding an ethical and eco-friendly sustainable tea. Ranking the ethical and environmental record of 45 tea brands.

We look at fairtrade and organic certification schemes, workers' rights, plastic in teabags, shine a spotlight on the ethics of Tata (Tetley and Teapigs) and give our recommended buys.

About Ethical Consumer

This is a product guide from Ethical Consumer, the UK's leading alternative consumer organisation. Since 1989 we've been researching and recording the social and environmental records of companies, and making the results available to you in a simple format.

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What to buy

What to look for when buying tea:

  • Is it a small company sourcing from a small farmer? Big companies dominate the tea market and can use their power to suppress prices. The best way to undermine their dominance is to buy from a small company that buys from named smallholder farmers.

  • Is it organic? Tea plantations often use large quantities of chemical pesticides, herbicides and fertilisers which have negative environmental impacts. Buy organic.

  • Does the company publish its full list of suppliers? There’s no excuse for them not to, and conditions for workers won’t improve until companies take this step.

Subscribe to see which companies we recommend as Best Buys and why 

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying tea:

  • Do the teabags contain plastic? There are lots of teabags available now which don’t contain plastic, so it’s easy to avoid. Better still, buy loose leaf.

     

Subscribe to see which companies to avoid and why

Score table

Updated live from our research database

← Swipe left / right to view table contents →
Brand Score(out of 20) Ratings Categories Positive Scores

Our Analysis

In the UK, to express a preference for a drink other than tea is an act of treason. Okay, that’s not quite true but we do spend around £500 million a year on the stuff and drink 36 billion cups of it.

Our love of tea connects us to millions of workers and smallholders in tea gardens around the world. Many of these were first established in British colonies, such as India and East Africa, to meet the demand of the British market and undermine China’s dominance of the trade. The colonial regimes have gone but many of the brutal working practices from that period continue, particularly in Assam in India.

Despite the fact that tea provides an income for some of the world’s poorest people, the industry remains beset by labour and human rights abuses.

Who's in the guide to ethical tea brands?

In the UK, four brands – Yorkshire, Twinings, PG Tips and Tetley – account for nearly 70% of black tea sales. Twinings, PG Tips and Tetley are all owned by multinational companies with turnovers in the billions and together account for about 17% of the global tea market (Twinings - Associated British Foods; PG Tips - Unilever; Tetley - Tata). Domination by large companies means they can use their power to suppress prices.

Most of the other brands in the guide are small by comparison with a tiny market share and many of them only sell tea. We haven’t included supermarkets here as they were covered in their own guide in issue 194. But own-brand supermarket tea is a significant part of the market, accounting for nearly 20% of sales, so we do discuss some of their practices below.

This guide covers black tea and green tea. We have a separate guide to herbal teas including rooibos.

Owner of PG Tips will change soon

Unilever, the owner of PG Tips, Lipton and Pukka tea, agreed at the end of 2021 to sell its whole tea business to private equity firm CVC Capital Partners. The sale is due to complete later in 2022.

Unite the union, which represents workers at Unilever’s PG Tips factory in Manchester, has expressed concern about the sale to private equity.

CVC’s approach to ethics across its portfolio appears less well developed than Unilever’s so the scores for these brands many not change much.

Hands holding white cup of tea

Organic, Fairtrade, sustainable, eco tea - certification schemes

Many of the teas in this guide use one or more types of certification, either Fairtrade, organic or Rainforest Alliance. But do they work?

Low incomes and poverty wages are still widespread in the production of tea.

Fairtrade has been shown to be largely ineffective in improving workers conditions on Indian tea plantations, and there have been allegations of serious human rights abuses on Rainforest Alliance-certified plantations, for example the Malawian Lujeri plantation mentioned below. Certification is therefore not, on its own, a reliable indicator of good working conditions, particularly in the tea sector.

Read our feature on tea certification schemes for profiles on Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, organic and more.

Should I buy fairtrade tea?

Sabita Banerji, CEO of The International Roundtable for Sustainable Tea, gives her view.

The question inevitably comes up after I’ve shared some uncomfortable truths about conditions for tea workers around the world. I wish my answer could be a resounding “yes” because I’m a strong believer in the principles of fair trade. But the reality is a bit more complicated.

Fairtrade was initially established to strengthen smallholder coffee farmers’ bargaining power, with a floor price to protect them from price fluctuations, and an additional premium to spend on the community.

My hesitation around tea is because much of Fairtrade-certified tea comes from plantations designed by 19th century British colonialists; they involve low-paid workers, mostly women, carrying out heavy labour under male supervisors – making them vulnerable to sexual abuse. They are tied to plantations by low wages and free housing, but without the security of land ownership.

An Oxfam study found that workers on Fairtrade plantations were paid no more than on other plantations. Plantation housing, healthcare, sanitation, etc are often poor quality, yet Fairtrade rules prevent the premium being used on them because the company is already legally obliged to provide them. What the premium can buy is also constrained by how little tea is actually sold on Fairtrade terms.

But it’s the only certifier that has a standard on price. Fairtrade committees can improve worker-management communication. Fairtrade is working to improve its hired labour standards and certification brings greater transparency. And the more tea that is sold on Fairtrade terms, the more the premium can buy.

So my answer to the question is a qualified “yes”. It may not be perfect, but it may still be the best option for continuous improvement (certification doesn’t mean fairness is guaranteed).

The tea sector needs a radical overhaul to make it genuinely fairer throughout, with fair prices paid for all tea so that all workers get living wages.

In the meantime do buy Fairtrade tea, but ideally try to make sure it is from smallholder farms.

Indian tea plantations

Only about 10% of our tea comes from India but the appalling treatment of tea plantation workers, particularly in the north-eastern state of Assam, deserves our attention. All of the big brands and supermarkets sell some Indian tea, either as part of their blends, where it may not be obvious, or on its own, when its provenance from Assam or Darjeeling is often used as a selling point.

Although the number of smallholder growers has increased in recent decades, most Indian tea is still grown on large plantations, which employ around a million permanent workers and many more casual labourers. The conditions on the plantations have been documented by academic and NGO research studies over many years. These have consistently shown that the lives of tea workers have barely improved since the colonial era.

Many of today’s workers are descendants of indentured labourers who were taken by the British from other parts of India to live and work on the plantations. Because of this history they remain relatively isolated and with few options beyond tea plantation work.

Image: Assam Tea Picker
Woman picking tea on an Assam tea estate

Poverty pay for Indian tea workers

Assam tea workers are paid an extraordinarily low wage. Oxfam research published in 2019 found that permanent plantation workers are paid £1-2 a day, well below the legal minimum wage for agricultural workers which is closer to £3 a day. The study also found that half of the households researched had government “below poverty line” cards entitling them to monthly food rations – official acknowledgement that tea plantation workers cannot survive on what they earn without government subsidy.

Plantations Labour Act

One of the reasons for the low pay is that plantations are obliged by a 1951 law called the Plantations Labour Act (PLA) to provide a range of services to their workers including housing, health care, educational facilities and crèches. The requirement to provide these in-kind benefits means that plantations are exempted from minimum wage law.

However, plantations routinely fail to provide even the most basic services to their workers who live in cramped, dilapidated housing with poor sanitation and limited access to free, clean drinking water. School facilities are poor and lack sufficient numbers of teachers, crèches are often non-existent, and while clinics exist, many lack doctors.

The PLA, which is meant to regulate plantation labour and provide for worker welfare, is therefore seen by many as an excuse to pay poverty wages and keep workers in penury.

Restricted freedoms

Freedom of association and collective bargaining are weak on the plantations. Unions exist but they are often dominated by senior employees who are close to management and act against the interests of workers. Workers’ houses are meant to be freely accessible by anyone, but in reality the management requires visitors to seek permission and monitors their activities. This makes it difficult for unions or NGOs, whose remit is to support tea workers, to get access.

Women tea workers bear the brunt

It is mainly women workers who carry out the most labour-intensive and backbreaking work of harvesting tea, while work in the tea processing factories – which is more prestigious and better paid – tends to be done by men.

Harvesting work often involves walking long distances over rough and steep ground in temperatures of up to 38 degrees Celsius or in torrential monsoon rain and carrying up to 30 kg of tea leaves. As men work in the factories they have access to facilities such as canteens and toilets which are not provided in the fields.

Because of the lack of toilets, some women stay at home when they are menstruating, which means that they miss out on wages. The lack of crèches causes many women to carry newborns on their backs while working. Women also do most of the unpaid domestic work in their households meaning that they can do around 13 hours of physical work a day.

A typical day for a woman tea worker in Assam, India

4am–4:30am: Wake up and clean the house and courtyard (some also need to collect water)
5am–6am: Prepare food for the day
6am–7am: Get ready and leave for work, walking 8–9 km to reach the plot
8am–4pm: Work in the garden (if even one minute late she could lose an entire day’s wages)
4pm–5pm: Weigh the plucked leaves (assuming manager arrives on time – if not, much later), sometimes collect firewood on way home
5pm–8pm: Home, freshen up and prepare dinner
8pm–9pm: Eat dinner
10pm: Go to bed

(Source: Oxfam report 'Addressing the Human Cost of Assam Tea', who sourced it from TISS 'Decent Work for Tea Plantation Workers in Assam: Constraints, challenges and prospects'.)

Image: Weighing Tea in Kenya
Tea being weighed at a Kenyan UTZ-certified tea estate.

Kenyan tea farmers

Kenya supplies around 40% of the UK's tea.

Much of Kenya’s tea is grown on large plantations but around 60% is produced by smallholders. Smallholders rely on family labour which means that it is common for children to work, and there are estimates that between 15% and 30% of tea farm labour is done by children. Casual labour is also common on small farms. Casual labourers have no guarantee of work and no benefits such as sick pay, maternity pay or pensions.

As with Indian tea, the price paid to farmers for their tea is low compared to the retail price. The market for tea is dominated by a small number of large buyers whose market position gives them the power to push down prices paid to farmers. The low prices paid make it difficult for both smallholder families and hired labourers to earn enough for a decent living.

Serious human rights abuses on East African tea plantations

In recent years, a number of legal cases have been brought in the UK courts and internationally against companies that supply tea to major brands and supermarkets. Tea workers in Kenya and Malawi have made allegations of serious human rights abuses and are seeking redress for the harms they have suffered.

The claims made by the workers give an indication of the brutal and exploitative conditions experienced by tea plantations workers. The three cases below are ongoing at the time of writing (April 2022).

In one case, Malawian women workers have made a claim in the High Court in London against Lujeri and its parent PGI, a UK-headquartered multinational, which has supplied brands including Tesco, Sainsbury’s, Typhoo, Unilever (PG Tips), and Betty’s & Taylors (Yorkshire Tea). The workers claim that the company failed to protect them from rape, sexual assault, sexual harassment, coercion and discrimination by male workers. The lawyers who represent the women say there is a systemic problem of male workers at plantations abusing their positions of power in relation to the women working under their supervision, and that the claimants often submit to the sexual harassment for fear of losing their employment.

The Scottish firm Finlays, which doesn’t sell directly to consumers but supplies tea to brands and supermarkets including Morrisons, Twinings, and Tetley, is being sued in the Scottish courts by Kenyan tea pickers for injuries sustained as a result of their work.

Hundreds of workers have claimed that they worked up to 12 hours a day, six days a week and were expected to carry up to two stones of tea leaves on their back for over half a mile on rough ground and hills. The workers claim that it was routine practice for company representatives to give painkillers to employees who requested them without asking why they needed them. The workers claim that as a result of their conditions they have suffered permanent damage to their spines.

In a second Kenyan case, 218 tea plantation workers filed a complaint with the UN in July 2020 against Unilever which, at that time, owned the PG Tips and Pukka brands, alleging that the company failed to protect them from ethnic violence which broke out following a disputed election in 2007. At least seven workers were killed and 56 women raped on Unilever’s Kericho plantation. The workers claim they raised their concerns about violence with management but were ignored and simply told to hide in the tea bushes. They lost their belongings during the attacks and say Unilever stopped their wages for six months. Only those who returned to the plantation received compensation of one month’s wages. The claimants are seeking compensation from Unilever for the long-term physical and psychiatric injuries which have left many unable to work more than a decade after the attacks.

How much of the price you pay for your tea goes to workers?

Brands and supermarkets take a large cut of the retail price of tea with only a very small amount going to workers.

According to Oxfam’s estimates, supermarkets and tea brands in the UK receive 66% of the final consumer price for bagged black tea, while labour costs to pay workers represent just 4% of the final price.

Oxfam also calculated that in order for workers to receive a living wage – one on which they can achieve a basic but decent standard of living – they would need to receive 10% of the retail price. In the example given in the graphic, this would be just over seven pence. Brands and supermarkets could achieve this by increasing the price per pack or taking a slightly smaller cut.

Price comparison of ethical tea and other brands

We compared the prices of our Best Buys and the big companies. We looked at the price of a teabag of the companies’ ‘everyday,’ ‘family’ or ‘breakfast’ teas. There was a wide range of prices and most of the companies with high Ethiscores were at the more expensive end but Traidcraft and Cafédirect cost under 5p – similar to big brand and supermarket prices – and Qi and Postcard (for 2g of loose leaf tea) cost less than 10p.

Infographic of a teacup showing amount of retail price going to each supply chain actor.
(C) Infographic by Moonloft for ECRA

Plastic in teabags

The plastic, polypropylene, has commonly been used to seal teabags. On contact with hot water these bags release billions of micro and nanoplastic particles which are potentially harmful to the environment. Many people dispose of teabags in their home or local authority compost bins which means they are likely to end up in the soil where, if they contain plastic, they will remain.

As a result of increased public awareness and concern, many companies have taken action on the issue and most companies reviewed for this guide provided information on their websites about what their teabags are made of.

Five different tea bags hanging up by their string

Oil or plant-based plastic?

As a replacement for plastic, some companies have switched to using PLA (Polylactic Acid) which is also a plastic but is made from plant sources, often corn. PLA will not break down in your home compost but can be disposed of in your council food waste bin.

Which teabags are plastic-free?

The best way to avoid tea bags which contain plastic is to drink loose leaf tea. In the tables below you can see which companies sell loose leaf and whether their teabags are plastic-free, use PLA, or are still using some plastic. Some companies have made changes to their teabags quite recently. If you’ve got some old packets in your cupboard, check what the packet says.

Plastic in teabags - best companies (plastic free)
Company Products and plastic-free bags (best)
Clearspring Loose leaf and teabags
Hambleden Herbs Loose leaf and teabags are mostly plastic-free, switching to fully plastic-free as stocks run out
Hampstead Tea Loose leaf and teabags
Heath and Heather Teabags
Higher Living Loose leaf and teabags
Postcard Only sell loose leaf
Pukka Teabags
Qi Loose leaf and teabags. The company told us that its previous supply of plastic-free teabags was interrupted but that it will start using them again by July 2022
Teapigs Loose leaf and teabags
Yogi Tea Loose leaf and teabags
Plastic in teabags - middle companies: using some PLA, or in process of switching or with clear, dated plans to switch.
Company Products and plastic (middle)

Clipper

Teabags. Also sells loose leaf.
Dragonfly Organic range is plastic-free, tea pyramids contain PLA. Also sells loose leaf.
Good Earth Teabags. Also sells loose leaf.
Greenypeeps Teabags are plastic-free and tea pyramids contain PLA.
London Tea Company Teabags are plastic-free and tea pyramids contain PLA. Also sells loose leaf.
PG Tips Teabags contain PLA. Also sells loose leaf.
Revolver World Coop Tea Pyramid teabags contain PLA

Typhoo, Fresh Brew, Glengettie, Ridgways

Teabags contain plastic, switching to all PLA by
April 2022. Also sells loose leaf.
Plastic in teabags - worst companies: still using some plastic or no/unclear information
Company Plastic and products (worst)
Steenbergs Mostly sell loose leaf but sells small number of pyramid tea bags which contain
plastic
Tetley Teabags contain plastic, currently switching to PLA teabags starting with the Tetley
Original brand
Thompsons Teabags, no information about plastic. Also sells loose leaf.
Traidcraft Teabags are not plastic-free, moving to PLA teabags for bulk (1000 teabag) box. Also sells loose leaf.
Twinings/Jacksons Teabags contain plastic. Also sells loose leaf.
Yorkshire Tea Some teabags use PLA (Yorkshire Tea, Yorkshire Gold, Yorkshire Tea Decaf
and Yorkshire Tea for Hard Water), and some still use plastic (Biscuit Brew, Toast & Jam Brew, Bedtime Brew). Also sells loose leaf.

(Information was taken from company websites, Facebook pages, or communication with the company in February and March 2022. NB This only covers the teabags themselves, not sachets they may be wrapped in, or wrapping on the box.)

Is tea vegan?

Yes. But some of the companies which sell tea also sell animal products and lost marks for animal rights or factory farming. Vegans may want to avoid them.

Associated British Foods, which owns Twinings and Jacksons of Piccadilly, owns pig farms and sells pork which isn’t organic so lost marks for animal rights and factory farming.

Ecotone Group, which owns Clipper, owns a brand which sells organic ham and sausages, so it lost marks for animal rights but not factory farming.

Traidcraft sells honey, silk and fish so lost marks for animal rights.

Bettys and Taylors, which owns Yorkshire Tea and Taylors of Harrogate, owns tea rooms which sell non-organic meat and dairy products so lost marks for factory farming and animal rights.

Zetland Capital, which owns Typhoo, Ridgways, Heath & Heather, Fresh Brew, Glengettie and Lift, has hotels in its portfolio which sell non-organic meat, fish, dairy products and eggs so also lost marks for factory farming and animal rights.

Unilever, which owns PG Tips and Pukka, uses eggs from caged hens and does not prohibit zero-grazing practices in its dairy supply chain and so lost marks for animal rights and factory farming.

Associated British Foods and Unilever also lost marks for animal testing as they did not have policies which fully prohibited its use.

Other issues to consider when buying ethical tea

Environmental reporting

Tea is mostly grown on plantations which are intensive monocultures where pesticides, insecticides, herbicides and inorganic fertilisers are often used. This reduces biodiversity, erodes the soil and can generate chemical runoff into nearby bodies of water.

Many of the small companies in this guide are mostly or wholly organic and therefore avoid these practices. Qi, Hampstead Tea, Hambleden Herbs, Steenbergs, Dragonfly, Higher Living, Morningtown, Postcard and Revolver World Coop Tea, all got best ratings in our Environmental Reporting category for this reason.

Our Best Buys Qi and Postcard stated that their tea didn’t come from plantations but grew in polycultures amongst other native flora or crops.

Of the four market leaders, Tata (Tetley, Teapigs) and Associated British Foods (Twinings, Jacksons of Piccadilly) and Yorkshire Tea got worst ratings and Unilever (PG Tips, Pukka) got a middle rating.

Carbon Management and Reporting

The carbon rating is new since the last time we did this guide, so this is the first time the tea companies have been rated for what they’re doing to reduce their emissions.

To get a best rating, small companies have to discuss their carbon impacts and plausible ways they have reduced them in the past and will reduce them in the future.

Best rating: Hambleden Herbs, Qi, Steenbergs, Traidcraft.

Other small companies discussed their emissions only very briefly or not at all and so got a middle rating.

Large companies also have to report their emissions figures annually and have a target to reduce them by at least 2.5% a year without offsetting. Unilever (PG Tips, Pukka) got a best rating. The other larger companies got worst ratings.

Our updated Coffee Shops guide has the carbon footprint of a cup of tea.

Person's hand scooping up green tea leaves

Supply chain transparency

When we last published this guide in 2018, we highlighted Traidcraft’s Who Picked My Tea campaign which encouraged consumers to write to tea brands asking them to publish a full list of their tea suppliers. Before then, tea brands rarely published data on where they bought their tea. This made it difficult to hold them or the tea estates to account for worker conditions as no one knew where company standards were supposed to apply. As a result of the campaign, eight UK brands and buyers of tea published supplier lists.

Building on this campaign, in 2021, the Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) approached 65 companies, 26 of which were UK-based, and asked them to disclose their tea supplier lists and to provide information about their human rights and sourcing policies.

Ten companies fully disclosed their supply chains and three of them are in this guide: Twinings, Yogi Tea and Yorkshire Tea.

Three supermarkets, Marks and Spencer, Morrisons and Tesco, were also among the ten.

Partially disclosed their supplier lists: Clipper, Tetley, Typhoo, Unilever (PG Tips, Pukka).

Some companies did not reply at all, including Sainsbury’s and Lidl.

BHRRC points out that, as some companies were able to fully disclose, including those with large complex supply chains, disclosure isn’t difficult. The determining factor is a company’s willingness to do so. It concludes that transparency in supply chains is an essential first step to making labour rights abuses – from forced labour and gender based-violence to wage violations – discoverable and, therefore, for these abuses to be addressed.

What can I do?

Conditions in tea supply chains have been so bad for so long, it’s easy to feel defeated and powerless. But given that we drink so much of the stuff, we do still have some influence.

Big companies aren’t doing enough to increase workers’ wages. Our Best Buys are all small companies taking steps to improve farmer and worker livelihoods.

For example, as well as selling Fairtrade tea, Qi and Cafédirect/London Tea state that they source from smallholder growers. Postcard also sources from small farmers.

Hambleden Herbs, Clearspring and Dragonfly mentioned developing long-term relationships with their suppliers.

Not many of the Best Buy companies publish full supplier lists and that’s an area where they could improve but buying from companies like these helps to take power away from the big brands.

If you’re really addicted to a big company’s particular house blend, contact them and ask them to publish their full supplier list if they don’t already do so, ask them how much of the price you pay goes to workers, and tell them that it matters to you that all supply chain workers are paid a living wage. Twitter, or publicly on other social media, is a great way of doing this.

Company behind the brand

The Indian multinational Tata Group owns Tetley, which has a market share of tea of about 15% in the UK. It also owns Teapigs and Good Earth, neither of which are the independent, artisanal brands that their appearance and marketing would want us to think.

The company has expanded to become a global giant in the last 20 years, acquiring Jaguar Land Rover and Corus Steel in the UK, as well as owning Asian airlines, and arms and chemicals manufacturers in India.

The company is one of the largest owners of tea plantations in the world and despite selling some of these off in recent years it still owns over 40% of Amalgamated Plantations which has been repeatedly criticised for labour rights abuses. The company received our worst ratings for likely tax avoidance and operating in oppressive regimes, and lost marks for the sale of pesticides which are banned in Europe.

Want to know more?

See detailed company information, ethical ratings and issues for all companies mentioned in this guide, by clicking on a brand name in the Score table.  

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