Tea

In this guide we investigate, score and rank the ethical and environmental record of 47 tea brands.

We also look at certification schemes, workers' rights; and shine a spotlight on the ethics of Unilever 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 Fairtrade? Tea workers often receive poverty wages and extremely poor conditions in return for their labour. Fairtrade is not a panacea, but it may help slightly.

  • Is the company transparent about where it sources from? It is useful for workers to know who their tea is getting sold to.

  • Is it from a devoted Fairtrade company? That has fair trading and attempts to go beyond it, working with suppliers on the ground, rather than one which just certifies a few products?

Best Buys

Our super-ethical Best Buys all just sell Fairtrade [F] tea. Cafédirect, London Tea and Traidcraft go beyond Fairtrade, working with farmers on the ground to improve livelihoods.

Cafédirect just sells black tea bags. London Tea is black and green tea in teabag form. Traidcraft sells black teabags, loose tea and Earl Grey. Steenbergs sells a wide variety of more expensive teas, both bagged and loose.

These are followed by Hampstead Tea and Qi who both sell some tea which is both Fairtrade and organic and these are therefore also Best Buys.

Qi sells black, green and white teabags and black and green loose tea. Hampstead sells green and black teabags.

What not to buy

What to avoid when buying tea:

  • Avoid cow's milk.The greenhouse gas emissions from the milk can easily amount to the same as the whole of the rest of the drink

  • Are you overfilling your kettle? Discounting the milk, the biggest portion of the greenhouse gas emissions from a cup of tea comes from boiling the kettle.

  • Relying on purchases alone. The problems in Indian tea run very deep and require citizen action too. It is worth getting on board with Traidcraft’s ‘Who Picked my Tea?’ campaign

Companies to avoid

It is worth avoiding Tata (brands below), due to its involvement is so many unsavoury areas, including arms sales to unpleasant regimes.

  • Tetley
  • Teapigs

Score table

Updated live from our research database

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

Hampstead Tea [F,O]

Company Profile: Hampstead Tea & Coffee Co Ltd
17

Hambleden Herbs loose green tea [O]

Company Profile: Hambleden Herbs
16

Hampstead Tea [O]

Company Profile: Hampstead Tea & Coffee Co Ltd
16

Qi Fairtrade teas [F,O]

Company Profile: Herbal Health Ltd
16

Steenbergs organic fairtrade tea [F,O]

Company Profile: Steenbergs
16

The London Tea Company [F,O]

Company Profile: Cafédirect
16

Cafedirect tea [F]

Company Profile: Cafédirect
15

Clearspring green teas [O]

Company Profile: Clearspring Ltd
15

Dragonfly organic speciality teas [O]

Company Profile: Tea Times Holding Ltd
15

Qi teas [O]

Company Profile: Herbal Health Ltd
15

Steenbergs organic tea [O]

Company Profile: Steenbergs
15

The London Tea company tea [F]

Company Profile: Cafédirect
15

Dragonfly teas

Company Profile: Tea Times Holding Ltd
14

Steenbergs tea

Company Profile: Steenbergs
14

Brew Tea Company tea [S]

Company Profile: Cafeology
13.5

Higher Living Tea [O]

Company Profile: Only Natural Products Ltd
13.5

Thompson's organic green tea [O]

Company Profile: Punjana Ltd
13.5

Brew Tea Company tea and herbal tea

Company Profile: Cafeology
13

Heath & Heather herbal/rooibos/green tea [O]

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
13

Ridgways black/green tea (F)

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
13

Traidcraft tea [F]

Company Profile: Traidcraft plc
13

Thompson's Tea

Company Profile: Punjana Ltd
12.5

Typhoo tea [S]

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12.5

Clipper tea [F,O]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
12

Fresh Brew

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Glengettie Tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Heath & Heather herbal/green teas

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Lift Instant Tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Melrose's Tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Typhoo green tea

Company Profile: Typhoo Tea Ltd
12

Yogi Tea green or black teas [O]

Company Profile: Yogi Tea GmbH
12

Clipper tea [F]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
11

Clipper tea [O]

Company Profile: Kallo Foods Limited
11

Taylors of Harrogate Teas [S]

Company Profile: Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd
10

Yorkshire Tea [S]

Company Profile: Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd
10

Teapigs Everyday Brew [S]

Company Profile: Teapigs Ltd
7.5

Tetley Rainforest Alliance tea [S]

Company Profile: Tata Global Beverages Services (was Tetley Tea Group)
7.5

Quickbrew tea

Company Profile: Tata Global Beverages
7
7

Twinings Fairtrade Breakfast tea [O,F]

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
4

Pukka Herbs teas [O, F]

Company Profile: Pukka Herbs
3.5

Jacksons of Piccadilly fairtrade teas [F]

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
3

Twinings organic tea [O]

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
3

Lipton organic tea [O]

Company Profile: Unilever
2.5

Lyons tea [S]

Company Profile: Unilever
2

PG Tips tea [S]

Company Profile: Unilever
2

Twinings tea

Company Profile: R Twining & Co Ltd
2

Lipton tea

Company Profile: Unilever
1.5

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Our Analysis

Tea is the most popular manufactured drink consumed in the world. The amount consumed is equivalent to all of the others – including coffee, soft drinks, and alcohol – combined.

Selling tea provides a livelihood to millions of people in the producing countries, the largest of which are China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka. However, the industry is also rife with dire problems, particularly terrible working conditions on Indian tea plantations. 

Types of tea covered 

This guide covers all tea from the Camellia sinensis plant. That includes black tea (‘normal tea’ in British parlance), white tea, yellow tea, green tea, oolong, pu-erh and Earl Grey. 

The difference between these is just the processing. Black tea and pu-erh are fully oxidised (broken up and then left to ferment – the process is stopped by heating); the others are unoxidised or partially oxidised. Earl Grey is black tea with the addition of oil of bergamot. We have a separate guide to herbal teas

Tea certification schemes 

There is quite a complex array of different certifications used which are shown below. Brands of the same company group are shown together. 

 Brand   Certification 
Cafédirect 100% Fairtrade 
London Tea Co  100% Fairtrade
Traidcraft 100% Fairtrade
Steenbergs 100% Fairtrade,
Some Organic
Clipper Some Fairtrade or Organic 
(100% one or the other)
Lipton 100% Rainforest Alliance,
Some Organic
Lyons 100% Rainforest Alliance
PG Tips 100% Rainforest Alliance
Pukka 100% Organic and Fair for Life 
Qi 100% Organic, some Fairtrade
Yorkshire Tea 100% Rainforest Alliance
Taylors 100% Rainforest Alliance or UTZ
Clearspring 100% Organic
Yogi 100% Organic
Hambleden 100% Organic
Hampstead 100% Organic, some Fairtrade
Higher Living 100% Organic
Jacksons Some Fairtrade
Twinings Some Fairtrade or Organic
Thompson’s Some Organic or Fairtrade
Dragonfly Some Organic
Brew tea Some Rainforest Alliance
Tetley Some Rainforest Alliance
Teapigs

Some Rainforest Alliance

Quickbrew Nothing
Typhoo Some Rainforest Alliance
Ridgways Some Fairtrade or Organic
Heath & Heather Some Organic
Melrose’s Nothing
Lift instant Nothing
Fresh Brew Nothing

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

The greenhouse gas emissions of tea

If you put cow’s milk in your tea, it can easily amount to about the same amount of greenhouse gas emissions as the whole of the rest of the drink. Cows are high greenhouse gas emitters, partly due to belching so much methane. To find out how to avoid contributing to this, see our guide to plant milks.

Discounting the milk, the biggest portion of the greenhouse gas emissions comes from boiling the kettle – more than all of the cultivation, processing and transport combined. It is thus definitely worth making sure that you don’t overfill it.

The total carbon emissions of a cup of tea are about 40 g CO2eq for black tea, or double it for tea with milk. The average UK per capita carbon emissions (including imports) are about 13 tonnes CO2eq per year. So, drinking ten cups of milky tea a day will amount to about 2% of your carbon footprint – it’s not a transatlantic flight, but it’s still worth not overfilling the kettle.

East African tea producers

The bulk of our tea comes from Kenya, and the system under which it is produced there is very different from in India (see below). For one thing, two-thirds of Kenyan tea is produced by smallholders. 

This is more representative of global production nowadays. Although tea was traditionally produced on plantations, and in India about three-quarters of it still is, there has been a huge growth in the smallholder contribution over the past twenty years. They now produce most of the tea in the world.

More than three million Kenyan families depend on selling tea for their livelihoods. It is a very important source of income: one report stated: “tea smallholder farmers in Kenya are perceived as relatively well-off compared to other smallholder farmer types.”

However, that doesn’t mean that there are no social problems in Kenyan tea. Children are known to work on tea farms. And the employees that smallholders employ tend to be paid very little and to have very few rights.

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

Structural problems

As is often the case, it is the downstream stages of tea manufacturing where the big profits are made: blending (selecting the different types of tea from different places to mix together), packing (making it into tea bags, or into packs of loose tea) and marketing. 

Yet tea is generally exported as dust or leaves and all of these high-profit downstream activities occur in importing countries.

Unfortunately, packed-at-origin tea, exported from Kenya as a finished product, doesn’t currently seem to exist, so it isn’t really possible to address this problem as a consumer. It may be something to watch for the future however, as Sri Lanka has successfully moved into exporting some of its tea in finished form, so it doesn’t seem to be impossible.

The vast bulk of tea internationally is sold in enormous auctions, and tea trading is, as per usual, very concentrated. Seven companies buy 90% of the tea traded into Europe and North America: Unilever, Tata, and Associated British Foods; Van Rees and James Finlay (these two are traders which don’t sell to consumers); and Teekanne and Ostfriesische Tee Gesellschaft (these two do sell branded tea but not in the UK).

Improving things for Kenyan farmers 

Reports about certification schemes in Kenya have been more positive than in India.

Fairtrade was set up for smallholder farmers. To be certified, smallholders need to belong to co-ops, and decisions about how the premium is to be spent are made by the co-op. It is still the case that the most powerless players can get left out of the decision making, particularly smallholders’ employees. However, the system inherently involves the democratic participation of a bigger group than it does in the case of estates. 

As well as more positive reports about Fairtrade, there are also more positive reports about Utz and Rainforest Alliance than in India, suggesting that they can improve both livelihoods and environmental protection.

Image: Tea Estate in Kenya
James Finlay-owned tea estate in Kericho, Kenya, which supplies Fairtrade tea to The London Tea Company.

The appalling conditions on Indian tea plantations

Although tea is strongly associated with India in many people’s minds, only about 20% of our tea comes from there; most of it comes from East Africa.

However, Indian tea is considered a vital part of many blends, particularly the tea from Assam, the ‘tea state’, where the bulk of Indian tea is produced. Assam has very hot and humid weather which gives its tea a strong, malty flavour. It is considered to add ‘body’ to a blend.

The issues in India – particularly Assam – are profound. The tea industry of the Raj was famous for extremely brutal treatment of workers, and we still seem to be living in its very dark shadow. 

The plantation system

Most Indian tea is produced on huge plantations, or ‘estates’, under a system that was established during British rule. Thousands of people work on each estate, and over a million people work on the tea estates in Assam alone. 

The plantation system could be viewed as a system of semi-bondage. Workers don’t just work on the plantation, they live on the plantation. To keep living there, a family must have at least one member working there, and jobs are passed to next of kin. Nearly all of the families have been living and working there for generations, having been brought there by the British from other parts of India. This means that they often are quite culturally isolated – most still speak a different language from the other locals – and are generally regarded as ‘outsiders’.

This system has put the workers in a quite powerless position as, if they stopped working on the plantation, they would have to leave their homes.

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

Wages and conditions on tea plantations

The supposed ‘minimum’ wage for tea workers is set on a regional basis by a collective bargaining agreement between the government, certain unions and the plantation owners. It is actually not a minimum, it is what all tea workers get paid. 

The rate is much lower than the minimum wage for other Indian workers. This is because much of the wage is supposed to be provided ‘in kind’ in the form of housing, healthcare and food. Plantation employers have been required to provide these things since the Plantations Labour Act of 1951. 

The big problem is that these ‘in kind’ benefits are generally not actually happening. Thus, workers have to use their paltry wages to pay for these things too. The conditions are worst in Assam. The Assam labour minister has himself described the conditions on the tea estates as “almost like slavery.”

Tea workers have to pick 24 kg of tea each day, which means picking extremely fast all day. If they fail, deductions are made from their already meagre wages. Meanwhile healthcare and sanitation are minimal or non-existent and food rations are insufficient. Workers are also subject to frequent intimidation and abuse. A recent study by Sheffield University found that debt bondage is quite common, with workers having borrowed money from their employers at usurious rates of interest.

Certification doesn’t seem to be helping 

Many sources have reported that certification (of all kinds – Fairtrade, Utz and Rainforest Alliance) doesn’t mean better conditions in the Indian tea estates. The Sheffield University study found “very little difference between the labour practices and living standards of ethically certified and non-certified tea plantations.”

The Fairtrade Foundation points out that the lack of difference on the Fairtrade ones may be because they generally only manage to sell a small percentage of their tea on Fairtrade terms, in some cases as little as 2%. That means that they won’t be reaping much of the financial benefits of certification – they won’t get much Fairtrade premium. A producer being Fairtrade certified only means that they have the right to sell their produce as Fairtrade if they can find a buyer, it doesn’t mean that they actually do. Read more about certification schemes in our feature. 

However, local workers’ rights campaigners from Assam have claimed that the Fairtrade premium doesn’t always get spent on things that benefit workers. A joint committee of management and workers is supposed to decide how it is spent, but they say that the workers are frequently too terrified of the management to contribute meaningfully.

There has always been controversy about Fairtrade certifying large estates, due to the likelihood of problems like this arising. 

Rainforest Alliance and Utz also put out a statement after the publication of the Sheffield University study, saying that the situation in Assam is particularly challenging and that standards alone could not resolve it.

Read our comparison of certification schemes in our feature. 

How much is the industry struggling?

The estate owners are a mix of international companies, Indian businesses and private individuals.

How much the working conditions are due to the Indian tea industry struggling financially is hard to tell. Campaigners have pointed out that conditions are very similar across estates who sell both expensive and cheap tea, and argued that they can’t all be equally broke.

However, the estate owners claim that they are on the verge of financial collapse. Prices are very low, and climate change is making it harder to grow tea in India profitably.

Conditions on the estates have worsened since the 1990s, when India started implementing free trade reforms: opening its borders to imported tea which resulted in a collapse in domestic prices, and cutting government support to the industry.

The resistance

Indian tea workers are not just lying down and taking all of this. Unrest has been growing, particularly over the last decade, with strikes and protests at tea estates, hunger strikes, and occasional outbreaks of violence.

As a result, things have started to change, albeit only incrementally. After years of stagnation, since 2015 the agreed wage has risen somewhat in Assam. However, it is still very low. Traidcraft Exchange (the campaigning part of Traidcraft) is running a campaign called ‘Who Picked my Tea?” to get the big six UK tea companies to reveal the names of all the tea estates from which they source. 

It argues that this will make it much easier for campaigners to pressurise estate owners to improve conditions. The tea companies do have Supply Chain Codes of Conduct but, while nobody knows which bit of tea comes from where, nobody is in a position to call out estates who are flaunting them. 

Four of the big six have now revealed them: Yorkshire, Twinings, Clipper and Tetley. (It is too soon to see any results of this yet). That leaves PG Tips and Typhoo to go.

What we can do 

Given that the conditions are reported to be similar throughout, it is not easy to know what to do as a consumer. Just ceasing to buy tea from Assam would do more harm than good – the workers depend on the tea estates. 

Buying Fairtrade may have some value as, if there was more premium kicking around, it is possible that at least some of it would be used in ways that would benefit workers. However, given what the campaigners from Assam say, it doesn’t seem sufficient to rely on it on its own. Utz and Rainforest Alliance don’t seem to be very meaningful in this context. 

One thing that you can do is join Traidcraft’s campaign and write to the two tea companies who haven’t yet revealed which tea estates they source from. 

Company behind the brand

Unilever is the biggest manufacturer of tea in the world. It makes PG Tips, Lyons and Lipton tea, and bought Pukka Herbs in 2017. 

It is a British-Dutch company, and it works across the food and household sectors, selling home and personal care brands (such as Persil, Domestos, Dove and Vaseline) alongside food brands (such as Marmite, Pot Noodle, Magnum, and Ben & Jerry’s). The company lost marks for making political donations in the USA (93% to Republicans), as well as for having unaccounted for subsidiaries in tax havens, and operating in countries which required animal testing. 

Unilever owns some of its own tea estates in Kenya, but also buys through the big tea auctions in Kenya, India and Sri Lanka, as most companies do.

Pukka is certified by Fair for Life. When we spoke to Fair for Life they said that when the certification was reassessed the company group would have to be taken into account. There has been no update yet.

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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