Ian Busch of Unilever Shares Thoughts on Sustainable Tea for International Tea Day

Rael Cheket Limo plucking tea leaves at Rainforest Alliance Certified™ tea estate in Kericho, Kenya.
Rael Cheket Limo plucking tea leaves at Rainforest Alliance Certified™ tea estate in Kericho, Kenya.

Tea is the second most popular beverage in the world after water, and for the past decade December 15 has been celebrated as International Tea Day.  The Rainforest Alliance turned to Ian Busch, a Global Brand Director at Unilever, to talk about how they are helping drive more sustainable practices and improve livelihoods in the sourcing of tea. The Unilever tea brands include PG Tips, Brooke Bond, T2 and Lipton, which is the world’s best-selling tea, available in over 100 countries.

Sustainable living has always been at the heart the mission of Unilever, a company founded in 1930 and headquartered in London.  Our blueprint is the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan and it is focused on 3 core areas: improving health and wellbeing, reducing environmental impact, and enhancing livelihoods. Faced with the challenge of climate change and the need for human development, we want to move towards a world where everyone can live well and within the natural limits of the planet.  In sum, our goal is to make sustainable living commonplace.

In 2007, Unilever was proud to become the first major tea company to commit to sustainably sourcing tea on a large scale. By 2020, 100% of our tea, including loose tea, will be sustainably sourced. We also committed to source all the tea for Lipton tea bags from 100% Rainforest Alliance Certified™ sources by the end of 2015, and we are proud to have achieved this commitment.  But bringing these commitments to life is not a simple task. As the number one tea packer, we purchase around 10% of the world’s black tea and are focused on leading the way in sustainable sourcing.  We source from multiple countries from farmers on 750,000 smallholdings, mostly in Africa and Asia, and it is estimated that one million people work there. We also grow about 10% of the tea we use on our own estates in Kenya and Tanzania.

Certification has an important role to play, and partnering with the Rainforest Alliance provides the capabilities and resources needed to support sustainable agricultural practices, including training of farmers, and enhancing livelihoods in tea. Partnerships across the tea industry are also key to the future of sustainable practices.  As an industry, companies and all the players need to work together to find tangible ways to improve farmers’ livelihoods.

One of the most rewarding things I have uncovered along the way is the personal stories of our tea pickers, or, as we like to say, ‘the lives behind the leaves’.  We launched a storytelling campaign to celebrate and reveal the amazing things some of these individuals do in addition to their jobs picking tea.  We uncovered stories of rappers, inventors, entrepreneurs, and marathon runners working within our tea operation.  It is truly rewarding to see firsthand how they are able to live their passions.

So when you enjoy a “cuppa” tea, remember the lives — and the land — behind the leaves.

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