SustainabiliTEA: Value in Partnership: A Collaboration between the Rainforest Alliance, Unilever and the Kenya Tea Development Agency Is Changing the Global Tea Industry

By McIntyre, Kris | International Trade Forum, October-December 2010 | Go to article overview

SustainabiliTEA: Value in Partnership: A Collaboration between the Rainforest Alliance, Unilever and the Kenya Tea Development Agency Is Changing the Global Tea Industry


McIntyre, Kris, International Trade Forum


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In December 2009, for the first time, a group of 12,500 smallholder tea farmers achieved Rainforest Alliance certification through a public-private partnership (PPP) project between Unilever, the Rainforest Alliance and the Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA).

The scale of the partnership has started a revolution in the tea industry in the same way that the coffee industry has been influenced by the sustainability movement of the past decade, particularly in light of the International Fund for Agricultural Development's recommendations to support smallholders in emerging economies to meet the increased demands for world food production.

Unilever is the world's biggest tea company and Kenya, the world's largest tea exporter producing around 320,000 tonnes of tea annually, 60% per cent of which is produced by KTDA. The partnership, therefore, has the potential to change the global tea industry by setting the standard for sustainable farming practices. The initiative came as a result of Unilever's 2007 commitment to source all the tea used in its Lipton tea bags globally from sustainably farmed Rainforest Alliance Certified [TM] tea plantations by 2015.

Unilever buys 12% of all black tea and sells the finished product in more than 100 countries, mainly through its brands which include Lipton and PG Tips. Within two years of launching the initiative, around 15% of Unilever's tea now comes from certified farms, and already all Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea bags sold in Western Europe are fully sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified [TM] farms. Lipton has also launched Rainforest Alliance Certified [TM] tea in the United States and Japan as well as in Australia, where a 12% growth in sales followed the launch.

For more than ten years Unilever developed its own approach to sustainable agriculture--the Sustainable Agriculture Programme. By choosing to work with the Rainforest Alliance, the company had a way to convert its work on its own estates into a movement across its entire supply chain and communicate that change to consumers globally. 'We decided that the Rainforest Alliance certification was the most appropriate because of its comprehensive approach towards sustainable farm management covering social, economic and environmental aspects. This is in line with the way we have been managing our own programme for over a decade,' said Michiel Leijnse, the Global Marketing Director for Lipton.

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After starting with Unilever's own estates in East Africa, the project is now beginning to work with some 200,000 independent smallholder tea farms in Kenya--and has also started working with estates and smallholders in southern Africa, India, Sri Lanka, South-East Asia and South America, all striving to become Rainforest Alliance Certified [TM].

'By bringing Rainforest Alliance certification to its tea supply, Unilever has taken an unprecedented step that could eventually benefit millions of tea growers globally,' said Tensie Whelan, President of the Rainforest Alliance.

All certified farms have to meet the strict standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN)--a coalition of leading conservation groups in order to earn the right to use the Rainforest Alliance Certified [TM] seal on their products. On their small, yet carefully managed plots of land, each of the farmers had to implement ecosystem, water and soil conservation practices and wildlife protection and agrochemical reduction processes. The standard guarantees workers' rights and safety, and also decent housing, legal wages and contracts for workers. …

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