Rainforest Alliance Certified Tea: Creating a Sustainable Tea Sector

Sikobihora Marie Françoise of Rwanda is one of more than 900,000 smallholder tea farmers around the world who are working more sustainably thanks to Rainforest Alliance support and training.

Map: tea-producing countries where the Rainforest Alliance works

Map: tea-producing countries where the Rainforest Alliance works

While smallholder tea farmers like Marie Françoise produce most of the world’s tea—the second-most consumed beverage after water—they encounter daunting economic challenges stemming from climate impacts, low tea prices, gender inequality, and more.

Rainforest Alliance certification supports farmers in turning their farms into profitable, resilient businesses that respect workers and the land. Through training, we promote farming techniques designed to help farms adapt to climate change and protect the land for future generations—all while improving incomes for tea-farming families. We work with tea farmers all around the world, including those in major tea-producing countries like India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka.

In order to achieve and maintain the Rainforest Alliance certification seal, tea farms must undergo annual audits against a rigorous standard with detailed environmental, economic, and social criteria.

Improving farmer incomes through Rainforest Alliance Certified tea

Tea plucker on a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm in Sri Lanka. 

Tea plucker on a Rainforest Alliance Certified farm in Sri Lanka. 

Photo credit: Anna-Karin Landin

Too many smallholder tea farmers, and even plantation owners, receive extremely low prices for their crops—despite enormous global demand for it. The Rainforest Alliance promotes more sustainable and climate-smart farming methods that help tea farmers protect and improve their incomes. But with such narrow margins, many farmers and producer groups simply cannot afford to invest in sustainability, and those who can rarely see better prices for their goods. That’s why our 2020 Certification Program puts greater emphasis on shared responsibility between producers and buyers. The new certification program will include a mandatory Sustainability Differential—an additional cash payment from buyers to farmers over and above the market price—to effectively reward producers for their more sustainable farming practices. It will also require buyers to cover the farmers’ costs for achieving certification under the 2020 Sustainable Agriculture Standard.

Advancing a living wage for tea workers

Working toward a living wage—defined as a wage that allows for a decent standard of living in that worker’s home region—is an important focus of the Rainforest Alliance’s work. Many tea-plantation workers receive wages far below this level. For this reason, the Rainforest Alliance certification program includes mandatory requirements to identify the gap between current wages and a living wage benchmark. Because the living wage can sometimes be 100 percent higher than the country’s mandated minimum wage, we require continuous improvements—a step-by-step approach—in moving toward living wage compensation.

Tea workers in Malawi

Weighing a tea harvest on an estate in Malawi

Photo credit: Giuseppe Cipriani

Given the low prices and narrow margins for tea, many plantation owners simply can’t pay a living wage. The whole supply chain, as well as national governments, needs to participate in making a living wage a reality. Malawi 2020, an initiative the Rainforest Alliance participates in as part of our Sector Partnerships Program, has already helped increase the wages of tea workers on tea plantations in Malawi. In fact, in 2018, the net living wage gap decreased by 25 percent—meaning tea workers are now earning 40 percent more than the country’s minimum wage.

Of course, in order to achieve a living wage for workers, we first must calculate what a living wage is. In order to do that, the Rainforest Alliance co-founded and co-chairs the Global Living Wage Coalition (GLWC), which determines region-specific living wage benchmarks using a single, state-of-the-art methodology. GLWC has established and published benchmarks for tea-producing countries such as Sri Lanka and Malawi and is currently working on a report for the Nilgris region of India. With these benchmarks—all based on objective, rigorous research— farm workers or their representatives can negotiate a better salary with the plantation owner. The benchmarks also help auditors of certified farms judge whether a farmer pays his workers enough and, if wages are too low, certified farmers can use the benchmarks to develop a wage-improvement plan to increase them over time.

Protecting worker rights

Child labor, forced labor, discrimination, and workplace violence and harassment are embedded in many agricultural supply chains. Such abuses never have been–and never will be–tolerated by the Rainforest Alliance. But we have learned through many years of experience that by itself, a simple prohibition on these and human rights violations is insufficient to eradicating these problems. That’s why our new certification program promotes an “assess and address” approach, which aligns with an international consensus on good practices in human rights due diligence. To achieve certification, farms and farm groups are required to set up committees to assess and address child labor and forced labor abuses as well as discrimination and workplace violence and harassment. This includes monitoring farms for signs of these violations and remediating the identified cases. Rainforest Alliance certification also includes many requirements to protect worker health and well-being. In studies from Sri Lanka, India, and Kenya, Rainforest Alliance Certified and UTZ farms report that since achieving certification, they’ve seen improvements in the handling of agrochemicals, use of personal protective equipment, access to sanitation facilities, annual medical checks, and provision of first aid kits.

Getting ahead of climate-change challenges in tea landscapes

Tea landscape in Darjeeling

A Rainforest Alliance Certified tea estate in Darjeeling, India

Photo credit: Suvashis Mullick

The climate crisis presents daunting challenges to the tea sector. Droughts, floods, and extreme weather events in tea-growing regions have reduced yields and tea quality; the amount of land that is suitable to growing tea crops has shrunk as well. For example, the Tea Research Foundation of Kenya estimates that crop yields decrease by an average of 20 to 30 percent during times of drought—a significant blow to small-scale farmers and their families.

In order to prepare for and respond to climate challenges, the Rainforest Alliance trains farmers in climate-smart agriculture techniques. Climate-smart agriculture isn’t distinct from sustainable agriculture; rather it’s a way of combining various sustainable methods to tackle the specific climate challenges of a specific farming community. For tea farmers, examples of climate-smart techniques might include planting shade trees, using drought- and frost-resistant tea varieties, or harvesting rainwater. Applying such methods can help farmers improve their productivity and, as a result, their incomes—and give them hope for a brighter future.

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