Unilever, the world's largest tea company, has announced plans to source its entire tea supply sustainably, starting with the certification of its tea producers in East Africa, to Rainforest Alliance standards.
The news also signals the Rainforest Alliance's move into certifying tea farms in addition to its long-established programs in coffee, cocoa, bananas and other crops; sustainable forestry, and tourism.
Speaking at the launch of the new partnership, Rainforest Alliance executive director Tensie Whelan commended Unilever on its long-term commitment to sustainability. "We are delighted to be working with a company that understands the value of putting sustainability at the heart of its business," Whelan said. "By bringing Rainforest Alliance certification to its tea supply, Unilever has taken an unprecedented step that could eventually benefit millions of tea growers globally."
Rainforest Alliance certification involves a holistic approach -- treating environment, ethics and economics equally. To meet the standards, farmers must commit to continuous improvements in worker welfare, farm management and environmental protection. Farmers learn how to improve their productivity and reduce costs by reducing pesticide use, eliminating waste and introducing better farming techniques. Workers earn decent wages and have access to good housing, education and healthcare. And the environment on which these farmers depend is protected.
"This decision will transform the tea industry, which has been suffering for many years from oversupply and underperformance," said Unilever CEO Patrick Cescau. "It will not be achieved overnight, but we are committed to doing it because we believe it is the right thing to do for the people who drink our tea, the people along the entire length of our supply chain and for our business."
The program of conversion starts immediately with Unilever's own tea estate in Kericho, Kenya, the first to be audited. Other tea farms in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Indonesia, India, Argentina and Sri Lanka will follow, with the potential of eventually improving the livelihoods of around two million people across three continents.
The focus on Africa also strengthens the Rainforest Alliance's growing presence on the continent. Already coffee farms in Ethiopia and cocoa and banana farms in Côte d'Ivoire are benefiting from Rainforest Alliance certification.
The first certified tea will be made available to restaurants and the catering trade in Europe from August 2007. It will be quickly followed by Lipton, the world's best-selling tea brand, and PG Tips, the UK's No.1 tea. The company aims to have all Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea bags sold in Western Europe certified by 2010 and all Lipton tea sold globally to come from sustainable sources by 2015.
One aim of the certification program is to enable growers to obtain higher prices for their tea, raising their incomes and enabling them to achieve a better quality of life and standard of living on a sustainable basis. Unilever estimates that farmers will receive around $2.69 million (€2 million) more for their tea by 2010 and around $6.71 million (€5 million) more by 2015.