Firsd Tea recently released a first-of-its-kind Sustainability Perspectives Report in 2022 to capture the tea and coffee industry’s views on how well the tea sector performs in areas of sustainable practices. In conjunction with Tea & Coffee Trade Journal and a third-party research firm, the study was developed with guidance from industry peers and an academic research and think-tank. Respondents of the survey included a diverse spectrum of wholesalers, importers, exporters, retailers, and others based in North America, Europe, and Asia. While many studies have examined consumers’ perceptions of sustainability, this study targeted professionals in tea, coffee, and related industries to understand their concerns and views on the tea industry’s sustainability performance.
The findings of the research can generally be grouped into perspectives about 3 areas: environment, people, and certifications.
This article represents the 1st of 3 articles on the survey respondents’ perspectives on sustainability within the tea industry.
A widespread concern about climate’s potential impact on the industry was one of the more glaring findings. 80% of respondents expressed worry about the effects of climate change on their business operations. In fact, respondents considered the tea industry (93%) more sensitive to climate change than the coffee (82%), wine (65%), and cocoa (63%) industries. The effects of climate change may be most obvious at the farm level. Changing rain patterns, drought, and extreme temperatures can impact early/late flushing, stunted plant growth and damage, spread of pests and blight, and disruption of harvesting. These concerns were reflected in the responses as well, with changing rain patterns (95%) unpredictable weather (94%) and extreme heat (91%) ranked as the biggest threats to the industry. All of these can directly impact yields and the economic costs of tea production.
Additionally, unpredictable weather patterns created by climate change, like increased floods and flood damage, snow, and hurricanes/typhoons can impinge upon logistics activities and delay deliveries. Longer-term shifts in average temperatures could also affect consumption patterns of hot and/or iced teas. Climate change could therefore create a snowball effect from farm to consumer.
Respondents (84%) also believe that consumers are concerned about the environment and carbon footprint. Further research may shed more light on the particulars of this concern, as it may include loss of flora and fauna around tea farms, welfare of workers whose local environments are impacted, and the economic costs associated with more challenging growing conditions.
In spite of the seemingly widespread concerns about climate’s impact, sustainability was not a high-priority consideration for industry respondents in terms of their decisions to carry specific teas in their product offerings. Respondents ranked flavor (96%), leaf grade (90%), origin/terrior (88%) and price (83%) above sustainability (79%). The seeming contradiction between the perceived concerns over the business impact of climate change and the lower prioritization of sustainably sourced teas invites further investigation.
The survey results paint an unclear picture of the perceived value of some product certifications as they may relate to understandings about sustainability. A significant portion of Industry respondents (85%) view organic certification as the most valued certification standard among consumers. Certifications more closely associated with sustainability fared lower in perceived value, with Fair Trade at 68%, Non-GMO at 58%, and Rainforest Alliance at 56%. The connection between this perception of consumers’ valuation of certifications and industry members’ prioritized criteria for carrying a tea may have a cause-effect relationship, but it remains unclear as to which one causes the other. Other factors may also be at play. Further investigation may also clarify whether consumers mistakenly view organic certification as a form of sustainability certification.
Respondents did reveal a sense of optimism about the future of sustainability and the environment. On a 1-10 scale, respondents gave an average score of 4 to score the tea industry’s sustainability performance 10 years ago. That average score improved to 5.5 for current sustainability performance, and optimism about further improvement 10 years from now was indicated in an average scoring of 6.9.
Beyond the opportunity for further study, Firsd Tea’s Sustainability Perspectives Report points toward ways that tea industry professionals can begin to engage with pressing environmental concerns. One of the first steps would be to evaluate the data being collected, and the effective dissemination of information regarding sustainability practices and their impacts. This evaluation could uncover gaps where certain groups, be they producers, distributors, or consumers, may not be receiving sufficient quality information in a timely manner to properly understand the picture of climate and environment in the tea industry.
Coinciding with an assessment of information about climate and sustainability comes an evaluation of the prioritization of climate and environmental concerns as they shape purchase decisions along the supply and value chains. Diving into the details may indicate how supply/demand challenges, packaging, product placement, and similar factors can shift concerns towards greater prioritization of sustainability issues during buying/purchasing processes.
This initial study lays the groundwork for further research and dialogue on next steps for the tea industry - both upstream and downstream on the supply/value chains. Meaningful changes to further improve sustainability practices that protect the environment will likely call for active participation from producers, consumers, and stakeholders in between. Dialog on these environmental concerns will also need to take into account the social and economic concerns of sustainability, which will be further explored in future articles.