Tea supplier information, which historically has been treated as a private trade secret, is now being revealed to support social causes and reinforce consumers’ trust.
In the last six months, four of the largest UK tea companies have announced an event unique in the entire history of tea: sharing lists of their suppliers. It sounds banal but marks a first step in what many inside and outside of the industry see as marking a major innovation path. This practice contributes to the growing priority of transparency in an effort to rectify the notorious abuses in workers’ conditions, while increasing consumers’ awareness of social and quality issues and industry certification of providers’ compliance with legal, ethical and supply chain standards.
Bettys and Taylors of Harrogate
Bettys and Taylors, the owners of Yorkshire Tea were the first major tea brand to publish their full supplier roster, in June 2018. The firm explains its rationale: “At its heart is the idea that knowledge and sharing information underpins effective action. Being open about where we buy and who we buy from enables collaboration. It can help businesses, civil society and producers work together on problems that can’t be solved alone.”
B&T’s listings are basic: Region, company level and factory level, but there’s a wealth of information just in this minimal data listing. Examples are:
- Assam, Amarawati Tea Company, Halmari estate
- China Hunan Tea Company, 65 farms and 13 factories
- Darjeeling, Goodricke Group, Castleton, Margaret’s Hope, Thurbo
- Ethiopia, Ethio Agri-CEFT Plc, Wush Wush estate
- Kenya, Eastern Produce, manages seven factories and ten estates, with services to 7,500 smallholder growers.
Some of the providers are names that tea lovers swoon over. Castleton and Halmari, for example, are renowned. But the listing includes Ethiopia’s Wush Wush and Kenya’s Eastern Produce cooperatives that produce some excellent teas and deserve rescue from commodity anonymity. It also points to one of the easily disguised aspects of both supply of Chinese teas and problems in transparency: the dominance of large farms and absence of small growers who are blocked from obtaining expert licenses.
Click to see Yorkshire suppliers.
Twinings second to announce “Amid drive for slave-free Indian tea”
Twinings was second (August) in listing its Indian plantation suppliers. It provides a sourcing map of its estates, that include Argentina, Malawi, and Indonesia but are predominantly in India. The site presents its Sourced with Care sustainability initiative plus a statement of the issue associated with this and related initiatives: Slavery in the tea fields.
Twinings’ website describes its sourcing initiatives, with examples and figures. Obviously, there is a strong public relations side to the social coverage but that in itself indicates how transparency in general and supplier listing in particular are becoming part of tea company branding.
Click to see Twinings suppliers.
“Tetley’s move means we can now see where more than half of the UK’s tea comes from”
Tetley launched its initiative in late 2018. The company, founded in 1837, employs 274 with annual revenue of $18.7 million. It is the largest tea company by volume in the UK and Canada and second largest in the U.S. Tata, the owner of Tetley, is adamant in its focus on ensuring that all its suppliers – emphasis again added here – meet ethical standards and follow a strict code of conduct “to ensure slavery and human trafficking is not taking place anywhere in our supply chains….”
Publishing is not in itself action. Genevieve LeBaron, a leading academic in the anti-slavery field, stresses in commenting on Tetley, that transparency must be followed up by effective programs to transform business models and supply chain dynamics that promote exploitation. That will be a tough challenge, given the economics of the industry, global market commoditization, climate threats, and government policy gyrations.
In this context, publishing the suppliers who source the teas and determine the quality of the product and of the lives of the people who make it is obviously just a start. But it is a start to a productive journey of great potential.
Click to see Tetley UK suppliers (nine pages).
Clipper: Fourth Among the Big Six
Clipper followed Tetley a few weeks later, listing all its Assam suppliers, in more detail than any of the other firms: names, addresses, and as with the earlier leaders, the listing is also a form of implicit certification: “… By sharing this information, we hope to show how important it is to work only with progressive tea estates who look to improve the quality of life for their workers and their families.” “Only” is emphasized here because it points directly to the difference between encouraging suppliers are insisting on their meeting performance requirements.
As of the near end of the year, only PG Tips and Pukka Herbs are not part of the open supplier listing movement that did not even exist six months earlier. Unilever, the UK’s largest tea supplier measured in sales, stresses that it takes full responsibility for suppliers meeting its strict standards, even without publishing the list. It seems likely to make the shift and has already published detailed information on its 1,400 palm oil supply mills.
Click to see Clipper suppliers.
Consumers as Part of Tea Transparency
The opening up of supplier data ends the view of this as “trade secrets.” It also invites consumers into the open information opportunity. “Transparency” is not a grabber term. It’s abstract and abstruse. Rephrase it in words close to the campaign mantra of Traidcraft Exchange, which takes credit for helping creates momentum for listing suppliers — ”Who picked my tea?” – to the more inclusive “Who grows my tea” and it takes on more personal and fresh meaning. Here are extracts from comments made as part of World Tea News ongoing series on tea transparency, from the perspective of consumers:
- “To stay in step with consumer sophistication, we as an industry have to start looking at supply-chain information as an essential part of our product’s value… your choice to disclose your partners in your supply chain builds trust and goodwill.” (Andrew McNeil, Seven Cups Fine Chinese Tea)
- “Ask yourself what information is useful to customers. The world of tea can be very overwhelming, so it is important to know what will make it easier for customers to choose a tea they will like… how and where it is grown, how it is processed, how it is blended…” (Katherine Kern, Churchill’s Fine Teas)
- “Transparency can explain to customers why commodity teas are so cheap to buy and… the adverse impacts of this on the pluckers in the field. It can explain… why specialty teas are relatively expensive – and how this benefits the pluckers and entrepreneurial producers.” (Nigel Melican, Teacraft)
- “Consumers want to know more about their tea and its origins… Retailers, brands, and wholesalers must earn their trust to win these new groups of clientele.” (Holger Lohs, Hälssen & Lyon)
- “Young tea lovers are excited to taste new origins and processing styles and the only way you will be able to offer this to them as a retailer is if you seek transparency in the supply chain of your tea.” (Elyse Petersen, Tealet)
Who makes my tea? Here’s who.