Earlier this month, Unilever, the largest purchaser of tea in the world, joined the four other leading United Kingdom tea brands in publishing its list of suppliers.
Until this year, if consumers, advocacy groups, or the media asked the simple question, “Who exactly supplies the tea?” The answer essentially was, “None of your business.” To the follow-up question: “Who’s accountable for its quality, worker conditions, environmental protection and safety?” The response was, “That’s our business.”
Unilever’s move to publish its tea supplier list effectively says, “It’s everyone’s business and you can check out both our suppliers and how we make sure they meet standards of performance and how we help them.”
Unilever has as good a track record as any food and drink firm, active in such NGOs as the Ethical Tea Partnership and a driving force in the Rainforest Alliance certification program.
Prior to July 2018, not one of the major tea brands had ever listed its suppliers. As in most industries, this has been treated as proprietary competitive information. A study published in November 2018 reported that in fashion retailing just 12 percent of leading brands disclosed data in 2016 on their Tier 1 top suppliers. That increased to 37 percent in 2018. There is a public relations risk in doing so. When Apple opened up its lists in 2012, external audits revealed that well under half the 150 suppliers did not adhere to its contractual requirements that laborers be limited to 60-hour work weeks.
Historically, in the tea industry, publication among leading players has amounted to 0 percent. That is being transformed.
Five of the six major brands, amounting to 80 percent of UK tea consumption, have now published their lists: Betty’s of Harrogate, the owner of Yorkshire Tea, in July 2018, Twinings, Tetley and Clipper in late 2018 and now Unilever in 2019. Only Typhoo remains part of what a representative for Traidcraft, the advocacy group that has been very active in pushing for this transparency and disclosure, calls “the club mentality of silence over sourcing.”
That silence constrains a primary goal of social activists, trade associations and NGOs: to help stamp out labor abuse, including slave trafficking, and improve working conditions, incomes, health and safety, especially for the millions of women most vulnerable. Unilever emphasizes its broader goal of collaboration to encourage sustainability along the bush to cup supply chain. But the most focused purpose is taking responsibility for its suppliers and itself in addressing the poverty, brutality, and exploitation of workers that is far too common in tea fields and factories.
Unilever, like the other leaders in supplier transparency, emphasizes that this is a starting point. Information does not in itself ensure accountability but enables it. Accountability enables collaboration. Collaboration enables community leadership and development. Most commentators anticipate a follow-my-leader expansion of supplier listing that strengthens the links in the information-action chain. A weakness in the information flow is lack of detail and standardization. The lists are mainly just that: names of producers and their farms and trade names. Standardization is a necessary next step; there are plenty of certification agencies that can ensure focus and impact.
Unilever had been expected to follow a movement which included Tetley, its giant rival, and had already published its list of palm oil suppliers. It seems almost certain that the many global brands that are actively committed to worker and community well-being will join in, though as of now there are none outside the UK doing so. Bigelow (US), Dilmah (Sri Lanka), Ito En (Japan) and Teekampagne (Germany) are examples of companies for which sustainability and social responsibility are already part of their brand strength. Such firms benefit in themselves from openness and evidence of their own activism.