Earlier this month, the Indian media reported 608 million kilograms of tea (46 percent of the country’s annual output) has been verified and certified by trustea, a sustainability code developed in India. But is there a need for yet another certification body? And how can a domestic code like trustea raise the bar for the Indian tea industry?
Trustea was set up in 2013 as a domestically-developed code of standards for tea. It is backed by IDH, Hindustan Unilever Ltd. – who initiated the movement – Tata Global Beverages and Wagh Bakri, with Ethical Tea Partnership and Solidaridad as implementing partners.
Borrowing from other bodies such as Rainforest Alliance – listed as an Advisor – the trustea code is comprehensive, addressing many of the Indian tea industry challenges, especially with labor policies and welfare.
In Assam, Mrityunjay Jalan of Chota Tingrai, an estate known for its progressive practices, and a trustea member since 2017 says, “Tea remains different from other industries in India with respect to the labor force that’s used, and the benefits to the resident laborers that the industry has to provide. A standardized sustainability code aimed specifically at the Indian tea industry does help.”
Of interest are the 7 Zero-Tolerance Criteria Points listed, perhaps the best indication of where the real problem with the industry lies: examples are Engaging forced or bonded labor, or child labor; Corporal punishment, harassment, intimidation of labor; Engaging women and adolescents in spraying agrochemicals; Deforestation or encroachment of forest land of notified forest land or encroachment.
The certification process can take up to two months depending on the size of the estate, beginning with a Gap Audit by Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP). Once the gaps are covered, the trustea certificate is provided. Designed for a phased implementation over four years, complete compliance is expected by Year 4.
Says Mrityunjay, “As the compliance norms are strict and the review is yearly, it helps the person at the ground level change his habits rather quickly.” He feels that where trustea can really play a role is in creating a level playing field between the organized and the unorganized sector, something which is currently missing. “If buyers are under pressure to procure only trustea certified tea, then the unorganized tea producers (accounting for 44 percent in Assam alone) would also have to come under the ambit of the trustea sustainability practices.”
trustea’s starting point is the estate factories, bought leaf factories and independent grower groups, so the onus still remains on the producers to make the shift towards better compliance of standards. Not all of them have yet embraced trustea. In the Nilgiris, MN Bopana, Managing Director of Craigmore says, “Craigmore has GlobalGAP, ISO compliance, Ethical Tea Partnership, Rainforest Alliance, UTZ.” Collectively, they satisfy the requirements in labor welfare, environment, food safety, packaging, transport. When asked about adding trustea, he asks, “If we have to keep adding every new certificate that comes up, where’s the end?”
The push for certifications comes from the buyers, especially in the export market. A global buyer may insist that the producer is Rainforest Alliance certified. The cost of certification is very high and borne entirely by the producer. For large producers, if this investment translates to a better price for a better tea, there is incentive to get certified. But small growers or factories can ill-afford it. Neither can they ignore it because increasingly, the marketing conversation is about the source, sustainability and responsible production.
Bopana agrees that trustea is a positive step towards raising the standards but is concerned that this too will become one of many certifications. He opines that if packers and producers could come together to set one standard, that’s acceptable for all, and addresses all the concerns that certifications do, it will become the useful standards body it sets out to be.
trustea insists that it is a voluntary certification, and the choice is on the producer or factory to get certified. Cognizant of the cost factor, trustea bears some of the cost in certification. This must make it especially attractive to small growers who could use any advantage available to sell their teas. And buyers in India, says Mrityunjay, are strongly in favor of the trustea certification.
Here lies an interesting challenge for trustea, because it’s not a gatekeeper of the industry’s laws. How can it include estates that are already certified by say, RA and other global standards without necessitating another expensive cycle of certification? How can it push the unorganized sector towards compliance? And can it establish itself as a single standards code for India that stands for safe and sustainably-produced tea?