Drinking Tea for Climate Justice
Since I’m 50% British, it’s probably not surprising that I grew up in a household where black tea was a staple. There was no breakfast without a pot of tea, no coming in from the cold without immediately putting on the kettle – and you had to make sure to put your milk in the cup BEFORE pouring the tea… which is of course the only right way to do it ;-)
Since I have grown up and become more eco-conscious, I put oat milk in the cup instead of cow's milk (but it still has to go in first) and I take a close look at where my tea comes from.
THE PROBLEM WITH TEA
The fact that it’s the British who are famous for their tea consumption hints at the history of that popular drink. Tea is a story of colonialism, resource extraction, and slavery. It's a high-value crop grown on small farms in tropical and subtropical regions. The work is labor-intensive: farmworkers must pluck the tea leaves from the bushes by hand. Each bush is visited every day over a period of several weeks to harvest high-quality teas. Historically, forced labor, child labor, and low wages were ubiquitous in this sector, and without supply chain transparency, you can never rule them out.
Tea grows in warm temperatures with plenty of rain. The plants are also vulnerable to disease and need careful maintenance, which means that a lot of tea gardens rely heavily on toxic pesticides. This is not only a problem for the consumer, but also for the soil, insects, the immediate environment, and the workers, who often have no protective equipment when working with these chemicals. Since tea bushes often grow on mountainsides because they thrive in higher altitudes, these toxins can be washed out and accumulate at lower levels.
So how can we make sure our tea consumption has a positive impact?
Sustainable Shopping Made Simple
TAZO – FROM TASTE TO CLIMATE JUSTICE
We often introduce small companies that were founded on the principles of sustainability. The tea maker I vetted this week is a bit different: TAZO founder Steven Smith is a passionate traveler, and when he discovered the “plethora of mesmerizing flavors that global cultures and communities have cultivated, perfected, and brewed for centuries”, he was inspired to create a brand with a focus on the flavor experience of carefully curated tea blends. TAZO turned into a huge success and rose to popularity when it was purchased by Starbucks in 1999. Since then, TAZO became part of the Unilever family and has continued to create new flavors and products.
You know that if TAZO had stopped there, you wouldn’t be reading about them on this blog… but TAZO tea is in the middle of an exciting transformation into an impact brand:
We’re experts at brewing tea. Now we’re learning to be champions for the planet and its people.
That sounds great, but what does it mean exactly?
Well, TAZO started by getting educated about the climate crisis and the impact of its own business. Partnering with experts who helped them understand intersectional environmentalism was a huge step toward choosing the focus of TAZO’s new mission: Joining the fight for climate justice.
You have probably heard the term climate injustice before. It often refers to the fact that the countries that contributed the least to global warming and climate change are the ones who already face the most severe consequences. Extreme weather, floods, and droughts lead to food insecurity, land loss, migration, and death in the global south.
However, there is also a huge inequality in how severely the effects of climate change impact people in rich countries like the US.
For far too long, climate change has disproportionately harmed BIPOC communities across the country. As we work together to fight for climate justice, we’re focusing on solutions led by members of these communities.
One example of this injustice is the fact that neighborhoods where most inhabitants are black, indigenous, or people of color have fewer trees.
This result of decades of racist housing policies is way more important than it might seem at first sight. Trees don’t only support mental health and increase the air quality in a community, they also regulate temperatures. Last year’s extreme heat waves have shown us a glimpse of what we can expect – in the future, the fact that trees can significantly lower the temperature in the streets can be lifesaving!
TAZO has teamed up with American Forests to support tree equity. Currently, the TAZO tree corps is regreening BICOP communities in 5 major cities – improving the living conditions and providing paid work for the communities at the same time.
REGENERATIVE AGRICULTURE IN THE CULTIVATION AREAS
You can’t take a stand for climate justice without looking at the impact and sustainability of your own product.
At the same time, we also need to understand the full environmental impact of our teas. So, we’re working with sustainability consulting firm, Pure Strategies, to run an environmental and social audit of our business. From evaluating workers’ rights in the regions from which we source our 50+ globally grown ingredients, to understanding the carbon footprint of our products, and more, we’re figuring out what needs improving and hashing out solid plans to do just that.
Some of TAZO’s choices are already certified organic or made from fair trade ingredients. But with four blends, they went a step further: These teas are grown with regenerative agricultural practices.
While sustainable agriculture by definition sustains the health of the system, regenerative agriculture aims to improve the health of the soil, create new topsoil, and thereby bind carbon. Therefore, regenerative agriculture is based on organic principles but goes beyond them. It aims for biodiversity in the fields, a circular economy in farming, and intact ecosystems. In addition, the certification for regenerative organic agriculture incorporates standards for workers’ rights and animal welfare.
Ekaterra, TAZO’s parent company and home of all of Unilever’s tea brands, is planning to source the entirety of its teas from regenerative practices by 2030. I have written about the surprisingly aspirational sustainability goals of Unilever in this post about another impact brand.
Reading about Ekaterra’s journey to restorative and ethically sourced teas was equally inspiring. If you have some time, I highly recommend looking into Ekaterra’s mission for a great example of how big brands can be big game changers.
And now, I’m off to have a cup of tea…
Jennifer Scales is a photo artist and train travel enthusiast. When she is not vetting companies for askBelynda, she spreads her love for sustainable travel by capturing the beauty of nature seen through the train window.