The future of commodities: driving change with the Ethical Tea Partnership

Sarah Roberts Ethical Tea Partnership

Tea is the most widely-consumed beverage worldwide*. Most of it is produced by smallholders, who are the most vulnerable players un an increasingly pressurised supply chain. Tea production is also threatened by the climate emergency, which is likely to have a particularly high impact on small-scale farmers.

Formed in 1997, the Ethical Tea Partnership (ETP) is a not-for-profit organisation working with the whole supply chain to create a sustainable sector. The ETP has already improved the lives of over 700,000 people in tea communities.

To celebrate the launch of its new website, we spoke to Executive Director Sarah Roberts about how this not-for-profit is working to create a fairer, better tea industry for workers, farmers and the environment.

1. What is the Ethical Tea Partnership and why was it established?

The Ethical Tea Partnership is a not for profit organisation established in 1997 to convene the tea industry, development partners, NGOs and governments to improve the lives of tea workers, farmers and the environment in which they live and work.

Our work on the ground is far-reaching; we improve the incomes and well-being of tea workers, small-scale farmers and their families, help to empower women to be more independent, reduce gender-based violence, improve nutrition in tea communities and increase climate change resilience. 

Our priority is to tackle the complex, deep-rooted issues that hold back sustainability of the sector. Building on our pioneering history, we convene tea companies, development agencies, governmental and non-governmental organisations to improve the lives of people in tea communities.

2. How is the ETP scaling impact in farming regions?

ETP is working with tea communities in the key tea growing countries in Asia and Africa. Our farmer field schools and farmer business schools provide training and support to farmers with the aim of helping to improve their lives and incomes. 

Farmers learn how to improve their tea growing skills to increase yields, tea quality, and their income. The programme also includes literacy and numeracy skills, which ultimately leaves farmers and their communities stronger. Our programmes have grown so that we can also expand the way we support famers build their resilience to climate change. 

Through our work in Kenya and China we have supported farmers to exchange learnings across their respective communities. We facilitated a visit for Kenyan farmers to meet with and learn from their Chinese counterparts to deal with challenges of climate change and reducing their carbon footprint. This was an especially important visit for the Kenyan farmers, as climate change poses an increasing threat for agriculture in Africa. 

In Malawi, through our Malawi Tea 2020 programme, we have been working with 16,500 farmers to help improve their incomes. The programme is designed to increase farmers tea farming knowledge, incomes farming ability and are improving their lives and longer-term prospects. 

Loveness, tea farmer in Malawi and graduate of the Farmer Field School Programme. © Andy Hall/Ethical Tea Partnership

3. What are some of the main lessons learnt along the way?

Through ETP, tea companies were one of the first industries to come together to develop solutions to tackle the challenges and bring about systematic changes to improve people’s day to day lives. 

We have thought about how to leverage our influence to bring governments, development organisation and businesses together to help lead the conversations around some of the biggest issues facing tea communities. 

We’ve spearheaded a number of conversations including how to bring about living wages and living incomes in Malawi and how to empower women and girls in India through our Improving Lives programme with UNICEF. We’ve helped to focus efforts on women by putting gender at the heart of our programme activities. This transformational change has seen women in Kenya graduate from tea workers to factory managers, girls in India stay in education for longer with better life opportunities, and in Sri Lanka women’s health and well-being is significantly improving. 

Representing the farmer and worker voice is the fundamental cornerstone of our work. Our programmes bring their voice to the table. By working with all the key stakeholders, we can ensure that policy changes take place at every level to bring about effective progress. 

4. What is the role of certification in transforming the sector and what are the main challenges?

As a not for profit organisation our priority is to deliver social impact programmes to improve the lives of tea workers and their communities. We are not a certification body, but we recognise that certification can be a useful tool to tackle certain issues facing the industry. 

We have worked with certification organisations, but certification is just one tool in the box, and we know that system change and delivering longer term programmes will help to deliver lasting transformations that tackle complex, deep-rooted issues. 

Tea estate in Sri Lanka. ©Abbie Trayler Smith/Panos/Ethical Tea Partnership

5. How do you track progress to ensure change is being driven across the whole tea supply chain – from improved farmer livelihoods to increased consumer awareness?

Our data tells us the impact of our programmes and how many people we’re reaching through our work. But it’s the stories of the people that we meet that explain the real impact of what we’re doing. The stories of the workers and farmers in the tea communities tell us how their lives are changing and demonstrate just how important the impact of our work is.

We have been working in tea communities to bring about long term change, and whilst there is still more to do, when we meet women like Rhoda in Malawi, we hear about how the community savings programme she has taken part in has helped her to make improvements to her home and build a better future for her family. 

6. What does a ‘climate-smart’ future for tea look like?

ETP is at the forefront of the transition to a climate smart future for tea. We’re working with farmers, factories, tea producers and many of our partners to develop strategic partnerships to tackle environmental challenges that will deliver long term solutions.

For us, a sustainable tea sector is one where farmers:

  • Have access to tea clones that are adapted to future conditions.
  • Address deforestation through tree-planting.
  • Use renewable sources of energy such as clean cookstoves and solar lighting.
  • Have improved incomes and livelihoods through savings opportunities and business skills.
  • Are mitigating and resilient to climate change.

Our reforestation work in Malawi is one of the ways that we’re helping to build climate resilience in tea growing communities. In 2018 alone farmers planted approximately 60, 000 trees, which should help save up to approximately 350 metric tons of CO2. Reforestation is key to a climate-smart future by reducing greenhouse gas emissions and supporting the local climate where tea is grown, improving the micro-climate on the tea farms and estates. 

Whilst we’re supporting farmers on the ground, this work towards resilience needs to happen at all levels to limit the impact of the climate crisis.

*Besides water

Greenhouse PR takes great pride in working with organisations transforming the way we produce commodities such as the Roundtable on Sustainable Palm Oil (RSPO) and Bonsucro. If you are a pioneer involved in creating more sustainable supply chain and have a story to tell, we would love to hear from you.