How Sustainable is Tea?
May 11, 2021 • 9 min read
Legend has it that tea was discovered in 2737 BCE, by the Chinese emperor Shen Nung. He was sitting beneath a Camellia sinensis tree when some leaves blew into his kettle of boiled water. The green leaves coloured and flavoured the water, making it instantly aromatic and alluring. This fragrant drink was so refreshing that it spread rapidly in China, helping monks ward off sleep during their long hours of meditation. Though we are now well-acquainted with tea (it’s the most widely consumed beverage in the world, after water), it took centuries for this soothing drink to make its way out of China.
While many of us associate the “discovery” of tea with the East India Company, in reality, it began much before that, going first to Japan, then Iran and India. Since then, tea has erupted in the Global North, and with it, questionable ethics and sustainability when it comes to growing and harvesting the leaves. The history of tea is thick with dubious dealings, so for the sake of this article, we will be focusing on the sustainability of tea from a modern perspective, and how we can make better choices that not only support our planet, but the hardworking people who pick and package it.
The industry is severely lacking in transparency, with many brands greenwashing consumers into believing their claims. There is an incredible amount of nuanced information regarding the sustainability of tea, so we encourage you to do your own research outside of this post as well.
So, with that said, let’s spill the tea.
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When we look at the impact tea plantations have on the environment, habitat conversion is seen as the biggest detrimental factor. Optimal areas for tea growth are often in rugged and remote areas, which also happen to be areas with the highest biodiversity. Cultivating this kind of land into crops for tea has led to species reduction and soil erosion.
Since tea is produced in monocultures on plantations, there is a lack of natural enemies for pests. Most mainstream tea brands heavily use pesticides and agrochemicals on their crops for pest control, as well as to enhance tea bush productivity. All of this leads to soil erosion, as well as negatively impacted soil fertility. Additionally, brands that use “natural flavours” take things a step further than agrochemicals, by producing their teas in labs. The flavours that are added are not at all natural or sourced from nature, rather they’re just natural-tasting. This is something to beware of as we sip on flavourful blends that seem almost too tasty to be true.
Choosing to support tea brands that circumvent the mainstream tea industry and instead source their tea leaves from smaller, independent growers who focus on regenerative agriculture (the traditional way it has been done for centuries), is a way in which we can advocate for better – better tea, better environmental protection and conservation, better standards within the industry, and better farming techniques that replenish as well as reap.
The tea industry greatly impacts the livelihoods of a very large number of people who reside in tea-growing nations. Despite the questionable ethics that surround the tea industry, it is still a driving economic force for millions of people in majority world nations (India, China, Kenya, Indonesia, Sri Lanka, Malawi).
One of the major issues with wages comes from the fact that workers (permanent and seasonal) are often paid at a piece rate, with a fixed price per kilogram of green leaf picked. This model is not supportive of a healthy and safe working life, as the amount of leaves picked is dependent on skill, hours worked, health, strength, and seasonal conditions. It also doesn’t make a difference which mainstream tea brand you buy from, regardless of their ethical and “transparent” claims, as most picked tea leaves go to auction, which determines the final price. This means regardless of the brand (Tetley, Twinnings, Lipton), the picker is still making the same minimal wage.
Smaller tea brands with a focus on sustainability and worker’s rights are aiming to change this, by eliminating as many middlemen as possible, and by buying direct-trade. With visits to smallholder tea farms and an approach that is more grassroots than mass production-oriented, these brands are shifting our interaction with tea, aiming to actually include the pickers in their supply chain, and ensure they are paid living wages.
It may come as a surprise to some of you to learn that conventional tea bags are made from plastic (polyethylene). Every time we steep our favourite blend in a tea bag, we’re unconsciously releasing billions of nanoparticles of plastic into our cuppa, and thus, into our bodies. Researchers from McGill University found that one cup from a single tea bag could contain 11.6 billion microplastic and 3.1 billion nanoplastic particles!
It is well-known now that plastic is an endocrine disruptor, which can lead to a plethora of health issues and long-term conditions. Despite this, we are still told to compost our tea bags, even though they will never break down, causing more plastic to seep into our environments, and once again, eventually into our bodies.
How did tea go from being loose leaf to bagged in the first place? Tea bags were invented during WW2, as shipping blockades caused stacks of undelivered tea to pile up in warehouse. The bags at the bottom of the mass pile were crushed under the weight of those on top, causing the tea to compress into dust. Instead of wasting this valuable product, someone’s bright idea was to mix the tea dust with a better grade tea, and then sell it in pre-made bags. This gave way to modern tea bags, and the cheaper grades of tea we see on the market now, many of which greatly and sadly, resemble dust rather than actual leaves. (The Times UK)
Most mainstream brands haven’t switched over to planet and people friendly options as the cost associated with this is very high. Even brands that have seemingly switched to a more biodegradable option still contain some plastic, as polypropylene is the plastic polymer responsible for sealing the bags and keeping their shape in hot water.
We’re happy to say that there are brands out there who take our plastic problem very seriously, and have done their best in providing an option that is actually biodegradable and compostable. When in doubt though, loose leaf tea is always your best bet, as it is devoid of plastic and is likely to be far higher in quality and taste.
Brands We Love
With an ambitious goal of a zero-waste supply chain, TEALEAVES is a leader in sustainable tea, focusing not just on biodegradable but compostable products, and that too, home compostable. Considering that the world of tea, packaging and plastic is multifaceted, their approach to sustainability is akin to their philosophy of blending: understanding and harnessing the richness of complexity. With a belief that a truly sustainable supply chain requires deeper analysis than a mere examination of carbon footprint, TEALEAVES examines the lifecycle of their products, including materials, ingredients, and the social and environmental impact.
Their dedicated “Sustainable” collection is zero-waste and packaged in NatureFlex, a home compostable material, one which they are slowly transitioning to for all of their packaging. As the term “biodegradable” is not a clear indicator of how sustainable a product is, TEALEAVES focuses on compostable, which means an item must decompose within a specific allotment of time without any trace left behind. With this focus, their home-compostable tea bags are made from renewable PLA (Polyactic Acid), which is 100% plant-based and derived from corn. Their home compostable envelopes are made from NatureFlex, a backyard compostable renewable material that is FSC Certified and made from certified birch and eucalyptus wood pulp. Unlike petroleum-based plastics which take 100-500 years to decompose, these envelopes take only a few months to break down. This brand also carries a line of gorgeous loose leaf teas, sold in tins. Loose leaf is always an easy sustainable switch, as it is almost always 100% devoid of plastic, often very high quality, and more fresh. Aluminum is an infinitely recyclable material, meaning TEALEAVES tins are both easily recyclable and/or reusable.
Aside from packaging, TEALEAVES also places a heavy focus on biodiversity. With an aim to help create a movement that demonstrates that the for-profit sector can be part of the solution, TEALEAVES has fostered multi-layered partnerships globally to address the challenges that are currently being faced in the industry. With a close working relationship with The University of British Columbia Botanical Garden, this brand has realized how intrinsically linked our planetary well-being is, and how important environmental stewardship is, which led them to share these insights at the World Biodiversity Forum in Davos, Switzerland in 2020.
For more insight, TEALEAVES has launched a new project, entitled “In Good Taste”, which seeks to reveal the truths and myths behind the science, theory and practice of taste, so that you can use that knowledge to design a better life. With a focus on our current shifting climate and ever-changing environmental landscape, TEALEAVES uses this medium to question how our tastes can be used as a powerful tool to create positive impact, and not simply a sense we succumb to. Working with physicians, farmers, foragers and fishermen, designers, educators and journalists, this project shines a spotlight on how our monoculturalistic desires for food, fashion and more, are unsustainable and unhealthy. The documentary seeks to empower us to make conscious choices, where there is consideration for wellness – for us and for the planet. “In Good Taste” explores the reclamation of our taste buds so that they drive us to products that are healthy, sustainable, and regenerative. Click here to check it out.
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Blending a traditional Indian tea experience with a contemporary interpretation, Ahista itself means “at a slow pace”. Bringing to mind the art of slow living, this tea brand, founded by Indian-Canadian Ashmit Patel, encourages us to take a step back and savour each sip with intention and thoughtfulness. All the tea blends are handmade and sustainable, reaching a level of quality that has landed Ahista at various Michelin-starred restaurants, cafés and boutique hotels worldwide.
Each blend of Ahista tea is produced with a high degree of skill and craftsmanship. Their Premium teas are handcrafted and produced with minimal mechanical intervention. Choosing to work with local women tea farmers in famous tea regions of India, Ahista ensures they protect and positively affect the climate and land, while also supporting the livelihoods of the marginalized tea farmers in Assam and Darjeeling. They have also ventured into lesser known tea producing areas such as Sikkim, Nilgiri, Manipur and Arunachal Pradesh, a practice that helps sustain the organic revolution by supporting more farmers to become self-sustaining entrepreneurs. Seeing as India has long been dominated by corporations, the lasting effects of colonialism is heavily felt in this industry, which is a driving force behind Ahista’s focus on supporting women teamakers. In this way, this brand is able to bring empowerment, inspiration, and gender equity into tea, as well as ensuring the value-add remains at its source.
In terms of product sustainability, Ahista’s boxes are paper, dyed with vegetable-based inks, and their tea bags are 100% biodegradable and compostable, made from plant-based materials (abaca, which is made from ethically-sourced banana leaf and is home-compostable).
Other Notable Brands
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