If you’ve never heard the phrase “hero crop” before, you will soon. Relatively new to the lexicon, hero crop refers to sustainable crops that fulfill social benefit goals for the communities that grow them. That will include tea, if the global non-profit organization Forum for the Future has anything to say about it.
Forum for the Future has just launched a new initiative called “The Future of Tea – A Hero Crop for 2030” with several of the seven companies responsible for 90 percent of the global tea market (yes, only seven). The group encompasses at least three brands familiar to U.S. tea drinkers: Lipton (parent company Unilever), Tetley (parent company Tata Global Beverages), and Twinings. A fourth company, Finlays, is a leading tea trader, manufacturer, and processor among other diverse activities including coffee, produce, flowers, rubber, and forestry products.
Sustainable tea as a hero crop
In addition to the aforementioned four companies, the Forum for the Future effort includes other companies and stakeholders including the Ethical Tea Partnership, Fairtrade International, IDH – the Sustainable Trade Initiative, Rainforest Alliance, S&D Coffee and Tea, Yorkshire Tea, and the International Tea Committee.
As a companion to the new initiative, Forum for the Future has released a report under the same title, The Future of Tea – A Hero Crop for 2030. The report is relatively brief at 34 pages and well worth a read in full, but here are some highlights for those of you in a hurry.
The first thing that stands out is a radical rethinking of the definition of a commodity.
In conventional thinking, a commodity is simply an inert object that is produced, sold, and consumed. The Future of Tea recasts tea as an agent that has a powerful impact on the lives of the people it encounters along the way from production to consumption.
If that rings a bell, you may be familiar with the thinking of Levi Strauss CEO and President John Anderson, which he articulated in a 2011 speech urging the apparel industry to leap ahead of local, site-specific environmental regulations and embrace a more holistic approach that includes social and economic sustainability for local communities.
Forum for the Future sums it up this way:
Every cup of tea you drink should help better the lives of the people who produce it, improve the environment where it is grown, and contribute to a thriving global industry…
From that brief summary it’s clear that the new collaboration is steadfastly focused on the bottom line, but it also firmly places profitability in the context of production practices that contribute to the quality of life in local communities, in addition to enabling environmental sustainability.
Challenges for the tea industry
Within the context of the commodity-as-agent, the new report connects the tea industry to ten emerging challenges common across many different industries, including climate change, population growth, land availbility, and water resource issues.
The water issue is especially timely, as it dovetails with efforts by Carbon Trust, Ceres, and other sustainable business organizations to urge businesses to adapt to a world in which competition for water will become an even more critical factor in profitability models than it is today.
Other challenges include demographic changes and related issues including labor availability and mechanization as well as the potential for wage and conditions improvements. Overall resource constraints, new business models, emerging economies, supply chain balance-of-power, and consumer attitudes about food value also come into play.
In that regard, the new report argues that social and civic improvements in tea-growing communities — which are among the world’s poorest — will lead to a more engaged workforce and improvements in local agricultural practices.
The profitability factor also rests solidly on the factor of consumer engagement throughout the tea lifecycle. That involves the goal of encouraging tea drinkers to demand more sustainable practices from tea producers, while also attending to the impacts of tea consumption.
That angle can pack a lot of punch. According to Forum for the Future, more than three billion cups of tea are consumed every day, making it the most popular drink after water.
When it comes to consumer engagement, the new initiative will take some cues from the coffee industry, which has been focusing its consumers on brewed coffee over instant, in Fairtrade and organic products, and in engaging in lifecycle responsibilities such as recycling coffee grounds.
As for direct environmental concerns, Forum for the Future notes that in addition to being hosted by some of the world’s poorest communities, tea production is also located in some of the regions most exposed to the impacts of climate change, and consequently, increased competition for land with food crops.
That demands a proactive approach by the tea industry to address all aspects of environmental sustainability, including reforestation, biodiversity, water management, and soil quality.
[Image: Teapot by Gangster Car Driver]