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Leon Kaye headshot

Climate Change Threatens Sri Lanka’s Tea Industry

By Leon Kaye

Few crops have transformed countries the way tea has changed Sri Lanka. Long after the first tea plant from China was planted in Sri Lanka 190 years ago, tea now grows on 3 percent of the island, provides 2.5 percent of the nation’s GDP and generates income for over 1 million Sri Lankans. In southern Sri Lanka, tea dominates the landscape: once lush rain forests are huge estates surrounding popular tourist destinations such as Nuwara Eliya, Ella and Haputale.

Now, along with other major tea growers, the Sri Lankan tea industry faces an uncertain future due to climate change. Pests and volatile weather patterns threaten an industry already beset by increased competition and rising labor costs. Along with other indulgences we take for granted, such as chocolate and coffee, climate change poses the threat of collapse to the tea industry.

When I walked through the tea plantations during a trip to Sri Lanka last month, I needed to be reminded that tea has a relatively short chapter in the country’s 3,000 year history. Coffee and cinnamon were the dominant crops during the first half of the 19th century after the British colonized the island.

But after coffee rust destroyed Sri Lanka’s place as the world’s leading export of coffee during the 1870s, growers and exporters saw another opportunity in tea. Thus even more mountains in Sri Lanka saw rain forest cover replaced with camellia sinesis, from which the leaves and buds are used to brew your cup of tea. The industry expanded even more rapidly after a Scottish fellow named Lipton purchased land in Sri Lanka to grow tea, therefore bypassing the tea wholesalers in London and giving him the ability to sell tea cheaply to the British and American working classes — forever making Sri Lanka synonymous with tea.

Tea’s impact in Sri Lanka has long been breathtaking and backbreaking. I’ve never used the words “verdant” or “bucolic” in my writing, but those words certainly describe what is often called the “hill country” or “tea country” in Sri Lanka. The endless rolling hills full of low-lying tea bushes tease the eye and in turn lure tourists from all over the world. Nuwara Eliya, once center of the British tea industry in Sri Lanka, still grows some of the finest tea on earth—as in other countries, the highest elevations provide optimal conditions for growing tea. As I walked about 15 km one day through the tea estates, I was struck by the beauty—it was easy to forget this was once lush rain forest. And while the mist enveloping the landscape made for great photo opps, it also opened my eyes to the reality of tea production in Sri Lanka.

Here, where tea grows up to 1,800 meters (5,900 feet) above sea level, the routine for the tea workers is hard, tedious labor. The vast majority of them are descendants of the Tamils who the British forcibly relocated from India. Women for the most part pick tea—only young leaves and buds are carefully plucked from the bushes. According to my local host, the wages to pick tea average about 400 rupees (US$3.07) a day—and their daily quotas average from 12 to 15 kilograms (26.5 to 33 pounds). Many grow vegetables to earn some extra income outside their homes, which are often fashioned out of corrugated iron siding. The struggle continues up the tea hierarchy as small and medium and plantation owners feel the sting from growing global competition as well as the plunge of exports to countries in the Middle East hit by war and economic instability. Rising temperatures pose yet another challenge to their way of life.

So do you think these growers and tea pickers think about the long term effects of climate change? I asked several times and was shrugged off. According to my host, life goes on here. Any initial environmental impact of churning forest to tea, such as erosion, has long faded as many of the tea plants in Sri Lanka are well over a century old. Furthermore, whether you are picking the leaves or curing them, working within the tea industry involves long days and intensive labor—many of these workers are simply trying to survive and provide for their families.

Elsewhere in Sri Lanka, business leaders, academics and environmentalists are raising awareness and taking action. Dilmah Teas, a 40-year-old Sri Lankan-owned enterprise, is launching a climate change research station to study the potential impacts of climate change and develop future mitigation strategies. Other companies such as Unilever, which runs an instant tea factory in Sri Lanka, have held events to educate employees on environmental issues such as water conservation. With data suggesting Sri Lanka’s overall temperatures have risen 1 Celsius degree the past century, the possibility of climate change wreaking havoc on this lucrative industry is too big of a risk to overlook.

Solving the emerging tea crisis in Sri Lanka will not be easy. Fair trade certification is one part of the puzzle, as the premiums paid to growers can help address both the social and environmental challenges confronting the tea industry. The Sri Lankan government runs a tea research institute that covers everything from studying the treat of pests to helping tea growers respond and adapt to the changing climate.

But the Sri Lankan tea industry’s biggest challenge is taking on all these changes while still providing a product that can keep it economically viable. Tea drinkers around the world for the most part are used to paying almost nothing for a cuppa. Case in point—after walking around the tea estates in Nuwara Eliya, my host took me to a local shop where I bought a kilo of one of the highest quality teas for 1,000 rupees (US$7.80).  Granted, that tea went through a few less steps through the global tea supply chain, but that is almost nothing for a year’s supply or so of tea. The change will have to start with educating consumers—will they be willing to pay more for a more responsible and sustainable product, or will they just sip a brew from China, India or Kenya that is far cheaper?

They may have no choice — cheaper teas are generally grown in low-lying areas that are most susceptible to climate change. Governments and growers will focus on preserving the more lucrative high-end teas that thrive in higher elevations — which means growers closer to sea level may eventually make that painful decision to grow more lucrative crops resistant to climate change and can feed a growing population. So whether you are sipping a quick Lipton at a roadside stand in the Middle East or enjoying high tea at a posh London hotel, tea will be just one more way in which climate change will lighten your wallet.

Image credits: Leon Kaye

Leon Kaye currently lives in the United Arab Emirates, where he works for the Abu Dhabi office of APCO, a communications consultancy. Follow him on Instagram and Twitter.

Leon Kaye headshot

Leon Kaye has written for 3p since 2010 and become executive editor in 2018. His previous work includes writing for the Guardian as well as other online and print publications. In addition, he's worked in sales executive roles within technology and financial research companies, as well as for a public relations firm, for which he consulted with one of the globe’s leading sustainability initiatives. Currently living in Central California, he’s traveled to 70-plus countries and has lived and worked in South Korea, the United Arab Emirates and Uruguay.

Leon’s an alum of Fresno State, the University of Maryland, Baltimore County and the University of Southern California's Marshall Business School. He enjoys traveling abroad as well as exploring California’s Central Coast and the Sierra Nevadas.

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