One Small Frog, One Giant Leap for Sustainability

Foodservice Footprint Sara-Howe-Tetley-150x150 One Small Frog, One Giant Leap for Sustainability Features Interviews: Industry professionals  In just a few weeks, Tetley will start selling its first boxes of Rainforest Alliance-certified tea. Sara Howe, the brand’s Director of Sustainability, tells David Burrows how the logo with the little frog represents a giant leap forward in sustainability.


Sara Howe doesn’t look like a builder, yet the marks on her cup betray a love of very strong tea. “we’ve got a great range of infused teas, but I drink builder’s tea.” she says. “Tetley Extra Strong, of course.”


Howe is a tea lover, her passion for the brew having been built during a life-long career in the industry. Mainland Europe, India and Asia Pacific all feature on her CV, but it’s her current role in the UK that appears to have provided her most rewarding experience to date.


As lead for sustainability at Tata Global Beverages, the company which boasts Tetley, Tata Tea (an official ‘superbrand’ in India) and Eight O’Clock Coffee among its brands, Howe has been working closely on the Rainforest Alliance project that will eventually see 100 per cent of the Tetley blends coming from certified plantations.


“It’s been a long journey to get to where we are today, but that’s a good thing,” she explains. “What we’re trying to achieve is big – it’s not about a lick of paint on the odd farm fence but significant changes for the farms and farmers.”


Indeed, in order for a farm to be accredited it has to meet the environmental, social and economic standards of the Sustainable Agriculture Network (SAN). These standards cover eco-system conservation, worker rights and safety, wildlife protection, water and soil conservation, agrochemical reduction, decent housing and legal wages and contracts for workers.


It is, therefore, not an overnight change. “It would be like asking someone to master the piano for their Grade 10 exam without any guidance,” says Howe. “We want this scheme to help farmers improve their efficiency, quality and yield. We’re giving them the ability to earn more money.”


The farmers do have to pay for certification, but that’s how most schemes of this type work. Last year the Daily Telegraph ran a couple of exposés on ethical schemes, questioning whether some were robust enough and highlighting the cost of them. Some charge a royalty for every product sold, but the Rainforest Alliance isn’t one of them.


However, Howe feels that charging farmers to be involved, rather than Tetley, gives the scheme more stature: “Farmers pay for certification and that’s right – it shows it is independent. If farmers didn’t think it was worthwhile then they wouldn’t sign up.”


As part of its awareness-raising around the initiative, Tetley has developed a campaign with its farmers. ‘Farmers First Hand’ is a Facebook campaign that will enable consumers to communicate directly with the communities that produce tea as they obtain Rainforest Alliance certification. Howe says this will help to open up a dialogue because “there is only so much we can do on pack”.


Indeed, ethical labels can be a minefield: at the last count there were more than 80 ethical and food assurance schemes. However, it was a choice between three for Tetley given their international reach: the Rainforest Alliance, Fairtrade and UTZ Certified.


The debate over Fairtrade versus Rainforest Alliance is longstanding; indeed, the latter’s website suggests that while the two schemes share similar missions and goals, they “differ in focus and strategy”. So, how did Tetley choose? “We took a detailed look at our approach to sustainability and how the various organisations work, and the Rainforest Alliance was the best fit for our model,” Howe explains.


Unilever made the same decision in 2007, and last October it hit its target to make PG Tips fully certified by the Rainforest Alliance. Tetley will start with a 30 per cent certified blend, moving to 50 per cent, but Howe says the ‘caterer’s range’ of teas will be 100 per cent “very soon”.


Between them PG Tips and Tetley account for nearly half the tea market in the UK, so the fact both are embracing sustainability is good news for foodservice. After all, recent surveys suggest 57 per cent of the public believe tea drunk out of home should be ethically sourced.


“People are starting to ask a lot more questions about where their food and drink comes from,” says Howe, “and they’re looking for guarantees. That’s where schemes like the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade can play a role.” Knowing they are buying products associated with such schemes can give consumers a warm glow. It can also give the company one too. In the past, reputation may well have been front of mind for companies joining ethical schemes, but there has been a shift in reasoning. Oscar Chemerinski, Director of Global Agri-business at the International Finance Corporation (the investment arm of the World Bank) has noted “an increased realisation by global agribusiness that their success or failure in the medium and long-term is tied to the success of the small farmer, both financially and environmentally”.


On several occasions Howe refers to the “future proofing” of Tetley’s supply chain and how the Rainforest Alliance initiative sits within the company’s overall strategy. “People think the difference between CSR and sustainability is semantics, but they are very different. You can use CSR to buff your reputation but sustainability is a business-driven case.


“Achieving 100 per cent inclusion for all Tetley packs will provide us with a major supply chain that is better secured. At the same time [our customers will know] that by choosing it they have helped to protect the environment on tea estates and provide sustainable livelihoods for the people there.”


In other words, there is a little ‘buffing’, but behind it is a commercial reality that gives Howe a warm glow. “I like to make a positive difference in the work I do. I know that if I am successful then Tata will be, but I’m also very lucky to have a job in which I am contributing to something that’s important to me.”