A steaming cup of tea with teabags

A standard cup of tea requires one-eighth as much water as a cup of coffee, but tea is no eco-beverage. In fact, the carbon footprints of tea and coffee production are almost identical. But producing tea contributes less to its footprint than how you drink it. Brewing a truly sustainable cuppa might be impossible, but a little education about your tea choices makes it easier to shop your values. Here’s what you need to know about tea.

Farm

The UN FAO launched a project in Kenya last year to support the production of carbon-neutral tea. Another initiative, Tea2030 crosses all sectors of tea production. But for now, most tea is grown on chemical-intensive farms that contribute to deforestation, erosion, and pesticide contamination. Monoculture farms damage soil health and make plants more susceptible to disease, leading to more intensive use of chemical pesticides and fertilizer. Half of the 62 teas tested by the FDA in a 2015 study contained pesticide residues.

Using biological controls instead of fumigants against soil nematodes; site-specific fertilization plans or organic farming; and the introduction of shade trees to plantations are all methods for reducing the impact of tea cultivation.

People

A labor-intensive crop harvested by hand, tea is grown all around the world with China, India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka as the largest producers. China produces half the world’s tea on 15 million small farms where there is little awareness of the dangers of agrochemicals. Two-thirds of Kenyan tea farmers are also smallholders with few employees (some of whom may be children). By contrast, three-quarters of Indian tea (particularly Assam) is still produced on near-feudal plantations with a history of human rights abuses that particularly impact women. But everywhere, low wages, pesticide exposure, and brutal working conditions are rampant.

The vast majority of tea is still purchased in bulk by multinational corporations. Only Sri Lanka has developed much local processing, but this has not led to direct trade options or improved conditions for workers.

Workers harvesting tea on plantation in Vietnam
Workers harvesting tea in Vietnam

Processing

Processing the tea produces slightly more than half as much carbon as growing the tea.

Graph of CO2 emissions of Dongshang tea
Overall carbon emission contribution of Dongshang tea. Source: mdpi.com

Withering, drying, grading, and packing tea requires more energy than producing a kilogram of steel. This is often due to the use of old, inefficient machinery powered by diesel generators or even fuel wood. Market mechanisms such as fair trade that shift profit down the supply chain could improve efficiency.

Certifications

International programs like the Ethical Tea Partnership work to improve the lives of tea farmers and their cultivation methods but are invisible to consumers. Choosing certified teas is the best way for consumers to encourage sustainable tea cultivation and processing.

USDA Certified Organic

Organic certification ensures that tea is grown and processed without the use of synthetic chemicals. In 2020, the USDA proposed strengthening oversight and enforcement all along the supply chain, which could have significant impacts on products like tea. Organic standards do not explicitly protect farmers or regulate waste produced by farms and processors.

USDA Organic logo
Source: ams.usda.gov

Rainforest Alliance

After merging with UTZ in 2018, the Rainforest Alliance developed a new system that emphasizes context and progress over standards. Its new certification guarantees tea farmers a “Sustainability Differential” payment, forbids deforestation, and encourages sustainable farming techniques.

Rainforest Alliance logo
Source: rainforest-alliance.org

Fair Trade USA

Fair Trade USA was the American affiliate of Fairtrade International until 2011. Despite flaws, Fair Trade USA has directed nearly $7 million in premium payments to improve tea-producing communities. It prohibits child and forced labor, but cannot provide a 100% guarantee.

Fair Trade Certified and Fairtrade America logos
Source: Just-food.com

Fairtrade America

Fairtrade America became the American affiliate to Fairtrade International in 2013. It focuses on a handful of food products, including tea. There is significant overlap between Fairtrade America’s standards and those of Fair Trade USA. Fairtrade tea farmers receive a minimum price that varies by location and production method as well as a premium for reinvestment in the farm.

Drinking Habits

The environmental impact of your afternoon tea doesn’t end with what you choose to buy. The biggest source of carbon emissions from the six billion cups of tea drunk each day is how you drink it. Because cattle production is so carbon intensive, you can eliminate two-thirds of your tea’s carbon emissions by eliminating milk.

The energy source for boiling water makes a difference, but more important is how much water you boil. Boiling more water than you need can double the climate impact.

Perhaps surprisingly, waste disposal is not a major factor in the impact of your tea. It’s still best to reuse tea bags where you can. But be warned that unless they are specifically labeled for composting, most “paper” tea bags contain up to 30% plastic. To avoid waste, loose-leaf tea is preferable.

Finally, the production of tea, like coffee, not only contributes to climate change, it is also threatened by climate change. So don’t stop at the cup – every action you take to reduce your carbon footprint makes the world a better place for tea.

Feature image by StockSnap from Pixabay 

By Gemma Alexander

Gemma Alexander has an M.S. in urban horticulture and a backyard filled with native plants. After working in a genetics laboratory and at a landfill, she now writes about the environment, the arts and family. See more of her writing here.