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NEW YORK -- Unilever, the world's largest tea company, plans to source its entire tea supply sustainably, starting with the certification of its tea producers in East Africa, to Rainforest Alliance standards, the Rainforest Alliance here said.
The news also signals the Rainforest Alliance's move into certifying tea farms in addition to its long established programs in coffee, cocoa, bananas and other crops; sustainable forestry; and tourism.
"This decision will transform the tea industry, which has been suffering for many years from oversupply and underperformance," said Unilever c.e.o. Patrick Cescau. "It will not be achieved overnight, but we are committed to doing it because we believe it is the right thing to do for the people who drink our tea, the people along the entire length of our supply chain, and for our business."
Speaking at the launch of the new partnership, Rainforest Alliance executive director Tensie Whelan commended Unilever on its long-term commitment to sustainability. "By bringing Rainforest Alliance certification to its tea supply, Unilever has taken an unprecedented step that could eventually benefit millions of tea growers globally," Whelan said.
Rainforest Alliance certification is designed to offer a holistic approach -- treating environment, ethics, and economics equally, according to the group. To meet the standards, farmers must commit to continuous improvements in worker welfare, farm management, and environmental protection. Farmers learn how to improve their productivity and reduce costs by reducing pesticide use, eliminating waste, and introducing better farming techniques. Workers earn decent wages and have access to good housing, education, and healthcare. And the environment on which these farmers depend is protected.
The program of conversion starts immediately with Unilever's own tea estate in Kericho, Kenya, the first to be audited. Other tea farms in Kenya, Tanzania, Malawi, Indonesia, India, Argentina, and Sri Lanka will follow, with the potential of eventually improving the livelihoods of around 2 million people across three continents.
The focus on Africa also strengthens the Rainforest Alliance's growing presence on the continent. Already coffee farms in Ethiopia and cocoa and banana farms in Cote D'Ivoire are benefiting from Rainforest Alliance certification.
The first certified tea will be made available to restaurants and the catering trade in Europe from August 2007. It will be quickly followed by Lipton, the world's best-selling tea brand, and PG Tips, the UK's No.1 tea. The company aims to have all Lipton Yellow Label and PG Tips tea bags sold in Western Europe certified by 2010 and all Lipton tea bags sold globally by 2015.
One aim of the certification program is to enable growers to obtain higher prices for their tea, raising their incomes and enabling them to achieve a better quality of life and standard of living on a sustainable basis. Unilever expects that Rainforest Alliance Certified tea will command prices 10 to 15 percent higher than current average prices paid at auction and estimates that farmers will receive around $2.69 million more for their tea by 2010 and around $6.71 million more by 2015.
In 2007, the Rainforest Alliance has announced new partnerships with McDonald's UK (the first major UK retailer to source 100 percent Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee, 1.8 million pounds in 2007), Holiday Inn hotels in the US (1,000 hotels, 55,000 cups of Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee daily), Whole Foods (carrying Rainforest Alliance Certified coffee, bananas, and chocolate at Whole Foods Market stores throughout the U.S. and Canada), and Mars, Inc. (establishing best sustainability practices for West African cocoa growers).