I recently gave a presentation at the Northwest Tea Festival titled “How to Support Sustainability in Tea.” The hosts were gracious enough to lend the stage to me two times to give the presentation among several other legendary tea thought leaders such as James Norwood Pratt, Thomas Shu, Rajah Banerjee, and Nigel Melican. A good portion of each day’s presentations was dedicated to the topic of sustainability. Everyone is talking about sustainability but there is little understanding of what sustainability actually is for the tea industry and how it can be achieved. Through my travels in building Tealet’s direct trade network I have learned much about sustainability of tea. In this series of “What is Sustainability for Tea” articles I will explain the various components, effects, and solutions around the topic.

According to Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sustainable means “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” Applied to the tea industry it means that the industry will be able to continue to operate without being destroyed.

Tea is an agriculture product that is 100% reliant upon soil, water, and climate. Without the environment there will be no ability to produce tea.

Soil or dirt may seem like a worthless thing to most people reading this article, but it is the foundation of any tea plant. Good soil is particularly important and is composed of nutrients that feed the plant. Since the use of agricultural chemicals such as pesticides, herbicides, and fertilizers, the soil of tea gardens around the world has lost more and more value year after year. Farmers can make up for this loss in value by using more chemicals, but there is a limit to how long this can happen. When a soil has been completely depleted it is no longer a productive place to grow tea and much must be invested into the soil to restore it. While the soil is being restored no tea is able to be produced, making it unsustainable.

Water is also very important. More water can always be added to the equation, but it is more important that the land has the ability to retain the water, natural or added, so the tea plant has regular access to it. Monoculture tea planting, planting exclusively tea plants in an area of land after clearing all other vegetation such as trees and ground cover, has posed a tremendous threat because the soil around the tea plants loses its ability to retain water. The root structures of trees hold together soil and ground cover protects the water from evaporating from sunlight exposure. There are communities that have monoculture planted tea as a cash crop to optimize the economic opportunity that started out as a mountaintop wetland that have evolved to a dried out mountaintop within just a few decades. These communities not only have no water for their crops but also have to truck in water for their own drinking purposes. Without water tea production cannot be sustained.

The final major environmental factor that affects tea is climate. The temperature, rainfall, and humidity all affect how the plant grows and the produced tea after it has been harvested. In recent times, there have been great shifts in climate and the academic world has been concerned of the affects these shifts have on tea production. You can read about this research headed by Dr. Selena Ahmed which covers yields, market implications, knowledge exchange, and policy. One of the most immediate effects the market is seeing now is the inconsistent quality that yields from inconsistent rainfall. Increased rainfall may essentially dilute the quality of the tea leaves which ultimately will lower the market price the producer can get for their tea. The producer is already working on extremely small margins, so any reduction in the market price of their tea will jeopardize their ability to sustain their business and continue to produce tea.

There are several other components of the environmental sustainability of tea, but the ones explained above are the largest. In following articles of this series I will explain other components of the sustainability of tea and provide some guidance of how we can all do our part to support sustainability. Why does this matter to you? If there is no sustainability in tea, there is no tea…