Unilever looks to secure sustainable future for tea

Multinational consumer goods firm Unilever has once again put sustainability at the heart of its research and development programme with the launch of a new project to develop natural tea varieties and secure international tea supply for the future.

With anticipated changes in the climate of the world’s key tea-producing regions, Unilever – which owns the global Lipton tea brand – wants to arrest any decline in tea crop diversity that could limit the crop’s ability to withstand drought, disease and pests. 

“This project is part of Unilever’s commitment to delivering real sustainability in the production and procurement of tea,” said Unilever’s senior vice president or R&D refreshment, Clive Gristwood.

“It is critical that we act now in developing tea varieties that can thrive in the face of the challenges of tomorrow. Using cutting-edge plant breeding, we hope to naturally meet growing global demand whilst ensuring tea can continue to provide vital economic benefits to communities that rely on the crop for their income.

The project, launched in partnership with Nature Source Genetics, will be initiated within Unilever’s tea gardens in Kenya, complementing the existing agronomy programme already housed there.By broadening the natural diversity of tea plants to enhance their productivity, quality and overall sustainability, Gristwood believes the project will help to maintain the supply of the world’s most popular beverage for generations to come.

“The ability to grow more tea on less land, reduce further the need for agrochemicals while boosting tolerance to drought and climate change are integral to this project and in line with our sustainable sourcing aims under the Unilever Sustainable Living Plan,” he added. “In doing so, this will directly benefit all those touched by our favourite beverage, from the small holders that grow it to those that enjoy the unique refreshment of tea.”

Technological innovation

By 2015, Unilever aims to have the tea in all Lipton tea bags sourced from Rainforest Alliance Certified estates. And by 2020, 100% of Unilever’s tea, including loose tea, will be sustainably sourced.

Sally Uren, Chief executive of UK sustainable development organisation Forum for the Future said: “Unilever understands that the future sustainability of the global tea sector isn’t guaranteed. Unilever also understands that a range of changes are needed to secure the future of tea, and acting alone won’t be enough. 

“That’s why it’s so encouraging to see Unilever drawing on its strong R&D capabilities to work with others in the sector to develop more sustainable tea varieties that will have a better chance of withstanding predicted changes in the climate of key tea-producing regions. Changes in agricultural practice alone are unlikely to secure the future of tea; technological innovation also has a key role to play.”

This is the latest in a line of initiatives and programmes Unilever has launched to improve its sustainability and reduce environmental impact. Earlier this month, the firm created the first soap bar using sustainable Algal Oils; last month, it announced that more than three-quarters of its global factory network no longer sends non-hazardous waste to landfill; and back in February it halved the size of its male deodorant brands to minimise their impact on the environment.

Luke Nicholls

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