• Revised TRA Standards Promote Tea Sustainability

    Growers worldwide adhere to the Tocklai Tea Research Institute’s Good Agricultural Practices (GAP) and Good Manufacturing Practices (GMP) standards. The standards, based on decades of research and development, date to the early 1900s, with frequent updates. The latest update, titled TRA-Tocklai GAP-GMP Standard, will be available January 2023. The revisions are necessary to help growers and manufacturers improve soils, protect natural ecosystems, encourage diversity, reduce greenhouse gas emissions, and establish a more climate-resilient tea industry, according to TRA. The new standards closely align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals.

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    Joydeep Phukan discusses revisions to TRA’s ag standards to improve tea sustainability
    Joydeep Phukan, the Principal Officer and Secretary of India’s Tea Research Association

    New Tea Policy Emphasizes Quality Evaluation

    India is seeking ways to improve tea quality. In January, the Tea Research Association (TRA) will implement a unified agricultural standard for tea fields and factories. Introduced in September, the revised standards align with the United Nation’s Sustainable Development Goals, explains Joydeep Phukan TRA’s Principal Officer and Secretary. He said that India’s tea sector is experiencing environmental and social changes that impact the livelihood of 10 million people, including 1.2 directly employed in the regulated tea gardens (RTG). Phukan has managed the research institute for the past 16 years. Before that, he was Assistant Secretary of the Indian Tea Association and Asst. Secretary at the Guwahati Tea Auction Center. He graduated with a degree in History and has a master’s in Management studies.

    Dan Bolton: Will you share some details about TRA’s new ag standards?

    Joydeep Phukan: Certainly. Tocklai is in its 111th year of non-stop operations. Over the years, we have come out with many different agricultural and manufacturing advisories, which have become the standard for the tea industry in India, and elsewhere.

    It’s two-way traffic. We learn from the practical problems faced by the industry in the field through our vast advisory network spread out in nine Indian states, our scientists work on that, and then we come out with solutions to the industry. These advisories are documented in the TRA Field Management Book, TRA Planters Handbook, and the Tea Encyclopaedia of TRA

    Since the advisories were spread out and extensive, we considered summarizing them into a few chapters to create a Bible for the industry. We began by collating the pillars of our advisories and condensed them into seven chapters aligned to the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals covering 2, 4, 13, and 15 of the SDGs

    Tocklai’s Good Agricultural Practices GAP and GMP are based on hardcore research on tea done by our scientists over the last 111 years. We added a few more chapters primarily to address the industry’s sustainability issues.

    GAP is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we will add on things and discard what is no longer beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.

    “This is a dynamic document; as we go ahead, we add on things and discard which are not beneficial. We are doing it through a consultative process with the industry. A standards committee within our organization reviews our standards from time to time.”

    Joydeep Phukan

    Dan: How do these standards differ from third-party certification by organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance, which introduced a new sustainable ag standard in June 2020?

    Joydeep: The main difference between our standards and those developed by third-party certifiers is that our standards are backed by scientific research carried out by our scientists. There is scientific evidence for every practical recommendation that works well in the tea industry.

    Sustainability has been a buzzword for the last 25 years. When you look at the Indian tea industry, you see that we at TRA Tocklai have been researching and publishing advisories to make tea more sustainable for more than a hundred years.

    Third-party certifiers bring in many things which are not based on their own work and or scientifically backed. Many certifications use a fit-all model where tea is put in the same basket as other commodities. 

    Initially, we are concentrating on the TRA GAP GMP standards for the regulated sector in India, but gradually we will include advisories specific to small growers so that there is one standard for the industry. Assam’s Government has mandated TRA Tocklai to provide R&D support to more than 200,000 smallholders in Assam.

    The Central Research Facility, occasionally referred to as the New Research Building, was constructed in the year 1999. It houses the major research departments of Biochemistry, Plant Physiology & Breeding, Biotechnology, Soils, Entomology and Mycology & Microbiology.
    The Central Research Facility, which opened in 1999, houses the major research departments of Biochemistry, Plant Physiology & Breeding, Biotechnology, Soils, Entomology, Mycology & Microbiology. Photo courtesy TRA.

    Dan: When farms and factories adhere to these standards, are they recognized for their effort? Do they receive a certificate attesting to the fact they adhere to TRA’s best practices?

    Joydeep: Yes. Our advisory network is spread out across Northeast India. They visit every TRA member’s gardens twice a year. They have to review each aspect of their operations against these standards. Once they are fulfilled, the gardens will be certified annually and receive a certificate for adherence to the adoption of best practices. There is no additional cost for the TRA members.

    Member estates of TRA comprise almost 90% of the organized sector in North India, covering nine Indian states in East and Northeast India.

    Dan: After inspections are completed, do growers and manufacturers receive a report indicating what they’ve achieved and what improvements to focus on?

    Joydeep: Yes. They will receive a report indicating how they have fared vis-à-vis the standards. If there are shortcomings, we will help them improve the estate’s compliance with the standards. Most of our members implement the TRA recommendations, and some go beyond, by implementing new ideas. We also plan to share the best practices followed by certain estates/companies within the code if the concerned company agrees to share the same.

    Dan: Gardens that conform to various standards may tick the boxes and demonstrate lowered emissions, but standards alone do not ensure better tasting tea. Will you discuss the importance of teaching growers how to improve the quality of their pluck and the fundamentals of manufacturing good tea?

    Joydeep: That’s a very good question. It is not enough to lay standards and certify them on paper. We must walk the talk to teach our members better plucking and manufacturing. Although the perception of quality differs, the basic standards of plucking and manufacturing must be maintained. At TRA we have organized hundreds of onsite workshops for small tea growers on good plucking standards. Parallelly, we are aggressively organizing cold weather and early weather workshops for all our member estates on the care they should take for better plucking standards. 

    TRA has a dedicated tea manufacturing advisory service. The TMAS team which consists of a biochemist, a tea taster, and a tea technologist will hand-hold tea makers in tea factories and train them on quality manufacturing. Apart from our model tea factory at Tocklai, we are coming up with another model tea factory at Nagrakata in Dooars for gardens to experiment with quality tea manufacturing. We are also considering training estates on Orthodox tea making which should see good demand amongst our industry.

    Soil plays a significant role in long-term sustainability, and the method of regenerative agriculture developed by TRA will go a long way in addressing soil health issues at a much lower cost.

    Tocklai Tea Directorate

    Dan: Truly sustainable production is profitable, which, due to today’s costs, demands the additional revenue generated by value-added tea, right? Will you talk about how India can add value to generate more revenue?

    Joydeep: Tea is a commercial business for everyone in the organized sector, including the small grower. To produce truly sustainable tea, you must be economically sustainable. Ultimately if the venture is not commercially sound, no one will invest the money to make a plantation sustainable.

    Indian tea is sold mainly as a commodity; accordingly, as each commodity has its own cycles, it also has its ups and downs. It’s high time tea producers see merit in their produce and market directly as a brand. Today we have many channels to sell our products and many consumers. The pandemic was a blessing in disguise, and many tea companies tried out their own selling and distribution platforms. We need to scale this up fast to have visibility across the digital platform.

    However, with all efforts, if we can’t increase tea consumption, these measures will not bear fruit. Attracting millennials and GenZ to drink more tea is crucial. The tea industry needs to have a well-thought-out plan and execute it meticulously to attract them.

    Interestingly, the young generation, whom we target to drink more tea, are conscious of the environment and like to experiment. They have a strong digital footprint. We from the industry need to act together to position our product with the right message. The young generation surely will pick up the threads and make tea their preferred drink. If the new generation feels for a cause or a product, money is not an issue for them. So that’s how we can get our value from the tea.

    Download: Tea Research Association Vision 2030

    Tocklai Tea Research Institute

    Tocklai Small Tea Growers Training & Research Centre, Jorhat, Assam

    Good Agriculture Practices (GAP)

    Agrotechnology developed by Tocklai is primarily based on GAP principles and implemented through a strong network that provides advisory services. The network covers all of Northeastern India. One area of research is optimizing process parameters for black tea processing. ECM (Environmentally Controlled Manufacturing) and Model tea manufacturing enable tea processors to achieve ECM objectives. Fertilizers are checked for the presence of hazardous substances before application, and recommended pesticides are sprayed on tea bushes to ensure that no pesticide exceeds the permissible limit of MRL (maximum residue levels). Meeting the regulatory requirements in domestic as well as global markets under Sanitation and Phytosanitation (SPS) measures under WTO are one of the challenges to be dealt with appropriately in the coming years. TRA research efforts need to be continuously focused on ensuring quality at the farm gate. Research data is regularly updated to help develop quality standards for conformance.

    Assam’s Proposed Tea Policy

    Assam’s chief minister has proposed financing several activities to further develop the tea industry in terms of quality, and valuation, not only in tea but other by-products like tourism. Group A initiatives offer incentives for all gardens. Group B initiatives are exclusively for small growers. Together they will help establish brand identity for the state.

    Similarly, the central government of India is also promoting quality, product diversification, and market access. These initiatives require substantial money to be allocated both by the state government and the central government.

    The focus is on quality evaluation and new markets, a combination that will re-energize the sector and make it sustainable.

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  • Wild Orchard Regenerative Organic Teas

    Michael D. Ham, co-founder and president of Wild Orchard Regenerative Teas, describes in detail the chemical-free cultivation and multiple washings during the processing of the company’s award-winning teas. Ham explains that regenerative organic practices rehabilitate soil, capture carbon to help reverse climate change and result in a clean, authentic taste as nature intended.

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    Michael D. Ham describes the benefits of regenerative organic cultivation
    Cultivation takes into account health, biodiversity, and rehabilitation of the local ecosystem

    Wild Orchard is the First Regenerative Organic Certified Tea

    Jeju Island lies 130 kilometers off the southern coast of South Korea in the Korea Strait. Dormant for the past 5,000 years, Hallasan Mountain is a 1,950-meter volcanic wonderland of craters, cinder cones, and giant lava tubes that dominates the densely foliated island. Popular with tourists for its national park and scenic beaches, the island is also known for its tea.

    Wild Orchard sources all its tea from the 1000-acre MJS Tea Farm where the first of two million trees were planted in 1999. The nutrient-dense soil, gentle mists, and abundant wildlife led growers to plant tea seeds on hillsides that were not terraced or cleared of native plants. Irrigation is solely by rainfall. No fertilizers, pesticides, or herbicides are applied, and the soil is never tilled. The farm was certified organic in 2007, and the Wild Orchard brand was established in 2019. In May of this year, the brand became the world’s first Regenerative Organic Certified tea. It was selected by Noma, the World’s Best Restaurant, to be served on their NYC menu and will soon be available for sale at the Rare Tea Counter at Fortnum & Mason tea shop in London.

    Michael D. Ham: Our farm was established in 1999. At that time they didn’t know the term regenerative they just had the vision and mindset to create the cleanest, purest teas on a volcanic island that they felt was ideal for growing teas. So, they wanted to allow nature to do its work.

    They didn’t want to put any manmade inputs. So, to this day, no herbicides, no pesticides. No fertilizer, everything has been done through nature, all the irrigation is done purely by rainfall. And it’s really a testament to the philosophy that our teas were able to obtain Regenerative Organic Certification earlier this year, the first Camellia sinensis tea to have obtained that aspirational certification.

    We are living in a vastly different world than tea has grown in for centuries. Specifically, the demarcation line is the Industrial Revolution. With the advent of machinery, and fossil fuels. Today we’re living in a world where there’s massive pollution in our water table and in the air. And as you mentioned, tea is a bio remediator it absorbs a lot from its surroundings both under the earth in the soil and above ground. And so to be able to create a clean environment, for the teas results in a more authentic pure tea. That’s the philosophy that our farm has to be able to grow tea and living soil, greater nutrient density, more antioxidants, but also flavor and have that move all the way into the cup for the consumer to taste that its purest form. That’s really what regenerative is about in terms of the authenticity of tea.

    Sunrise over 6,397-foot Hallasan Mountain

    Dan: Tea readily adapts to its environment. If that environment has high amounts of lead in the atmosphere, toxins in the water, and a climate where the plants are alternately parched or flooded, the finished tea will reflect that in the cup. At Wild Orchard, tea coexists with other plants, which is not idyllic as plants must fight off pests and disease and struggle to establish a root system to deliver essential nutrients and minerals. Will you share with listeners some other aspects of regenerative cultivation?

    Michael: What makes our teas distinctive from a regenerative perspective is that we set the highest standards throughout the entire process of planting, growing, and producing our teas with the understanding that we are working under the providence of nature, which is key. We first plant by seed which results in a rootstock that goes deeper into the soil and enables the pulling in of more nutrients for a healthier tea leaf. Second, we do not till the land keeping the surface covered naturally to protect the soil ecosystem. This allows the microbiome in the soil to thrive which further elevates the quality of the tea. This is a key element of farming regeneratively. Third, we harvest only the minimum amount necessary, returning any byproducts to the ground to improve soil fertility, without the need for artificial fertilizers. It is all-natural, which again elevates the quality of the tea. Fourth, we do not apply any chemicals to the ground whatsoever. No pesticides, no herbicides, fertilizer, etc. We allow only nature to grow our teas – the sun, the wind, the rain, and living soil. So it’s very simple, but it’s very painstaking in the beginning to get to that stage. Lastly, we hand harvest our teas and we process them with the greatest care to deliver the highest quality teas to our customers.

    Dan: What techniques and technology do you rely on to make prize-winning teas?

    Michael: So, there are so many things that go into producing prize-winning teas, but if I had to choose one specific technique or method, I think that it would be that we wash our tea leaves four times, and not just with regular tap water. So we keep any equipment that comes into contact with the tea leaves clean. And our farmers are very conscientious about hygiene. So this might be the most basic of basics. But I think this is an extraordinary process that we have, I don’t know anyone else in the world that does this. And, of course, techniques and know-how regarding the various stages of processing tea need to be performed at a high level. But with first principles in mind that tea leaves need to be clean first and foremost, in order for the pure aroma of the tea leaves to reach the cup. And I think this mindset and vision for more farmers to grow teas, as nature has intended, and allow people to drink tea that tastes the way it should inherently, has led to Wild Orchard being honored with 15 awards at the top global tea competitions it’s an ode to the farmers and their vision just to let nature have the biggest impact in growing the teas.

    Dan: Can you really taste the difference?

    Michael: You definitely can taste it. I believe that judges can taste the authenticity of the tea, the way that tea should be tasted inherently. The best way to explain why that’s the case is because when you farm teas regeneratively, you are growing it in living soil, it’s pulling in more nutrients.

    Because the ecosystem is so clean with the biodynamic functioning of animals with the teas with the agroforestry component, everything is working in concert to elevate the quality of the tea. As you said, in monocultures, you’re just focusing on one. So it’s very, very limited in the ability to provide a tea leaf that’s optimal to the way that it should be grown the way it has been grown for thousands of years. So, when you taste conventionally grown tea, you will definitely taste elements of toxins, pesticides, and all these chemicals that should not be in or on the tea leaf. When it’s done regeneratively, you’re getting the most out of that tea leaf without any manmade elements.

    Dan: What did the International Tea Academy competition judges say about the winning teas?

    Michael: Well, we won Leafies in three categories. The green pan-fired was our first flush green tea. The judges described the aesthetics of the leaf before brew, after brew, the aroma and when they look at the taste, they really liked the authentic green tea taste.

    All of these regenerative elements in terms of growing the leaf and making sure that that core element of the Camellia sinensis non oxidized into the green leaf could come out in that taste. I think that’s really what did it the other two categories were our green tea scented tea, and are blended tea and those mix the green tea with fruit notes and things like oranges, lemons, strawberry fruit notes, and that’s a different type of tea. But once again, it adds another element and so the judges were also looking at similar characteristics, how it looked before brew after brew, and then the taste. So I think the regenerative way of farming tastes much more cleanly and purely, and that’s what the judges appreciated.

    Dan: What are the long-term prospects for regenerative-certified tea?

    Michael: Our regenerative certification is by the Regenerative Organic Alliance that was founded by the Rodale Institute. Many well known premium organic brands like Dr. Bronner’s and nature’s path. And so there’s a lot of weight or reputation behind this certification. They pretty much set the highest standards for soil health, animal welfare and farmworker fairness. Those are the three major components and you have to go through a robust auditing process took us two years to obtain and they spent about three, four days on our farm and auditor going through many, many elements through those three core pillars. And only when you achieve a base amount, can you qualify for Regenerative Organic Certification, and they have the bronze silver and gold level. So depending on how much you achieve in that audit and what standards you’ve you’ve achieved, you get these different levels of certification. But now, more and more brands if you go to the supermarket, you’re gonna start to see more regenerative out there. And it’s really the way I put it simply as it’s it goes beyond this simple organic certification because you’re focusing on the soil. You’re there’s also the animal component, a welfare component and the farm worker fairness so it’s really holistic. And it gives the consumer an idea that wow, this product went through extra lengths to provide or produce a product that is not only good for me but for the environment.

    Jeju Island

    So shifting the topic from price-winning teas to climate-smart teas. Recently, you reported on it, but well-respected tea brands such as Tazo and traditional Medicinals have stated that they are also committing to transitioning their portfolios to regenerative why is this important?

    There’s clearly an opportunity to make impact at scale. Studies show that regenerative farms are three to six times more profitable than conventional and the market for Regenerative products all be it in early stages now, continues to gain interest and grow. So if our industry starts to shift from conventional to regenerative, as we’re seeing in other sectors, we can have a tremendous impact on addressing global health and climate crisis. Regenerative practices will allow tea farms to be more resilient and protect smallholder tea farmers amidst the growing climate changes. So what’s the yield issue? Just this summer, you reported China’s extreme heat and its effect on tea farms. But if they had regenerative baked into their operations, they would have been more resilient and they would have had more yield. So in terms of the yield, you have to look at it in the context of today’s climate challenges and regenerative will allow the farmers not only to create a higher quality product or tea, they will be able to future-proof as much as possible, to the extent that they’re farming regeneratively to fight off against all of these floods and heat and all these climate issues that we’re facing on an ever-growing, you know, track each year.

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  • A Stake for Every Stakeholder in Tea

    “We changed one word in our charter to include every farmer supplying even a kilo of leaf to us. We decided that as a Public Benefit Corporation we are not only responsible for creating value for company shareholders but will also create value for all stakeholders. One percent of our top-line revenue goes directly to the farmers.” ??? Nishchal Banskota

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    Nishchal Banskota discusses how the Nepal Tea Collective benefits all tea stakeholders
    Omnichannel Marketing Strategy

    QR Codes Make Tea Easily Traceable by Consumers

    In 2015 after graduating college in the US, Nischal, who grew up near Ilam farming Nepal’s first certified organic tea garden, returned to open the BG Tea Bar, the first tea bar in Kathmandu. A year later, following a devastating 7.8 magnitude earthquake, he launched Nepal Tea, which has since grown in sales and reputation. Banskota says that he is committed to creating tech-enabled, transparently traded tea. His venture produces award-winning Himalayan teas, sustainably sourced and packaged, bringing jobs to the tea lands that pay double the prevailing wage. Teas are shipped directly to customers worldwide. Every hand-made package is labeled with a QR code that enables buyers to meet the growers at one of three farms. The omnichannel business earns high gross margins selling wholesale and packaged tea. One percent of revenue is reinvested in farming communities, and a tea sapling is planted for every order (10,000 in 2022). Banskota is currently seeking investors on WeFunder with a goal of $600,000. The money will be used to extend the brand to include organic botanicals, make the company’s supply chain more sustainable and construct infrastructure for visiting tea tourists. A three-year goal is to build a modern packaging and fulfillment center in Nepal. The campaign is nearing $200,000. The minimum investment is $250.

    In January 2022 we decided a crucial step towards our bigger mission in the tea industry was to covert our company to a public benefit corporation.

    Day one, when I started the company, it was much more than a money-making business it was a lot more about impact and how we can really help the producers, the farmers who are almost invisible to the consumers.

    My personal goal is to get 1 million farmers out of poverty within their generation and within my lifetime. So, I’m 30 now, and hopefully have enough years in my life to be able to get to that number.

    In the new charter we said we’re not only going to be responsible for creating value for the shareholders, we will also look forward to creating value for all stakeholders. So, we literally changed one word to include every single farmer supplying even a kilo of leaf to us. We then took our mission one step further, to put it into actionable terms so 1% of our top line revenue is directly going to the farmers themselves.

    I know; it’s a very small amount but that gesture will help all the people who supply teas to us to understand that they are not just suppliers, they’re partners in the business. The more we sell, the more we more they get. And the more they get, the more they are going to invest in creating better products. So we’re going to buy it at a better price and sell even more tea. At the end of the day, it establishes a cycle where they create value for us, and we create value for them. This leads to really sustainable relationships with the producers and consumers.

    We want to set the standard high and be accountable. Every single year, we’re going to publish on our website what we did, how we did it, and exactly what that impact was. So everything is going to be completely transparent, and traceable. We are making our lives difficult, in a way. We are doing all of this because we believe the tea industry has not been too fair to the producers and the farmers. And we want to change that.

    Dan: Nishchal, you were born in Nepal, and you’ve lived and worked on a tea farm for much of your life. Will you tell our listeners why Nepal is such a great place to grow tea?

    Nishchal: Nepal itself is the country of the Himalayas. The geography where the tea grows has a microclimate that is absolutely suitable for the production of high-quality teas. The winds blow down from the mountains and moist air from the Bay of Bengal creates a very volatile environment in which the tea plants really thrive. The variations in temperature make Nepal a very nice environment for the tea plants to generate rich flavors, and it’s not just that the tea plants are much younger, which also helps to create the distinct flavors for the teas that are grown in Nepal.

    One of the most interesting things that I have found is the passion of the tea maker — and the tea makers are young. When you think about tea makers, you think about years and decades of experience and all of that but one thing which is quite different in Nepal is that the tea makers are super young. In fact, the tea maker at our family farm is 22 years old. He’s one of the youngest tea makers in Nepal, and is not at all hesitant to experiment with what can be done to these leaves.

    They’re experimenting with a lot of different types of leaves, a testament to their commitment to quality are the awards these teas has been winning in many parts of the world. In fact, just yesterday, six of our teas, which were all made by these young tea makers won awards in the 5th AVPA Teas of the World contest. So there were six awards that were won by our geography.

    All in all the climate and pristine environment is ideal for the production of tea. These tea farmers all busy taking care of these tea bushes, just as they would their child. It is the young tea makers who are experimenting with the best way to create high quality teas aided by the fact that in Nepal the organic way of cultivation has been in place for many years.

    Dan: To realize your vision will take additional resources from outside investors, and ultimately, it will take an organization that is more capable of delivering results at scale, far more so than during the initial startup phase. You’ve done remarkable work over the last six years. Describe why it makes sense to bring additional investors on board. Will you also explain the funding mechanism so that others can help you to realize your vision?

    Nishchal: When my father started the first organic tea garden in Nepal, it was unheard of to use backyard kitchen gardens to grow commercial crops but slowly, slowly, a lot of people picked it up. Today, a combination of cash crops and food for the family are thought of as the ideal model, one that has completely transformed the community.

    I want to replicate that model as it is favorable for the whole country of smallholder farmers. It is will take a lot of investment, a lot of expertise, and a lot of young energy, to fulfill the dream of the collective.

    One of the easiest ways we have found to bring consumers together is to introduce consumers to the producers. What we have done is to connect consumers all around the world, inviting them to become investors to advance our dream.

    The Nepal Tea Collective is opening investments in the company worldwide. We chose an equity crowdfunding model to raise funds. To learn more visit WeFunder.com/nepalteacollective. Individuals can invest as little as $250.

    Our goal is to construct a fulfillment center in the southern part of the country, and be able to collect many different teas from many different geographies, on the hilly areas, and plateaus. The fulfillment center and warehouse will consolidate tea from many growers, store it properly, package it and generate employment and attract foreign revenue for the country. Modern fulfillment will enable growers to leverage the logistics through Amazon and Shopify to sell globally and create an identity for Nepal and Nepali teas

    I envision anybody living anywhere in the world can just go to our website and be able to order keys directly from the source and know where that is coming from, when was it plucked, and how it was made, who are the people behind these teas, and all of that kind of stuff.

    We want tea companies, we want tea lovers, we want anybody who drinks tea to become a part of this.

    We are already starting talks with people who want to see the impact on the ground. So, impact funds or non-governmental agencies, when all of us come together that’s when the beauty begins and really creates value for not just the tea industry. This would be a model for all the agricultural products coming out of the country.

    We’re setting stringent ambitions. We’re looking for at least 80% of our ingredient volume to meet regenerative organic standards by 2029. The remaining 20% are things like citric acid that aren’t necessarily covered by those standards at this time.

    Finally, and most importantly, we are working with our sustainability consulting firm, Pure Strategies, to measure this progress step by step. And we will be keeping our community updated on milestones, through our website and through our social pages.

    So, we know we owe those answers to our consumers.

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    Stories of all the wonderful people in the tea world. DM us so that we can feature you too!
    Curated by @nepalteacollective

    Humans of Tea

    Nishchal Banskota recently started a humans.of.tea page on Instagram to shed light on the people in tea, especially the farmers. “We bring their stories to bring to light. Please do send us a message if you’d like to get featured,” he says.

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  • TAZO Adopts Regenerative Business Approach

    Sustainability: it’s great in theory, but things like recycling and composting only get us so far in helping the earth. We should (and can) do a lot more. Going regenerative means improving every aspect of TAZO’s business: from how we make our tea to ensuring that our farming partners get the fair wages and treatment they deserve. TAZO reformulated and relaunched four of its leading blends this summer. TAZO’s long-term ambition is to transform its products and the brand’s entire business operations into a regenerative approach that challenges what the tea industry can do and gives back to people and the planet.” — TAZO

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    Jami Lewchik discusses TAZO’s new regenerative approach to business.
    Jami Lewchik, Head of TAZO and Portfolio Sustainability, ekaterra Americas

    Regenerative: Tea Supply Chain Reimagined

    In releasing four new TAZO Regenerative products, parent tea company ekaterra committed to a sizeable long-term investment in its tea supply chain. Jami Lewchik who manages the sustainability portfolio for ekaterra Americas, said the intent is to support farmers, encouraging them to implement practices to increase soil health and assure fairness to farm workers. Third-party certifier Regenerative Organic Alliance (ROA) praises ekaterra for “aligning with our mission: to heal a broken system, repair a damaged planet, and empower farmers and eaters to create a better future through regenerative organic agriculture.”

    Dan Bolton: Jami, will you describe how TAZO’s decision to adopt a regenerative business approach expands on the basic concept of fair trade and sourcing from organic and sustainable suppliers?

    Jami Lewchik: Fair Trade and sustainability, of course, are two critical pillars supporting what we’re trying to do. And we’re looking through the lens of regenerative to say, ‘how can we start there?’ and then go further, to get to a place where we’re actually giving back to people and the planet?

    What else will it take to improve the way that tea is grown? And that’s where we layered in the regenerative practices and principles.

    Fundamentally, from the perspective of the agriculture, we are looking at things such as pollinator pathways for protecting biodiversity, and protecting waterways that may be on the land or adjacent land, ensuring those are cared for.

    Many people, I think, are familiar with organic practices and principles, and are now interested in learning more about regenerative but for us, it also goes beyond the land. We’re trying to focus on some key levers to deliver this regenerative ambition. We’re looking at procurement. We’re looking at partnerships, and we’re looking at innovation.

    Procurement is where it becomes very interesting, and I think has real implications across the industry, potentially. Packaging materials is another example. We have a commitment that by 2023 will ensure our priority materials like tree fiber, sugar, and tea are sourced from suppliers that have eliminated any deforestation from their supply chains. And by 2025, we are striving to make 100% of our packaging reusable, recyclable, or compostable.

    Building resilient communities is one of the first principles, and to address on-the-ground challenges with these experts and partnerships that already exist but are looking for more support from corporate partners like us.

    Dan: The initial reformulations begin a long process of achieving third-party certification by the Regenerative Organic Alliance for the full range of TAZO tea. Will you describe the process and milestones?

    Jami: We have been working towards this for more than two years. We started by partnering with Pure Strategies, [a consultancy based in Massachusetts] which is our environmental consulting firm. And they helped us do an audit of our existing footprint, first from a product lens, but also from a business and social lens. So, we knew where we were. And then we said where we wanted to go.

    We were hoping to find a third party, an independent certification, that would reassure people that there was transparency and that we weren’t grading our own homework. That’s when we first learned of the Regenerative Organic Alliance. We are a proud ally of ROA, but we are not yet certified by them. I do want to make that clear. We are working towards their standards. We understand their framework. And that’s where we brought in the elements of the regenerative practices and principles at farms, and Fair Trade USA and the USDA’s National Organic Program certification as well.

    Dan: Marketing should simplify decision-making, and while third-party certifications are powerful endorsements that build trust, labels crowded with too many certification emblems and seals are confusing and dilute the significance of individual claims. In contrast, TAZO’s rebranding incorporates regenerative in the name and displays only two seals on the front of the package. Messaging emphasizes three tea growing principles: organic, conservation, and fair trade.

    Jami: It’s a great point, there’s such a world of information out there — and misinformation out there, unfortunately. Right? I’ll use Fair Trade USA as one example. When you see [the certification emblem it represents] the work that’s being done to ensure responsible farming practices and safe, healthy working conditions on the farms, things like gender equity and community development funds to address local needs, and that the farmers and the workers themselves are voting on what those funds are going to be used for. I think there are such rich, informational, educational materials at each of the partners, websites on their social pages, on their LinkedIn. I think that whether it’s the Rodale Institute, the Regenerative Organic Alliance, or Fair Trade USA, these entities are doing a great job of collecting important bits of information for consumers.

    It’s my job as a brand owner to then say, ‘here is that information. Here’s why this is important. We’re putting it all together in a box, a literal box for you to enjoy our TAZO tea.’ And so, we feature some of their stories on our website, or in our social conversations on Instagram, for example, or TikTok trying to meet our consumers where they are, where they might be looking for information, and then make that available to them.

    TAZO is going regenerative and 1 view = $1 towards fighting the climate crisis. EVERY VIEW is a $1 donation to the #RodaleInstitute, a non-profit and global leader in regenerative organic agriculture for 70+ years

    – TikTok reel

    Dan: Reports of climate disasters that put tea in harm’s way increased this summer globally, with droughts, floods, and extreme heat in China all impacting yields and tea quality. Will you talk about aspirational aspects of the brand, such as challenging the status quo?

    Jami: I want to take a moment to acknowledge especially the situation that’s still unfolding in Pakistan and India. TAZO is an ekaterra brand and this is something that’s near and dear and painful to our hearts, and we are working with the communities on the ground there to ensure that these unprecedented humanitarian issues are being addressed.

    Editor’s Note: In September ekaterra donated 100 metric tons of tea, enough for one million flood affected families in Pakistan.

    We have responsibility here in the US as well. TAZO is a US born brand. We are calling attention to the climate crisis and how it disproportionately impacts our communities even beyond the tea growing community.

    TAZO is partnering with American Forests, a nonprofit that goes back to the 1800s, that is challenging the status quo in a very real and meaningful way with urban forestry and restoring the urban tree canopy. They’re restoring some of the beautiful things that trees give to neighborhoods that have been taken away from communities of color in inner city neighborhoods. Trees contribute to better mental health, better air quality and lower, lower heating and cooling bills — in general, a better quality of life can directly be linked to the amount of trees in your community. We are in five cities, working with Davy Tree certified arborists to recruit and train people in these communities not just to plant a tree and walk away, but to care for it.

    TAZO is a member of 1% for the Planet, which means that 1% of TAZO’s sales go directly to non-profit partners who are all working to further our regenerative ambition – including The Recycling PartnershipRodale InstituteRegenerative Organic AllianceAmerican ForestsWE ACT For Environmental Justice and Intersectional Environmentalist.

    TAZO reformulated ZEN™, Awake® English Breakfast, Chai, and Darjeeling are branded “regenerative” as will every other future new teabag product. These first TAZO Regenerative blends are USDA Organic Certified, made with Fair Trade USA Certified™ ingredients, made with Rainforest Alliance Certified teas, and are made with ingredients grown with verified regenerative organic agriculture practices that help conserve nature and protect biodiversity. )

    Dan: Earlier this year, the NewClimate Institute issued a report critical of companies trumpeting “ambitious sounding” carbon goals. Nestle and Unilever offered rebuttals. Last month, the UK’s Advertising Standards Authority banned advertising a popular Unilever detergent for unsupported claims about its sustainability. Listeners will find it helpful in your role as head of sustainability if you share insights about consumers’ expectations.

    Jami: It’s a very important question. And I think the answers might be something that the consumer has never thought of. In my opinion, consumers are looking for is transparency, and some sort of reliability and reassurance that what the company is promising is true.

    I will say for us, we see that businesses must play a role in addressing climate change, because we played such a large role in creating it. Companies, throughout the tea industry, all need to step up and reduce our contributions to greenhouse gas, and address the full climate impact that we’ve created. To make sure that this is done in in a way that is impactful, and measurable, and authentic, and transparent, we think targets for greenhouse gas emissions should be science based [Science Based Targets, initiative]. Validation of science based targets (SBTi) is critical.

    At TAZO, our goal is to achieve carbon neutral operations by 2026. And to be on the path to science based net zero emissions, including a 45% absolute reduction of scopes, one, two, and three greenhouse gas emissions by 2030 (our base year is 2020 in that calculation). So that’s first and foremost, I believe that SBTi, the Science Based Targets initiative has built a program, a framework, essentially, that the industry could and should leverage in order to reassure consumers and in order to actually make measurable change.

    TAZO is working on our full climate impact by completely overhauling our means of production and transitioning to regenerative organic, as we talked about at the top of the call. So, this is encompassing everything from soil health to worker fairness. You know, we’re a proud ally of the ROA and the Rodale Institute in this space.

    We are putting our money where our mouth is. I mentioned how farmers are making real life choices every day on how to address the impacts of climate change on their land. So right now, we are we are raising funds towards the Rodale Institute up to $250,000 to give to them to support farmers who are looking to transition to organic farming. And we are doing that in a, hopefully a cheeky and fun way with a TikTok ad.

    We didn’t spend a lot of money to buy media, we didn’t buy TV, we didn’t buy print. We went without paid media, hoping that people would talk about it and generate views. Instead of spending that money on media we’re saying that for each view, it’s $1 donated to the Rodale Institute up to $250,000.

    Because by starting a conversation, people start to discuss: What is regenerative agriculture? Why is it important? What are regenerative business practices? Why is fair trade important?

    We want to build momentum, we want the conversation to keep going and for consumers to learn more about it, to ask for more of it to drive that sort of flywheel, that virtuous cycle of growth, where the demand increases, where more people want Fair Trade certification. So more farmers and communities are earn Fair Trade certification and earn Fair Trade money.. This is why we’re gonna transition our entire range to be regenerative organic.

    We’re setting stringent ambitions. We’re looking for at least 80% of our ingredient volume to meet regenerative organic standards by 2029. The remaining 20% are things like citric acid that aren’t necessarily covered by those standards at this moment in time.

    Finally, and most importantly, we are working with our sustainability consulting firm, Pure Strategies, to measure this progress step by step. And we will be keeping our community updated on milestones, through our website and through our social pages.

    So, we know we owe those answers to our consumers.

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  • Q|A John Davison

    In November Luxemburg-based private equity firm CVC Capital Partners, with investments totaling more than $100 billion, out-bid several competitors to acquire Unilever’s tea portfolio, re-branded as ekaterra tea. Lipton Yellow Label, Brooke Bond, Lyons, PG Tips, and 30 more tea brands, many regional, have a combined turnover of $2.3 billion (€2 billion). The agreement is subject to regulatory review and will not close for several months, but there is no time to waste as CEO John Davison takes on the task of re-energizing the largest tea company in the world.

    • Caption: John Davison was the only passenger on the plane from Singapore to Judah, Saudi Arabia
    Hear the interview
    Ekaterra tea CEO John Davison

    “I’m much more of a grower than a cutter,” says ekaterra tea CEO John Davison

    Re-energizing the World’s Largest Tea Company

    By Dan Bolton

    The Singapore sun is high and the room alabaster bright when ekaterra tea CEO John Davison answers the Zoom call. It is the dark of night and snowing heavily outside my Winnipeg window in central Canada. Davison, 58, is energized. Singapore was quick to instituted mass lockdowns in early 2020, becoming one of Asia’s most stringent COVID-zero economies, largely sealing off its borders, and testing. After 18 months of isolation Davison has just returned from the COP26 Glasgow Climate Summit in Scotland and would soon depart for Judah, Saudi Arabia and to visit the company’s massive tea packaging operation in Jebal Ali, near Dubai, UAE.

    In March 2021 Davison was named to oversee a “carve-out” of the least desirable tea brands from the Unilever portfolio. Unilever CEO Alan Jope announced in January 2021 that the company would jettison underperforming legacy brands Lipton, PG Tips, Lyons, Brooke Bond, Red Rose ? all black tea stalwarts acquired in the 1980s and 1990s ? along with more recently acquired and fiscally promising T2 retail in Australia, TAZO, an American packaged good brand formerly owned by Starbucks, and Pukka, a fast-growing herbal tea brand founded in 2001 in a home kitchen in Bristol.

    Davison spent his first nine months at Unilever reorganizing billions in assets including 11 factories across four continents that employ 4,000 workers doing business in more than 100 countries. A big portion of Unilever’s suppliers and partners will transition to ekaterra at the close of the sale. Ekaterra will operate company owned tea estates in Kenya, Rwanda, and Tanzania and contract with thousands providing a livelihood for one million people.

    Davison, a Harvard Business School Graduate with a master’s from the University of Cambridge, spent five years at Diago as a strategy director during the merger with Guinness and worked for 11 years as a senior executive with Danone. His last job was managing the Asian division of Zuellig Pharma, a $13 billion global leader in pharmaceutical distribution. After leading a turnaround that he initiated in 2014, Davison spent the first year and a half of the pandemic focused exclusively on resolving formidable distribution challenges brought by COVID-19.

    Unilever, ranked 175 on the Fortune 500 with 400 brands and turnover of $58 billion, kept its most profitable and fast-growth tea gardens and factories in India, Nepal, and Indonesia and in North America remains in a joint venture with PepsiCo to manufacture and market Lipton tea in bottles and cans. The portfolio’s remnants are expected to generate more than $800 million annually, making it the world’s fourth largest tea company, according to Euromonitor.

    One man’s cast off is another man’s treasure. Davison is eager to make the most of CVC Capital’s $5.1 billion investment.

    Dan Bolton: John, when a private equity firm puts $5 billion to work they expect sizeable returns. In general, two patterns have emerged, one in which the management team cuts their way to profitability, trimming staff, investing in automation, and introducing efficiencies. The second is spurring growth.

    John Davison: Why would a company like CVC want, as you say, to invest $5 billion in taking ekaterra out of Unilever?

    It boils down to three key points: Number one, it’s a growth category. Tea is on trend, I think COVID, if anything has reinforced the dynamics that tea is a healthy beverage. It has a lot of medicinal qualities, as you well know, in terms of heart health, digestion, you name it. Investors like to be in categories that are on trend and have long term potential.

    Secondly, if you look at ekaterra, we are the largest, by some stretch, I think three times larger than the next player. So, we have a leadership position. That leadership stretches across 10s and 10s of markets ? 3,040 different markets. It’s not been something we’ve built on and really capitalized on.

    I think Capital Partners, CVC has seen that opportunity to capitalize and drive that leadership position to greater heights and with that bring the category into faster growth. That’s the second big reason, the strength of our competitive position, relative to the rest of the peer group in the industry.

    The third thing is the management team. I’m the rookie and just joined nine months ago, but the team we’ve put together in at ekaterra is highly experienced. Our R&D team is really strong. We have 3,540 tea tasters. When you put all that organization together, on top of a great brand portfolio in a growing category, it’s clear to see why CVC or anyone else would be interested in investing in the business.

    Now that said, we’ve now got to deliver on all the promise to your point. And that will be something top of mind as we start to engage with our future owners. And of course, these transactions take time to go through the process. There’s a few months now of anti-trust filings, regulatory processes and approvals to go. We won’t see the close of this deal probably till mid next year.

    Dan: At COP26 you sent a clear message that sustainable tea at large scale is doable. So, do you intend to be a tea company that is ethically mindful? Or an ethical firm that sells tea?

    John: That’s a trick question. I think you can be ethically mindful and kind of watch from the sidelines, right?

    We need to get in the game and drive the rules of the game. I don’t mean that in a threatening way, I think part of the reason we wanted to step out at COP26 was to make that point, which is that the status quo ? having a nice program to share with your customers and partners and consumers ? probably isn’t enough at this stage.

    If we don’t get beyond that, towards driving real change, and not just change inside of our business system, but industry wide, as well as with consumers, in 10 years time we’ll be really panicking about what we can do to reverse things that are probably irreversible by that stage.

    We need to get beyond watching and following. We need to get into the game and lead. We have the technologies discussed by the Ethical Tea Partnership, and a bunch of new technologies that are in development that were mentioned at COP26.

    We need to deploy that technology as soon as possible into pilots, which we’re doing. And as soon as we get them into pilot, we need to get them into action on our own tea estates and as soon as possible thereafter, broaden that to the entire supply base. And as soon as possible thereafter, the entire supply base of the industry. If there are technologies that can help other players, you know, I think we need to make them available. There’s no point in jealously guarding a technology that you deploy to 5% of the tea crop of the world, if 50% of the tea in the entire world is at risk.

    We need to develop proper resilience in climatic challenging circumstances, which you know, are becoming more and more difficult, as you said earlier, already affecting crop yields.

    If we can get these technologies properly piloted and properly rolled out, then we should be able to help our tea farmers manage much more productively much more resiliently in the face of real dramatic climate change. And that can only be a good thing, not only for ourselves, but for them and for the industry. And that’s something we’re going to work very hard to deliver.

    So, in that sense I think the answer to your question is that we need to be both an ethical company, as well as a tea company acting ethically.

    Unilever already set us on a wonderful course. It’s a great company. I think in many respects, we’re sorry to be leaving, and they are sorry to be losing us. But at the same time, it is for the best reasons to give us this chance to drive a leadership that I think would be difficult to do inside such a large multinational.

    Davison taking tea with the ekaterra staff

    Jebel Ali
    United Arab Emirates

    Dan: So, let’s talk about the core product. In this case, making tea that people are willing to pay a premium price to drink. I don’t think any brand wants to be known for making tea so heavily discounted that it is perceived as cheap or market blends that taste worse than in years past. Ekaterra tea inherits several brands on the rise, market leaders in 58 regions, but in the west sales are stagnant.

    Senior Beverage Consultant Matthew Barry at Euromonitor writes that “mass-market black tea bags are in consistent decline in nearly all developed markets. Unilever saw retail sales of black tea decline by $27 million from 2015 to 2020 in these countries, even with the benefit of a large 2020 pandemic-related retail spike.”

    Last year Unilever CEO Alan Jope set the dominoes in motion by declaring “insanity is carrying on doing the same thing and looking for different outcomes, and for 10 years we have been trying to ignite growth into our tea business unsuccessfully.” Black tea drinkers were blamed for getting older and starting to fall over, and that is the fundamental problem… said Jope, “younger consumers are looking for novel experiences, and the consumer of ‘builders’ tea’ was someone who was born out of habit and was not into experimentation and trying new products.”

    I know from personal experience tea quality is an issue. Do you agree? And what are you going to do to make better tea?

    John: The tea category within Unilever has been subject to a focus on bringing down costs to manage exactly what you described, declining pricing or stagnant pricing in the market. Any multinational would probably deal with that kind of spiral of decline on value by R&D engineering the product, so I think certain things we are absolutely going to put right very quickly. Other things may take longer to fix.

    We’re going to work very hard at making sure we get our blends back to the top of the tree, in terms of quality and in terms of value to consumers. We can’t live in an industry if we are the leader in that industry, with second rate teas or teas that are not absolutely the best they can possibly be.

    So, I think we’ve got a job still to do. We started that program in the last 12 to 18 months before I showed up and it’s something that we’re now accelerating. That will require clear investments in certain key areas, but also in the way we communicate benefits to consumers. I don’t think we’ve done a very good job on that, either. Historically, I think we’ve tended to pull back on consumer communications. And we’ve not played the powerful cards we have in our portfolio.

    “We’re going to work very hard at making sure we get our blends back to the top of the tree, in terms of quality and in terms of value to consumers. We can’t live in an industry if we are the leader with second rate teas or teas that are not absolutely the best they can possibly be.”

    – John Davison

    Dan: When asked by the online polling site YouGov, consumers say they are willing to pay more for products that are sustainable, and to reward manufacturers who close the loop; traders who reduce transit emissions and growers who conserve water and regenerate soil. So, on one hand we have a price premium of perhaps 20-30% at retail. The premium is similar to that paid for organic goods and by consumers who have demonstrated their willingness to pay more for fair trade goods.

    On the other hand, tea manufacturers face significant additional costs to cultivate and process premium tea. There is the expense of adapting to a changing climate, costs to comply with requirements set by third party certifiers, new equipment and more expensive plant-based tea bags and earth-friendly packaging, and set-asides to pay for carbon credits. Is the premium consumers are willing to pay sufficient to cover the cost of sustainable production? The desire is there, and there’s money on the table, can you operate ekaterra tea in a way that it’s both sustainable and profitable?

    John: That’s a great question. I think sustainability, and ESG [Environmental, Social, and Governance] philosophies and beliefs are at different stages of development and relevance in different parts of the world. At COP26, you could absolutely feel that the world’s eyes were on everything that was happening. But it’s a difficult balance to strike.

    I would like to believe consumers would sit down and say, ‘yeah, we understand all the packaging, we understand all the accreditations, we get it, here’s an extra 20%, 30%, no problem.’ But I don’t believe that’s going to happen overnight. And I don’t believe that will happen across the world, I think it may happen in certain societies. But it’s not going to be a wholesale phenomenon at this stage, maybe hopefully, in years to come.

    Which means we develop sound business cases to surround the decisions we take to drive a more sustainable approach to business process.

    This is why technology R&D is so important, because to remove plastic from your packaging, you must put in an investment to machines and the X number of factors needed to make that happen.

    If you had the technology to design a fully recyclable or biodegradable pack instead, one that can be made at a lower unit cost, then that’s a win-win.

    But there will be moments where we have to make tough decisions and say, ‘there’s an extra capex’ [capital expenditure] to fit this factory to be able to do X, Y, and Zed in a completely different way.

    I think we’ve got to be courageous enough to make those decisions and figure out how to make the pay back with or without the 20% to 30% extra help from the consumer.

    Right now, and you hear this from anyone you interview in consumer products, or any product category,  there’s an enormous escalation in input costs, not only from commodity crops, but also from logistics supply chain, from packaging, all over the world, big tidal wave effects coming out of COVID and the disruption caused to the planet. We’re digesting those changes, as well as thinking ahead how we motor on, on climate change.

    It’s a VUCA world [Volatility, Uncertainty, Complexity and Ambiguity] a lot of volatility, a lot of uncertainty. Because we’ve generally operated in so many different economies with those kinds of unusually volatile trends, historically, I think we’ve got a team that’s pretty creative, pretty versatile, and is well equipped to deal with challenges that often contradict each other.

    That’s why we are employed to do what we do, if it was that straightforward, it wouldn’t be challenging. It wouldn’t be fun. It wouldn’t be the adventure it is to be in this business.

    Davison signing a distribution agreement with Sheikh Abdullah Binzagr in Judah, Saudi Arabia. Binzagr Group has distributed Unilever products since the 1920s.

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