Globally, agriculture is under environmental pressure with growing competition for available land, loss through soil erosion and increasing agricultural impact on water supplies.
Since the mid-1990s, Unilever has been working with agricultural experts and NGOs to promote agricultural sustainability programmes intended to safeguard future supplies of its key raw materials, while promoting good agricultural practices, ecological benefits and social responsibility. After water, tea is the most popular non-alcoholic beverage in the world and as Unilever is the world's largest seller of black leaf tea, ensuring sustainable tea production is a major focus of these programmes.
Unilever tea plantations in India, Kenya and Tanzania are researching ways to promote good agricultural practices that provide social and ecological benefits. These include reducing pesticide use and supporting natural diversity by maintaining forest strips in the plantations. Some of the estates are also using plantation wood as fuel and hydro-electricity to generate electricity and reduce CO2 emissions.
Drawing on its own business knowledge, Unilever has developed good-practice guidelines for sustainable tea growing for smallholders. It published these as leaflets in local languages in India, Kenya and Tanzania, which will help Unilever communicate its approach to its many small tea farmer suppliers.
The support of tea smallholder organisations will be crucial to spreading improved sustainability practices as many tea producing countries are currently not prepared or equipped to embrace the concept of agricultural sustainability. Capacity building is essential, and often achieved through third party funding, but potential donors can be hesitant to allocate financial support to such programmes in developing countries where the private industry is leading the programme. It takes time to put these differing building blocks in place and for improved sustainability practices to be spread.
• Unilever has documented the social component of the sustainable tea programme (e.g. living conditions for tea pickers, health programmes, relationships with out-growers and surrounding communities), which makes it easier to communicate.
• Unilever has documented the economic benefits smallholders can gain by adopting sustainable practices. For the vast majority of smallholders it shows that implementation of sustainable practices can lead to a gradual annual increase in net income of US$ 100-200 per ha.
• Systems driven approach to agricultural sustainability for tea has resulted in practical guidelines for sustainable tea growing, which will help to share and spread this knowledge of sustainable practices.
• Biodiversity component of sustainable tea programme (breeding and planting of native trees in forest strips within and around plantations) has a noticeable effect in Kenya and India.