Perks of the zero waste movement? A greater connection to the planet and a sense of doing right. Downsides? You discover the dark side of everything. Like the fact that many commercial tea bags have plastic in them. (Yup. If your tea bag isn’t folded and stapled closed, the bag contains plastic which helps the two sides melt together with heat. Though even the stapled ones might have plastic to make the bag less likely to break.)
Plastic plus heat in your drinks? No thanks. The obvious answer is to source ethical bulk tea.
But before that, let’s take a look at the sustainability behind the ethical bulk tea you’ll be sourcing.
coffee vs. tea: the carbon emissions
A remarkably well-researched post from Serious Eats estimates “of the 10 to 11 pounds of carbon emissions that the average pound of coffee creates, as much as 50% is created at the retail and consumer level.” That’s around 21-23g CO2 per cup. For tea, a study undertaken by tea expert Nigel Melican found that loose-leaf tea was a relative “saint”, creating about 20g CO2 per cup. (Check out a quick 5-minute interview with him here!)
While there are obvious variations based on the type of plant, how it’s grown, etc., it seems like coffee and tea average out to be about the same, right? So what’s the big difference between coffee and tea’s carbon emissions? One main addition: MILK.
As we all know, animal products have a huge impact in the carbon footprint of our diet. Milk is no exception and causes the carbon footprint of our hot drinks to skyrocket:
If you drink four mugs of black tea per day, boiling only as much water as you need, that works out as just 30kg of CO2e each year – the same as a 40-mile drive in an average car. Three large lattes per day, by contrast, and you’re looking at almost twenty times as much carbon, equivalent to flying half way across Europe. (source)
Aside from the fact I hope no one is actually drinking three large lattes per day, the point stands. Estimates suggest that milk represents 60-70% of the carbon footprint of a cup of coffee; for mainly milk drinks, that number hovers closer to 90%!
Options? Black coffee, switch to a plant-based milk (oat is the lowest impact), or hop over to tea.
PS. How you boil water greatly affects the impact of your hot drink! Boiling a full kettle produces anywhere from 15-20g CO2 AKA doubling the carbon footprint of your hot drink! Always make sure to boil only exactly as much water as you need!
so: why does a coffee lover drink tea?
Aside from the fact that I don’t enjoy black coffee, there are other major factors at work in the decision to drink tea over coffee. And the one reason I – a die-hard coffee drinker – am trying to significantly cut down my coffee usage? (Aside from less jittering?)
As mentioned above, it’s difficult to get an absolutely accurate number but it’s pretty clear that tea has a much lower water footprint than coffee. One cup of coffee requires 37 gallons of water to produce, whereas the same amount of tea requires 8 gallons of water. (source) This is because coffee’s a relatively water-intensive crop as compared to tea.
To do some very simple math: if you switch your one cup of coffee per day to one cup of daily tea, you can save around 200 gallons of water IN ONE WEEK.
When I heard this, I knew it was time to make the switch to tea. I don’t feel bad about drinking a coffee every once and a while, but this was a clear wake-up call to how making small changes in your lifestyle adds up to a major difference.
That being said, there are some major caveats we need to work through before choosing our teas.
the human face behind tea
If you’ve gotten serious about being an ethical consumer, you know there’s a plethora of certifications available for products. USDA certified organic, Non-GMO Project, Fair Trade, Rainforest Alliance partners… plus a whole slew of other bonuses, buzzwords or otherwise.
Sadly, looking at labels for certification may not be enough to guarantee our ethical bulk tea is… truly ethical. It seems the gap between what’s said is done – and what’s actually done – are two very different things, particularly on Indian tea plantations.
The low wages push another dark trend: child slavery. Families who work on tea estates earn so little they often give up their children – particularly daughters – for a small amount of money and the hope they’ll be better taken care of elsewhere. This 2013 article again echoes the Sheffield report:
If it says Fairtrade on the box, or certified by the Rainforest Alliance or the Ethical Tea Partnership, it makes no difference: the worker received the same basic cash payment – 89 rupees (£1) a day, a little over half the legal wage for an unskilled worker in Assam of 158.54 rupees.
A later report from Columbia Law reinforces these findings. Tea workers in India are denied living wages and basic sanitation or healthcare that would keep them safe. Among some of the egregious findings:
- Workers live crowded together in cramped quarters with cracked walls and broken roofs.
- Health care – along with other social benefits – is arbitrarily denied to many of those who are explicitly entitled to receive it.
- On some plantations, the fee charged for electricity alone amounted to nearly 50% of the workers’ net pay.
These conditions – which are found on farms supplying major tea brands – “are rooted in the colonial origins, extremely hierarchical social structure, the compensation scheme, and the excessive power exercised by management.”
A 2018 study done by Sheffield University found not much had changed and “prominent ethical certification schemes are failing to create working environments that are free from exploitation and forced labour.” Unsurprisingly, many workers reported that they meet certifications standards only when audits are done, but otherwise are required by their employers to cut corners at any other times.
large companies and “sustainable” tea
Further south in Kenya, mega-company Unilever is the main buyer. (NB: they also now own ethical tea company Pukka Tea.) The company has made significant strides in responding to greater consumer pressure about how it sources tea and has worked with Kenya Tea Development Agency (KTDA) and The Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH) to train workers in the last decade. To see what Unilever is really about – and for a great think piece on what sustainability is when it’s not greenwashed but not truly changing the world – you need to read this article:
We found that Unilever does put more effort into saving the planet than many other companies. But we also discovered that the company scores well because it alone determines what constitutes ‘sustainability’. Its close cooperation with NGOs, the authorities and the media has given it an almost unassailable status. Companies wanting to opt for sustainability are confronted with dilemmas that Unilever refuses to acknowledge. (Full article here.)
Tea has the potential to be quite damaging if pesticides and artificial fertilizers are used extensively. Not only to the earth, its soil, and the surrounding plant life, but also to the humans who encounter the toxic chemicals while harvesting tea or simply living nearby.
All of this is not to say there’s no value to certification or companies striving toward ethical practices. It’s simply a logical admonition to not accept a company or organization’s sustainability criterion as proof your tea leaves are 100% ethically-sound.
When sourcing products from far away, it’s incredibly hard to suss out exactly who’s telling the truth and following the letter and spirit of labor protection laws. The average consumer like you or me doesn’t have the ability to check up on tea estates to see what’s happening, so we can only do so much. Use your best judgement when looking at the companies below.
Top tips for choosing an ethical tea
The takeaway from all of this information? Buy ethical bulk tea from a company with:
- ethical and sustainable certifications
- sourcing from only one farm
- the name of the exact farm listed on their site
- no ongoing petitions against them or the farms they use
Lucky for you, though, I have a list of brands that are a good jumping-off point in terms of offering certifications and single-origin teas. We may not know the full story, but let’s all try to make our best educated guesses.
ethical bulk tea brands
Below I’ve given you a list of companies that offer ethical tea, though I would encourage you to look into any purchase you make to find out if it’s right for you. I’ve also listed sites where you can purchase ethical and sustainable herbs as a way to bypass the labor concerns of traditional teas.
NB: there are many companies doing great ethical/sustainable things while using tea bags. I would still urge you to consider loose leaf anyway. As a report by Ethical Consumer notes, “the packaging of tea into tea bags… tends to concentrate profit in wealthy countries. By buying loose-leaf tea… you make it more likely that a greater portion of the price you are paying reaches the producers.”
Ethical bulk tea
- The Republic of Tea: the company offers trainings for its female workers through Women of Tea: Sri Lanka, releases the names of its tea estates, and uses recyclable materials down to the steel of their tins.
- Arbor Teas: Arbor Teas offers all the certifications you could want, along with compostable packaging. They don’t tell you exactly which estate their tea comes from, but have a list.
- Teabox: this is not a site I would normally recommend as it’s not a traditionally “sustainable” brand. That being said, they have a good list of organic teas and they list on their site exactly which estate the single-origin tea comes from.
- Tea Daw: a store full of single-origin Chinese teas. They also appear to own their own tea gardens in a stunning part of the Chinese mountains.
Herbs for herbal tea
- Starwest Botanicals: I like this site a lot for their massive range of herbs at very reasonable prices. I suggest looking at their sale page as they often have deep discounts on herbs they’re trying to get rid of.
- Mountain Rose Herbs: The classic. If you’re looking for pages upon pages of organic certified herbs, this is the site for you.
- As Above Alchemy: I recently bought some items from this Native-owned shop, which sources many of the herbs from their garden. (I forgot to request no plastic, so it came with some bubble wrap. They seem very receptive, so just let them know you don’t want it in the notes at check-out!)
- eBay: I got my own vintage Japanese cast iron teapot from eBay at a super-reasonable price. I always suggest buying second hand; plus, you get something with real character!
- Startwest Botanicals: gigantic range of strainers, infusers, tea pots, and more.
- Arbor Teas: this company has a range of low-waste tea items such as to-go cups, infusers, specialty tea instruments, and more.