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Reading Tea Leaves: Making Your Morning Cuppa More Sustainable

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The morning pick-me-up you choose can score major sustainability points.

If you’ve got a daily tea habit, you can be eco-responsible from your first sip of the day. By choosing a tea that is manufactured using sustainable practices, you’ll do your part to help the earth.

Americans consume more than 3 billion gallons of tea annually, according to the Tea Association of the USA, and tea sales have been increasing each year1. That’s a lot of tea, and a lot of opportunity to make sure what you’re drinking has been grown responsibly — or, as you might often hear, sustainably-sourced.

So how is tea grown?
Tea is derived from the camellia sinensis plant, and it’s grown mostly in Africa and Asia on either steep slopes or flat plains, depending on whether it’s harvested by hand or by high-tech machines that have been developed to mimic the traditional hand-harvesting techniques. The harvested leaves are set out to wither, and then they’re rolled and pressed to release the essential oils. The oxidation step, in which the released oils and enzymes are exposed to the air, is what gives the tea leaves their brownish color and complex flavors. The final step is heating the leaves, which stops oxidation and dries the leaves. As the popularity of tea has grown, large swaths of land have been converted to tea plantations.

How those large swaths of land are treated is what makes the difference between tea that’s sourced responsibly, and tea that could contribute to erosion, pollution, and the use of chemical pesticides, all potentially reducing habitat space for diverse species of wildlife.

How do I know how my tea was grown?
You don’t have to grow your own to know whether the tea your drinking has been sustainably-sourced or not. An insider trick? There are a few groups that set sustainable-sourcing standards. When you spot their labels or certifications on products, you can rest assured that the product got to the store shelf in an eco-friendlier way.

The Rainforest Alliance is one such organization. To obtain Rainforest Alliance certification, farms, businesses, and other industries must meet a set of specific standards aimed at protecting ecosystems and biodiversity, and ensuring safe and fair treatment of workers. Teas that bare Rainforest Alliance certification on their packaging have been farmed to have a smaller environmental footprint.

With more companies looking to improve their own impact on the environment, it’s becoming easier to start your day with a green brew. Unilever, which buys 12% of the world’s black tea supply2 for Lipton, PG Tips, and Brooke Bond teas, has committed to sourcing 100% of its tea from Rainforest Alliance Certified™ estates by 2020. And with 75% of Lipton tea bag blends already containing a portion of Rainforest Alliance Certified tea, you’ll have no problem finding the little green frog on store shelves.

Of course, there’s more than one way to ensure the tea you’re drinking has admirable environmental goals. Just as you would look for the Rainforest Alliance certification on packaging, you can also check for tea that is USDA Certified Organic — meaning it was grown without chemical pesticides or fertilizers — or tea that bears a Fair Trade certification, which means that the people involved in growing and producing the tea were given the tools and education to help build a sustainable business and community. And if you want more information about a brand’s environmental efforts, you can always check their sustainability plans on their website.

Is coffee, or maybe hot cocoa, more your cup of tea? You can look for Rainforest Alliance, Fair Trade, and USDA Organic certifications on coffee and chocolate products, too. The easiest way to find out which brands are participating in such programs is to look at certifications on their packages or to check company websites for sustainability initiatives.

Drinking sustainably sourced tea, coffee or cocoa is just another easy way to get every day off to a good start!

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About the Author
Jessica Harlan
Jessica Harlan

I love finding new ways to green my family's life as painlessly as possible, and sharing those ideas with folks who want to do the same.