This is an article I originally wrote for Ethical Consumer Magazine.
One reader’s mission to get to the bottom of a knot -tea stocking issue
Sam Attard, founder of Ethical Revolution and Ethical Consumer subscriber, asks why health and whole food stores are stocking some of the least ethical tea? And finds some surprising answers…As a tea lover I took great interest in Ethical Consumer’s special report on tea published back in 2014.
In terms of my own purchasing habits I found I was already more or less on the right track buying the likes of Pukka, Hampstead Tea and Equal Exchange – these consistently scored well and are well stocked in my local ‘alternative’ stores.
However, it was the discovery of Tea Pigs and Twinings at the bottom end of the rankings that caught my eye. Both are also stocked in my local ‘alternative & health food stores’ and I had expected them to score well.
Twinings propped up the table for black and green tea with a disastrous rating of 2.5 out of 20. Tea Pigs weren’t much better, coming 27th of 33 with an ethiscore of 6 out of 20. For herbal & fruit teas Twinings came in second from last and Tea Pigs were only two places ahead.
These results made me question why two of the least ethical tea brands were stocked in my local ‘alternative’ stores.
Now armed with the knowledge, I began to check their whereabouts in stores further afield. Sure enough I noticed that this was a recurring theme in stores across the country and the web. Ethical stores stocking unethical tea.
I took the research to some 20 shops across 6 towns and cities in the UK, from Manchester to London via Bristol and Oxford, and I spoke with the three online retailers who stocked Tea Pigs.
Speaking to shop owners about the two brands, I cited the evidence from Ethical Consumer’s research.I pointed out to them that Tea Pigs – owned by Tata Group, a multi-national conglomerate – had a shocking record of inhumane working conditions on their tea plantations; and that Twinings – owned by Associated British Foods (the corporation responsible for, amongst others, Primark) – ranked worst for policies on women, land and climate change in Oxfam’s ‘Behind the Brands’ scorecard.
Naturally, most of the shop owners were aghast at this information, while a few of them said they had already heard murmurings along these lines.
Some of the independents that I spoke to said they didn’t have a particular ethical buying policy, which seemed strange to me, focussing more on the health aspect as well as the customer demand. But they conceded that if their customers knew the background of the companies then they didn’t think they’d continue to buy them.
Twinings demandsAnother issue flagged up by an independent concerned Twinings. The store owner told me that Twinings no longer allow small retailers to stock their packs of 50 tea bags. Previously they could stock the packs of 50 with an RRP of £3.79 but now the maximum size they allow them to stock is the packs of 20, which RRP at £2.05.
This is a problem for the small retailers because it means consumers go to the supermarkets to get the packs of 50 and in doing so take trade away from the independents.
I asked this retailer who their supplier was. It turned out to be one of the more ethical alternative ones. I got in touch with them and they told me that they recognised that stocking Twinnings was problematic. A spokesperson said they’d like to drop Twinings in the longer term, but that that was his own personal opinion. As a result of our conversation he said the decision to sell them would re-visited after consultation with colleagues. We’ll be checking latter in the year to make sure they keep their promise.
However he added that they had been concerned about Tea Pigs and so a decision had been made to not supply them.
The only brand in town?
Interestingly, in four of the smaller alternative stores who stocked Twinings, they only stocked one box (one flavour). The flavour varied in each shop (Lady Grey, Lapsang Souchong and Decaf Earl Grey) but the reason for stocking was the same: Twinings were the only brand used by their supplier that had that particular flavour. These four shops had all recognised Twinings as an unethical company and for that reason only stocked them where they had no other option.
I also searched online and found that three ethical online retailers, who were owned by the same group, all stocked Tea Pigs.
Following my conversation with them they said that having learned of the Ethical Consumer research they would be de-listing all Teapigs products: Selling through the remaining stock and then no longer ordering any Teapigs products.
Again we’ll be checking latter in the year to make sure they keep their promise.
It’s been an interesting little journey and one that’s shown how hard it is for retailers, let alone individual consumers to know how ethical or otherwise their brands may be. The importance of Ethical Consumer magazine’s research in the ethical consumerism movement cannot be overestimated!