Greater transparency in the tea sector is needed to address systematic human rights impacts throughout the supply chain

Week of 6 December 2021

Greater transparency in the tea sector is needed to address systematic human rights impacts throughout the supply chain

Our key takeaway: Tea companies are largely “evading responsibility” for human rights abuses in their supply chains—despite the fact that there is generally high visibility and traceability in the sector. By failing to disclose information about their policies and supply chains, companies are hindering the ability of workers and communities to seek remedy.   

The Business and Human Rights Resource Centre (BHRRC) published its Tea Transparency Tracker providing research on the supply chains and policies of 65 global companies that produce, source, trade and sell tea:

    • Transparency is not just an exercise in disclosure: There are significant labour risks in the tea supply chain, including forced labour, non-payment of living wages, gender-based violence, limits on freedom of association and poor occupational health and safety. Only 17 companies disclosed details of their tea supply chain, including Twinings, Tetley, Bettys & Taylors, Ecotone (Clipper), and supermarkets like M&S and Tesco, while Teapigs, Sainsburys, Lidl and Jacobs Douwe Egberts failed to disclose at all. However, BHRRC finds that companies have significant control over supply chain transparency: “As an industry with high internal visibility and traceability … the only barrier to achieving full supply chain transparency is a company’s willingness to disclose, and its assessment of the risks of non-disclosure.” This is compounded by the “secretive” nature of the industry, wherein certification groups and industry associations “privately collect and hold information about working conditions on plantations and supply chains” and do not share this information with civil society or with workers themselves. As a result, workers and communities face a barrier to access to remedy; “Workers and their unions have a right to know where the tea they picked goes. Demystifying the structure of and value divisions within global supply chains is central to the potential to restructure them more fairly and ensure rights at every level of the chain are respected.”
    • “Mismatched expectations” show that certifications are not a panacea for responsible sourcing: According to BHRRC’s research, “[a]t least 50% of the companies that responded to the questionnaire were using more than one type of certification [demonstrating compliance with human rights and sustainability standards].” In contrast to the complementary role that certifications increasingly seek to play, companies continue to rely on certifications as a substitute for their own human rights and environmental due diligence, suggesting that many companies are ill-equipped for forthcoming mandatory due diligence laws in the EU and beyond.
    • Recommendations for companies: BHRRC urges companies to complete “[s]upply chain transparency at each node of the supply chain, from intermediary companies, auction houses and buying companies to brands and retailers,” to publish all sourcing estate and factories online, and to update this list regularly. Companies should also disclose their broader due diligence efforts, e.g. publishing the results of “audit reports, workplace monitoring results, results of grievance and remedy processes, lowest wage level paid to tea pickers and factory workers on each plantation.” Finally, companies should aim to conduct robust human rights due diligence in line with the UNGPs, with a specific focus on key issues for the sector, such as collective bargaining and freedom of association, fair purchasing and pricing practices, and establishing effective grievance mechanisms.

For more, see Business and Human Rights Resource Centre, Trouble Brewing: The Need for Transparency in Tea Supply Chains (December 2021)

For full results of the questionnaires and individual company performance, you can find the Tea Transparency Tracker here.