Sustainability is a broad topic that describes whether a practice can be done indefinitely without harming people or society or the environment in such a way that the practice must be stopped. One common concept is the "three Pillars of Sustainability": social, environmental, and economic issues. In order for a practice to be sustainable, it must be sustainable in each of these three senses. The word "sustainable" is sometimes used interchangeably with the word "green", but sustainability is a broader concept.
Environmental Issues in Tea Production:
Issues associated with fertilizer use: Because tea leaves are continuously being harvested, resulting in the loss of nutrients in the leaves, nutrients must be continuously added in order for tea to continue being harvested. Unfortunately, natural and ecologically-friendly fertilizers are not the norm in the tea industry: chemical nitrogen fertilizers, including ammonia and nitrate-based fertilizers, are the norm. These fertilizers can lead to a number of problems. Although small amounts of these nutrients are beneficial on land, when they flow into water and become concentrated, they can damage aquatic ecosystems, which can destroy or negatively impact fishing industries as well. Overfertilization can also result in soil acidification and contamination of water supplies with nitrates.
Toxic chemicals used as pesticides: Although the tea plant is a tough, resilient plant that generally has little problem with insect pests, the practice of massive monocultures of tea plants, of the same variety, with little or no buffer of other crops or natural ecosystems among them creates an environment in which many farmers feel compelled to spray their tea crop with synthetic pesticides and other chemicals. Many of these chemicals, including DDT (which was used in China for tea production as recently as 2004 and may have continued to be used since then) have devastating ecological consequences, killing wildlife, and also have negative impacts on human health, both for workers exposed to the chemicals in their work, and people consuming food or drink contaminated with them.
Social And Economic Issues in Tea Production:
Most of the world's main tea growing regions are located in developing countries with less wealth and economic power. These countries often have laxer standards for human rights and fair treatment of workers. The primary exception to this rule is Japan: Japan is the only wealthy industrialized country that is also a major tea producer.
The conditions in which many tea workers are employed and the wages that they paid would alarm many people in the US and other western countries. One major matter of concern is that, of the final price of tea paid by a shopper in the US, only a tiny portion of the amount paid actually reaches the workers who grow and harvested the tea: the lion's share of the profit is pocked by those employed in the blending process, and the branding and sales of the product in the wealth countries in which the tea is sold. Westerners often think of these issues as the plantation owners "exploiting" the workers, but this is not the most accurate way of looking at things: most plantation owners are themselves struggling to make ends meet, and enjoy a quality of life much less than the norm in western countries. The true culprit is the disparity in wealth and power between rich and poor countries, and an economic system that solidifies rather than alleviates these differences.
Organic tea sets out to address the environmental issues associated with tea production. By using natural fertilizers and having stricter standards of what fertilizers are used, nutrient pollution and other problems associated with fertilizers can be minimized. Synthetic pesticides can also be avoided, which results in a safer work environment for the people growing and harvesting the tea, as well as a healthier and safer beverage for those buying an drinking the tea.
Fair trade tea sets out to address the social issues and some of the economic issues that plague tea production. Fair trade attempts to improve working conditions by setting certain minimum standards for the percentage of profits that make it into worker's hands. Farmer- and worker-owned cooperatives and direct sourcing are other, related solutions to these same problems. The idea behind cooperatives is to ensure that all workers have an ownership stake in the company. Direct sourcing aims to cut out middlemen who take a cut of the profit.
Traditional processing methods are also worth mentioning. Organic tea can still be grown in large, mass monoculture plants, which are not ideal for the environment. Traditional processing methods are by nature organic, as synthetic chemicals are a modern invention. Buying traditionally processed tea thus offers another way to promoting sustainability in your tea drinking.
These issues are just the beginning of the ways in which tea and sustainability intersect. Other issues to think about include composting used tea leaves, supporting local tea businesses, avoiding bottled or ready-to-drink teas, and drinking loose-leaf tea instead of tea bags.