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A sustaining, sustainable cuppa

By Tim Wallace - posted Monday, 3 August 2009

Rhapsodic images of beaming farm workers tending verdant Kenyan tea fields tug not only at the heart strings but also the purse strings. Whereas once beverage advertising focused on the warm inner glow a nice hot cuppa gave you from drinking it, now there's also great marketing cachet in the glow of making the world a better place in choosing it.

Four out of five Australians want businesses to invest more in sustainable practices, according to a survey commissioned by the Unilever corporation, owner of Australia's top-selling tea brand, Lipton. Little wonder then that the conglomerate hasn't delayed in spending up big to spruik the environmental certification of its Black and Yellow label tea brands: this despite the cute green frog of the Rainforest Alliance logo now displayed prominently on its packaging guaranteeing, as yet, that only half of Unilever's tea comes from tea plantations certified as environmentally sustainable, and that full certification won't be fully implemented for another six years.

What you are unlikely to see in Unilever's lavish advertising are images of its tea operations in Pakistan, where the multinational's pitch of "sustainabili-tea" must surely leave a bitter taste in the mouths of workers waging a battle against "casual-tea: 100% disposable jobs". The National Federation of Food, Beverage and Tobacco Workers of Pakistan accuses Unilever of a race to the bottom in its embrace of outsourcing and contract labour. At the multinational's sole remaining, directly owned and operated, Lipton tea factory in Khanewal there are 22 permanent workers and more than 700 "temporary" workers hired through contract labour agencies.


The contract workers are paid a basic wage one-third that of the permanent workers, are not entitled to medical or annual leave, and have no surety of an income from one week to the next. According to the website set up by the International Union of Food, Agricultural, Hotel, Restaurant, Catering, Tobacco and Allied Workers' Association: "The majority of these workers have worked for more than 10 years at the Khanewal factory, with an average of 15 years and some as long as 30 years. But since they're not formally employed by Unilever, they are barred from joining a union of Unilever workers and bargaining with Unilever as their employer."

How ironic, then, in Unilever's biggest tea advertising spend in years - a campaign that, to quote the marketing and advertising journal B&T, encourages consumers to “make a better choice with Lipton” by pushing “the environmental impacts of sustainable tea use, the benefits to the worers and the economic advantages" - the company seems content to exploit a glaring disconnect in green consumer attitudes identified in the aforementioned survey commissioned from AMR Interactive and Newspoll: that more than two-thirds of Australians associate sustainability only with the environment and less than a third link it to worker welfare.

It is not just green consumers who are susceptible to this disconnect. Last week the environmental directory Green Pages, which describes itself as Australia's "leading sustainability directory and news source" rather breathlessly echoed Unilever's spin by telling its readers: "Every cup of Lipton Quality Black carrying the Rainforest Alliance green frog seal is a sip towards a better life for tea farmers, their families and the environment." Perhaps that should read: "Half of every cup ..." It is amazing the sort of uncritical advertorial a multinational can gain by giving away four "exclusive" Lipton Tea packs valued at $150 each and buying an advertising package valued at $3,500.

This is not to say that Rainforest Alliance certification has no merit. It does. But it is no coincidence that the world's dominant coffee and tea traders, from Unilever to Kraft Foods, Nestle Nespresso, Lavazza, Japan's UCC Ueshima Coffee Co, McDonald's and Australia's own Gloria Jeans have embraced the New York-based agency as their environmental certifier of choice. Starbucks and Australia's Jasper Coffee are among the minority of beverage brands to opt for Fairtrade certification. (In fact Starbucks alone buys 16 per cent of the global Fairtrade coffee supply, though that still accounts for less than 6 per cent of its total coffee purchases.)

Why? The main reason is price: the Rainforest Alliance certification logo is cheaper.

The Rainforest Alliance scheme is often referred to as "Fairtrade-lite". It is mostly applied to large-scale farming estates and aimed squarely at ensuring environmentally sustainable farming practices. It guarantees minimum working conditions (such as a maximum 12-hour day) but no minimum price.


The Fairtrade model, on the other hand, addresses environmental standards but is primarily focused on the economic viability of small-scale farmers and co-operatives. It asks consumers to pay a premium to ensure more money for the producers and their communities, guaranteeing growers a minimum of US$1.21 per pound of coffee beans, and a premium of US50 cents to US$1 per kilogram of tea. Fairtrade also charges a 2 per cent licensing fee (based on the wholesale commodity price) to use its logo on product packaging. Use of the Rainforest Alliance-certified logo is free.

Fairtrade proponents say the Rainforest Alliance model ignores the link between financial stability and environmental protection, with fluctuating market prices pressuring farmers to maximise short term financial gain at the expense of long-term sustainability. Rainforest Alliance defenders argue that solutions must work within market mechanisms. There are pros and cons to either model, though their relative merit in achieving both environmental and social sustainability objectives has probably not raged in corporate boardrooms quite to the extent it has elsewhere.

More likely the decision has come down to cold-headed business logic: most customers know nothing about different certification standards, and as long as we put a "sustainable" label on our package that looks good they will be satisfied, so let’s choose the cheapest.

On that the score the sustainability that has probably most enervated Unilever is the sustainability of its profits.

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About the Author

Tim Wallace is a Sydney-based freelance journalist. He has worked for The Canberra Times, The Age and The Australian Financial Review and the Sydney Morning Herald. He has one book, True Green @ Work: Making the Environment Your Business, to his name and edits a website,, focused on social and environmental sustainability issues and media.

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