Amongst the overpriced refrigerator of plastic bottles in my high school’s cafeteria, a sophomore version of myself first discovered Pure Leaf Iced Tea. As an avid tea drinker, it quickly became a staple in my lunches. At that age, I naively assumed that slapping a green leaf on a logo meant that the product was living up to the environmental imagery it wore. Four years later, it’s finally time to unpack Pure Leaf and determine if this was a sustainable product, or if I fell victim to greenwashing.
Pure Leaf isn’t terrible, but I struggle to call them sustainable as well. Much of my skepticism stems from their lack of transparency on their own website. The fact that so many details about the brand had to come from Unilever indicates that Pure Leaf is little more than a greenwashing marketing technique, and that they aren’t particularly sustainable compared to the rest of the portfolio. I give Pure Leaf an overall rating of 1.25 planets, but I can’t help but feel that I am rating Unilever than the brand itself.
Pure Leaf prides themselves on only using real, fresh ingredients. They emphasize only using the “finest” teas. Their real brewed iced teas do not include any artificial flavors, or tea concentrates and other powdered bases. The unsweetened black tea is their most simple, and the ingredients include only brewed tea and citric acid—a naturally occurring acid found in citrus fruits that essentially mimics a lemon in this unflavored tea. While this review focuses on the unsweetened black tea, I do want to mention the ingredients in some of their flavored teas. These teas also include sugar, natural flavors, and pectin—an enzyme that is used for stabilizing functions in brewed tea infusions.
Pure Leaf explains that they only harvest the top two leaves and bud from their tea plants, which at first surprised me. It sounded wasteful to only use two leaves from each plant, but through some deeper research on tea harvesting it seems like that is beneficial for the plants and an industry standard. Pure Leaf’s tea is also handpicked, which preserves the quality of the plants and limits industrialization on their farms.
Like most ready-to-go beverages, Pure Leaf’s bottle is made of plastic. While some products are packaged in glass bottles, all of their real brewed teas are made from plastic. These bottles are 100% recyclable, however they don’t claim to utilize recycled materials or any other innovative strategies. Unilever—the company that owns Pure Leaf—aims to increase the amount of recycled plastic and decrease virgin plastic in their bottles by 2025, however it is not disclosed what extent Pure Leaf has implemented these practices.
Overall, for this section I would rate Pure Leaf’s ingredients and materials a .7/3. The ingredients are simple and safe, but their packaging and specific tea leaves don’t really seem to stray from industry standards or go above and beyond to be particularly sustainable.
Pure Leaf sources their tea from India, Kenya, Indonesia, and Sri Lanka, each of these locations having been certified by the Rainforest Alliance. The Rainforest Alliance certifies companies based on four standards: forests, climate, human rights, and livelihoods. Companies that have their certification help to protect forests from deforestation, infringement from expanding cropland, and protect the health of the ecosystem, practice carbon-smart agricultural practices that help maintain farmland while increasing carbon sequestration, consider the rights of rural laborers and indigenous peoples, and help to improve the communities in which their production sites are located.
Pure Leaf’s black tea leaves are sourced from Kericho, Kenya. Their website provides very vague details about the estate specifically, only that they are partially powered by hydro-electricity, committed to continue planting indigenous crops, and provides medical services, housing, and education to their 11,000 employees and their families. These practices help to maintain biodiversity while giving back to employees. That’s about all the details Pure Leaf gives, however there is reason to believe it is the same estate used by Lipton, as both brands are owned by Unilever and have plantations in Kericho, and both articulate providing access to education and healthcare to their employees. If this is the case, then Lipton’s website provides greater details. According to Lipton, the estate is run on 97% hydroelectricity, and the housing provided to employees is solar powered. On soil that isn’t fertile enough to support tea, eucalyptus is planted and can be used to power boilers in the tea production process, replacing at least some of the need for diesel.
Even though there are sustainable and carbon-smart measures being used in their tea production, it is important to remember that the leaves are being sourced in Kenya and transported all around the world. These high amounts of transportation—as well as the processes used to produce the plastic bottles—are undoubtedly impactful carbon sources and cannot be ignored in evaluating the company.
Overall, I rate these practices a 1.5. This score does not include the details exclusively provided by Lipton because I cannot confirm if they are describing the same estate, and therefore do not want to overestimate the brand’s impact. Because Pure Leaf provides very vague information, it is difficult to discern the extent of their programs. Furthermore, the high levels of carbon emissions from processes beyond their tea itself cannot be ignored.
The Pure Leaf brand is a part of the Pepsi Lipton Tea Partnership—a self described joint venture between PepsiCo and Unilever that includes Lipton, Brisk, and Pure Leaf teas. (Pure Leaf is specifically owned by Unilever.) Pure Leaf is another piece in a larger corporate puzzle. While it is not inherently unsustainable to be part of a large corporation, it is still notable that supporting Pure Leaf is not supporting a small business, and the brand itself is not in complete control of its processes and actions. This also means that some amount of Pure Leaf’s revenues are benefitting companies that may not be dedicated to sustainability. The main reason why I bring this up, however, is to draw attention to the marketing strategies in the Pepsi Lipton Tea Partnership. Each of their three teas has a very clear brand messaging: Lipton is refreshing, Brisk is energizing, and Pure Leaf is eco-friendly. Pure Leaf is not sustainable for the sake of being sustainable, but rather to claim a different sector of the consumer base. It’s not a surprise that Pure Leaf’s environmental practices are fairly consistent with Lipton and other Unilever brands.
While Pure Leaf’s website again lacks details about who their farmers actually are, Unilever provides more information across all of their tea brands. In 2006, Unilever piloted the Farmer Field School in partnership with the Kenya Tea Development Agency to train their farmers on sustainable agriculture practices, nutrition, and tea economics, and is now run mostly by the KTDA. Thousands of farmers have been educated through this program, including nearly half women. They have also implemented programs to help empower women and their safety by implementing policies and education on gender-based violence. They also provide healthcare and access to hospitals to their employees. All of these programs help to improve the quality of life in the areas where they work.
For this section, I would rate Pure Leaf a 1.5. Unilever is doing some really great work with their employees in Kericho, and I don’t feel that this is an exploitative relationship. However, I can’t help but notice that Pure Leaf claims to have an environmental niche, but their practices and farms don’t seem to differ from other brands under the same corporation. This does not negate the value to Unilever’s social impacts, but examining the Pepsi Lipton Tea Partnership makes it abundantly clear that Pure Leaf is the greenwashed product.