Yorkshire Tea is one of the most popular and purchased tea brands in the UK produced by Taylors of Harrogate and owned by the Bettys & Taylors Group. Tea can contribute to a range of environmental impacts from carbon emissions during manufacturing and transporting, to soil degradation and soil erosion. As a country full of tea-lovers, it is important to pay attention to how Taylors of Harrogate make efforts to minimise the environmental impacts of their tea production while maintaining sustainable relationships with their suppliers. I found their efforts into social and carbon-offsetting projects to be very impressive but I think there is definitely room for improvement in packaging, which led me to giving this product a score of 2 out of 3.
The only ingredient listed in Yorkshire Tea is black tea, which comes from a type of bush called Camellia Sinensis. Taylors of Harrogate claims that their tea leaves are ethically and sustainably sourced from 20 different places across India and East Africa (eg. Kenya, Malawi, and Ethiopia), which will be explored further in the next section. The packaging of the product comprises three main parts; box, outer wraps, and tea bags. Box of Yorkshire Tea is made from FSC (Forest Stewardship Council) certified carton board which can go into paper and cardboard recycling. They currently use “a significant amount” of recycled content in their cardboard packaging. Instead of using the ambiguous and subjective term of “significant”, I hope they publish the percentage of recycled materials they use for their Yorkshire Tea box so that we could understand their progress towards circular packaging. On their website, they say that they have an outer wrap that is made from oil-based plastic. However, I bought my first Yorkshire Tea today and I noticed that they do not have any outer wraps, so I hope they update their website soon. I am happy to see that they removed the outer wrap instead of changing the material of the plastic because reducing materials minimise waste before it has a chance to be created.
Around 75% of the tea bag is made from natural fibres like wood pulp, rayon, and abaca which make a kind of paper. The paper is interwoven with a plastic web which is made from plant-based plastic called PLA or Polylactic acid. In 2020, experiments at the University of East Anglia were performed for a BBC show called "War on Plastic", which revealed that tea bags by Yorkshire Tea contain plastic polypropylene. In the following year, they replaced all of their oil-based plastic with plant-based plastic called PLA. Unlike oil-based plastic, PLA tea bags can be put into food or garden council waste bins for industrial composting. However, these cannot go in their home compost heap because their teabags need sufficient heat to break down and UK temperatures are not hot enough to fully compost tea bags at home. I presume that many residents do not know where their food/garden council waste bins are and would not bother throwing away their teabags outside their home so I believe that tea bags will not be properly composted by most consumers. Considering that PLA takes very long (some say around 80 years) to decompose, these improved tea bags could still pollute the land and ocean. Although plant-based plastic sounds like a sustainable alternative, PLA has complex and controversial environmental consequences, which will be explained in the next section.
Taylors of Harrogate put emphasis on their ethical and fair trading on their websites. They claim that they give their suppliers “sustainable prices and a premium for quality”, and have regular face-to-face visits to maintain a good rapport with their suppliers. Additionally, they invest in social and environmental projects in supplier communities, which will be discussed further in “who makes it”. Yorkshire Tea comes from suppliers who have achieved Rainforest Alliance certification. However, the Rainforest Alliance certification is questionable as it has been criticised for its weak criteria regarding workers’ rights, which leaves suppliers vulnerable to unexpected fluctuations in the price of the product. On a positive note, Taylors of Harrogate claim that many of the suppliers have multiple certifications including Fairtrade, which is a stronger third-party certified label with relatively stronger standards and enforcement mechanisms. Interestingly, I was also not able to obtain recent information on transport (both international and national transport), which is a bit concerning considering that they import tea leaves internationally.
The carton boxes of Yorkshire Tea are FSC certified which means that their box production only uses wood from forests and controlled sources that are approved by The Forest Stewardship Council. Although this may sound environmentally friendly, it would be much better if Taylors of Harrogate focus on using a greater proportion of recycled material for their box to prevent the use of wood in the first place. As mentioned before, Taylors of Harrogate have switched their oil-based plastic in their tea bags to PLA. PLA is usually made from substances like corn starch and sugarcane - it is generally considered to be a better alternative to oil-based plastic and is often used by companies to make them appear to be using environmentally-friendly packaging. However, the long-term environmental effect of using PLA can be concerning as it could lead to deforestation or food production displacement. Taylors of Harrogate claim that they are making sure that they “don’t use plant-based plastics which come from sources that displace food production or cause deforestation”. They are very honest about the limitations of PLA and clearly mention that the PLA plastic is not “plastic-free” and not compostable at home. Since they showcase their understanding of the concerns on PLA plastic, I hope to see them transition into a plastic-free production of tea.
The Yorkshire Tea products are Certified Carbon Neutral, which means they are compensating or offsetting their carbon emissions through projects and programs. For example, 100% of the gas and electricity in the Harrogate Headquarters are from renewable energy. Most of their other carbon-offsetting projects take place in their supplier communities to benefit their farmers, farms, and environment. For example, they are in partnership with Natural Capital Partners, The International Small Group Tree Planting Programme and Kenya Tea Development Agency, to encourage farmers in Kenya to plant fruit and nut trees on their tea farms. Fruit and nut trees absorb carbon dioxide, maintain soil quality, and also provide valuable secondary income for the Kenyan farmers. This programme has led to the planting of nearly 2 million trees on and around Mt. Kenya with over 7000 farmers. Taylors of Harrogate’s projects in their supplier communities contribute to “more than two thirds of the emissions reductions and removals” and won a UN Global Climate Action Award too.
Overall, I was very impressed how Taylors of Harrogate make efforts to offset carbon emissions while supporting the supplier communities and their environment. However, I hope that they disclose information about their product transportation and work on reducing emissions from transport. I think that the lack of transparency here makes it seem like they are being over-reliant on carbon offsetting projects to maintain their carbon neutral status. I believe it will be great to see them continuing with their offsetting projects while making more efforts in cutting their carbon emissions such as by incorporating electric trucks.