My first impressions and the road ahead

How time flies, give or take a few weeks summer vacation and the small matter of the Olympics here in London and I will have been Chairman for just about a full year, so a good moment to reflect on progress. It’s only right to begin with a big thank you to everyone involved with the ETP – members, staff, donors, collaborators – for the warmth of your welcome into the role. Many people have given generously of their time to help get me up to speed, not least my predecessor, Norman Kelly, who put in place the foundations on which we are now trying to build.

I guess coming in fresh, it’s natural that people tend to ask me for my initial impressions.  Well, I’ve been genuinely surprised by the scope of the ETP programme both in its geography and its content. The team has built a real facility in leading on complex issues as diverse as climate change in Kenya and smallholder livelihoods in Indonesia. I think it really helps that we have the backing of a very wide consortium of tea packers, that we focus exclusively on tea, and that we have built a strong set of relationships with a wide range of stakeholders.

It’s clear that sustainability challenges these days are very nuanced to particular crops and regions and to have an impact requires being in tune with the bigger picture but also on top of the detail. We’ve learnt to be very careful about making too many glib assumptions, especially based exclusively on a Western viewpoint – it really does matter what things look like on the ground where the solutions must emerge.

So the over-riding impression from my first few months in the chair is that we bring a unique energy to convening the sustainability agenda in tea because in the end that is our only purpose as an organization.

But what of the task ahead? Well, we have just completed our annual members’ meeting where we get together and think ahead with the help of some guests who also share our interest in tea sustainability. This was a lively couple of days by any standards. It’s clear to all of us that the tea industry is far from insulated from the economic, demographic and environmental changes now in play worldwide. For example, the drift of population away from the countryside into the cities, the growth of consumer demand in China and India and the uncertain shifting of climate patterns all have embedded within them the potential to create a radical shift in the fundamentals, economic and agricultural, of the tea industry.

And as the industry moves on, so will the sustainability agenda. I saw this phenomenon in action in my role as a manufacturing executive. Back in the 70’s, much of manufacturing safety agenda was around lifting and concerns about repetitive strain injuries due to the labour intensity of many operations. By the time we got to 21st century, mechanization and computerisation had completely shifted the agenda to the safe operation of complex equipment and processes.  What we meant by sustainable, safe manufacturing had to be re-written.

So our challenge is to work with our members and partners to infuse our standards and values into the flow of change in our industry. This will take a willingness to embrace change and to work with it. Better to think of ourselves perhaps as pathfinders rather than solution providers. After all solution providers think they know the answer, pathfinders have the wisdom to realise that they don’t but they have the curiosity and creativity to work with others to find one.

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