Insights into the Indian Tea Sector

The recent BBC reports got me thinking about the state of the tea industry in India. The business environment isn’t static and history has proved time and again that certain events affect business and how it is conducted. Previously we had the industrial, technological, green, and IT revolutions – today we are living in a business world influenced by the media revolution.

India recently witnessed the “Maggi” crisis. I’m sure that online media helped fuel the maelstrom, which according to some reports caused the brand valuation to shrink to $2.2 billion – a clear loss of $200 million. The tea industry in India itself is not impervious to negative publicity. The way the industry was established during colonial times has left it with structures – and to some extent mindsets – which have not adapted sufficiently to the twenty-first century. Unlike other industries, the tea industry still has responsibilities for a range of services, such as housing and sanitation, which it is clearly struggling to fulfil effectively. Many parts of Assam have high poverty levels and issues such as poor quality sanitation and housing do affect tea workers and communities.

The media revolution won’t go away and certainly doesn’t take any prisoners. News isn’t just fast – it’s instant. And for all the good work that ETP, certifiers, and partners do in collaboration with plantation companies and estates, it only takes one case of bad practice, captured and shared in the click of two buttons, for the whole media bandwagon to come to town.

Tea producers can ill afford to ignore this reality. I need to make myself clear: Businesses are more open to scrutiny than ever before. What does this mean for owners of tea gardens and estates? There are certain aspects that they need to get right across the board – time is not a luxury the industry can enjoy. ETP, through our independent work, in partnerships, and as part of trustea are there to support producers embed good practice and meet international standards (see our response to the BBC report). That said, our efforts and work programmes can’t be used as a smokescreen to hide behind. Plantation companies can’t implement good practice on one/part of an estate and neglect other parts of their business elsewhere. Not only is this not right, but poor practice can now be caught on video and shared around the world via social media. In a way, workers will be able to regulate the industry like never before.

It’s imperative that CEOs of the plantation companies understand that the issues are not isolated incidents, and more effort needs to be made at operational level. This is because these issues can damage reputation, which in turn negatively impacts the bottom line.

I’m positive that most CEOs believe they’re acting responsibly towards workers and their families, but what they really need to be asking themselves is whether or not their vision is actually being translated at operational level. For example, you can’t just give workers access to safety equipment and protective clothing. Systems need to be in place to ensure all workers are consistently using protective equipment correctly and this needs to be properly recorded – after all, estate management/owners have a duty of care to their workers.

The tactical level of thinking by managers also needs to change. It’s not just about ticking a few boxes on some key areas, it’s about ensuring all living and working conditions are decent for the benefit of all workers and their families. Without these mindset changes, I’m afraid the Indian tea industry leaves itself open to criticism and allegations that will seriously limit the attractiveness of Indian tea to western markets.