(4 minute read) How can we assess sustainability and impacts of products and services? Read on below for a worked-example.

Tea is my thing. For my husband it’s coffee but for me it’s tea. Over the past few years I have, entirely unintentionally, become a complete tea snob. I even have a collection of tea pots which are displayed, alongside beautiful tea caddies filled with leaf tea, on my kitchen wall. The image attached to this blog is, in fact, of some of my teapots.

Of course I am not alone in my love of tea. The Brits are famous for it in fact. According to the UK Tea & Infusions Association, British people drink over 60 billion cups of tea per year – more than double the number of cups of coffee drunk.

But, I hear you ask, what are the sustainability issues associated with tea? You might think about the water and electricity used to brew a cup, and recently there has been talk about how teabags can be better composted or recycled. But these issues just deal with the ‘visible’ aspects, so what about the issues before the tea bag lands in the cup? How can we fully assess the sustainability of this product? To work that out we need to think about its components.

Sustainability Mapping

To think about the question in its entirety we need to consider where tea comes from and how it gets to us before we then think about the ramifications of drinking it. So let’s think about the process. I’m not even going to pretend to be an expert on how tea is made but I reckon it looks something like this:

Image showing a supply chain process

I suspect I’ve missed out a few steps but let’s pretend I’ve nailed it.

Now that we have some idea of the process we can have a think about some of the impacts and dependencies that this farm-to-cup process includes. It is important here to remember that sustainability is about more than just environmental impacts – it also includes ethical and social considerations.

Image showing a supply chain process with sustainability impacts

The image above is by no means intended to be a complete picture but is an illustration to show just some of the things that you might start to consider when looking at mapping impacts and dependencies for, in this case, a tea supply chain. This same process can be used for almost anything that you want to assess the sustainability issues for.

So if we were looking at drilling deep into each of these issues we would begin to map out each one individually and go from there. But the beauty is that this is not always necessary. In the case of tea there is a lot of information already available. Below are 5 websites which can help you if you want to build on your understanding of the ethical and environmental aspects of the tea industry:

1. Ethical Tea Partnership

The Ethical Tea Partnership works to improve tea sustainability, the lives and livelihoods of tea workers and smallholder farmers, and the environment in which tea is produced. They have 4 key areas of focus: Raising Standards; Tea Workers; Small-holder Tea Farmers and Climate & Environment.

2. Foodtank

This foodtank article sets out some businesses that are focusing on sourcing and selling ethical and sustainable tea. Plenty of links in this article to interesting suppliers.

3. State of Sustainability Initiatives in the Tea Market

For a really in depth review of the tea market dated 2014 you can download a PDF from this page. State of Sustainability Initiatives (SSI) reports on the characteristics, performance and market trends of sustainability initiatives and is design to help supply chain decision-makers.

4. Youtube

There are loads of useful videos on Youtube covering sustainable tea production. Try watching a few that look interesting to you – that might open up a few more areas for you to start looking in to.

5. Unilever

If you are a PG Tips drinker you may not need to look further than the Unilever website. Whether or not you are a fan of big brands, they often have access to resources and opportunities that the rest of us don’t. Importantly, many of them are working really hard in this field and luckily for us they publish a lot of information!

Assess Sustainability in your Business operations

You can apply this concept to your personal life but importantly it also applies to business. Map out your products and services and pick the most important ones (either the most expensive, or the best revenue generators, whatever makes sense to you. Start with the basics and build out from there. See whether that makes you think differently about that particular product or service or transport method or whatever it is you want to look at in your business operations.


The good news is that you can produce a basic sustainability map for almost anything. The great news is that you will probably find a lot of the information you are looking for has already been published. You are not alone.

I am a sustainability coach with 10 years experience in the sustainability sector. I can help you and your business understand how to identify your material impacts on the environment and start mapping out a path to a more sustainable strategy. Contact me for more information.