Emergence of Trustea: a Dutch-inspired initiative
The initial trigger for the emergence of Trustea can be found in the campaigns by Northern NGOs and civil society organisations in the mid-2000s, aiming to expose the adverse social impacts of tea production in India (e.g. child and forced labour, gender inequality). While the entry into tea production of the aforementioned sustainability standards, such as Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade, can be seen as a direct response to increased public scrutiny, working and living conditions on the large majority of tea estates remained precarious and damaged the image of the Indian tea industry (Interviewees I001, I005).
Hindustan Unilever (HUL) was the first main tea buyer in India who decided to act on this. In 2010, the company declared that it would buy 100% of its tea from sustainable sources by the year 2020 (Interviewees I001, I002, I008, I009). At that time, HUL was using the Unilever Standard for Sustainable Agriculture and had established linkages with Rainforest Alliance to discuss sourcing of certified tea in India. However, it quickly became clear that Rainforest Alliance would not able to certify sufficient estates to cover the supply needed by HUL (Interviewees I007, I008, I009 and I012). Four constraints were identified which impeded quick upscaling of the Rainforest Alliance standard in India. Firstly, Rainforest Alliance’s definition of child labour followed the guidelines of the International Labour Organization for developed countries and set the minimum age for workers at 15 years. In India, however, the minimum legal age is 14, which meant that many estates could not be certified. Secondly, the Rainforest Alliance standard banned a specific weed control chemical widely utilised in India and few less toxic alternatives were available to growers at that time. Thirdly, producers could only receive Rainforest Alliance certification if they had not cut forests since 2005 rather than banning deforestation from the day of certification. Finally, Rainforest Alliance had so far focused on certifying large tea estates, but had hardly any certification experiences in the increasingly important segment of small tea growers (Langford 2019).
HUL initially proposed to adapt the Rainforest Alliance standard on these points, but as the NGO refused, HUL decided to develop a new sustainability standard for Indian tea—one which was more suited to Indian conditions and could reach more tea estates, not only those producing for the export market (Interviewees I001, I002, I005, I007, I009). “These international standards were developed based on different logics of different realities, not the realities of the [Indian] domestic market. They are not going to be very effective in a market like India” (Interviewee I004).
HUL discussed this matter with the Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative (IDH), with whom they had worked together before on a sustainable sourcing programme. The two organisations chose to involve Solidaridad, a Dutch NGO, for its technical expertise and experience in sustainable agriculture (Interviewees I005, I007). Solidaridad had already created a domestic tea standard for Indonesia (Lestari Code) and contributed to writing the section related to tea in the UTZ standard (Interviewees I005, I007). It had also worked on a local sustainability scheme for Southern India in collaboration with Unilever ten years earlier (Interviewee I012). Being the founding and funding partners of Trustea, IDH and HUL were in the position to choose the actors to involve, which they did based on strategic considerations, initially with the main purpose of developing a code of conduct for sustainable tea production (Interviewees I007, I008, I012). In addition to Solidaridad Asia, they invited the Rainforest Alliance to draw on its complementary technical expertise, experience with certification and its international credibility (Interviewee I009). According to one of the creators of the Trustea code (Interviewee I012), these actors were “ahead of time” in discussing sustainability issues in the Indian tea industry. One year later, also Tata Global Beverage and the UK-based Ethical Tea Partnership joined the initiative.
Code development: an expert-driven process
The development of the Trustea code started before the programme’s official launch and was initially driven by two individuals with recognised expertise: a sustainability expert of HUL, with a professional background in tea plantations, and the head of Solidaridad Asia. “Initially, we sat down in a room and created the first draft… then we consulted with stakeholders” (Interviewee I005). The knowledge employed to develop the standard drew largely from the technical expertise of these individuals, complemented with input by tea experts from the Rainforest Alliance and IDH. “This initial team, which created Trustea, was composed by seniors well-known in the industry. They were the best people to give back to the industry, exploiting their knowledge and experience” (Interviewee I002).
Code development started from the existing Unilever Sustainable Agriculture Standard and the Rainforest Alliance standard. This provided legitimacy, according to an individual involved (Interviewee I009). Together, the initiating members of Trustea designed a code which promoted sustainability in a way deemed suitable and feasible for the majority of tea estates and the smallholder producer segment. “The Trustea code is unique for different reasons: it is only applicable to tea; it includes safety standards besides sustainability indicators; it includes smallholders; […] and it pays attention to local realities” (Interviewee I001).
In line with international guidelines for standard creation, field tests were conducted to assess the feasibility of the code on the ground, and public consultations on the draft code were organised with different stakeholders (Interviewees I008, I009, I016). Specific attention was paid to ensuring alignment with the extensive set of government regulations in the Indian tea industry. Therefore, Trustea held several meetings with governmental bodies to get ‘official’ buy-in and support for an Indian sustainability agenda in tea (Interviewees I005, I011). This also shows in the code that was eventually agreed upon: nearly all Trustea code chapters refer to different areas of Indian legislation, such as the Food Safety and Standard Act and key regulations of the Plantation Labour Act. This was necessary to make the code suitable to Indian conditions, while acknowledging that the code would not be useful to support tea exports (Interviewee I003).
Despite the emphasis on local ownership of the code, tea producers were not involved in the code development phase (Interviewees I002, I013, I017, I08). The founding organisations justified this by referring to the lack of experience of producers with sustainability and growing resistance to existing certification schemes at that time. “None of the producers were part of the creation of the code. There were only experts involved. It would have been biased otherwise” (Interviewee I017). Since all experts that were part of code development had a professional history in tea production, it was assumed that they would be able to include the perspective of producers in the code. This was necessary, as “many producers could not think about sustainability in a structured way at that time” (Interviewee I018). Stakeholders therefore emphasised the importance of having experts from the tea industry driving the code development process, which brought in experiences with tea production and provided credibility and good reputation (Interviewees I001, I002).
Formalisation of Trustea: multi-stakeholder governance
Once the code was finalised, Trustea was formally launched in 2013 as a partnership between IDH, Solidaridad, Rainforest Alliance, HUL and Tata Global Beverages. Solidaridad was appointed as implementing partner, together with the Ethical Tea Partnership. The Tea Board of India was explicitly invited to join as the regulatory body of the industry. According to interviews, the involvement of a governmental player was heavily debated among the funding partners who were strongly committed to establishing Trustea as a voluntary and private standard-setting scheme (Interviewee I008). At the same time, governmental support was deemed critical for local buy-in (Interviewees I009, I011).
Trustea’s governance structure consists of three main bodies. The first one is the Funders’ Steering Group, comprised of HUL, Tata and IDH, which is responsible for strategic and funding decisions. The Programme Committee, officially the main decision-making body of Trustea, consists of the founding members mentioned above, plus the Tea Board of India, Gujarat Tea Processors and Packers Ltd, the Indian Tea Association, United Planters Association of Southern India and the National Federation of Small Tea Growers. Furthermore, the Advisory Committee convenes a large group of industry actors, such as brokers and traders, research associations and producers’ representatives, but does not have decision-making power.
According to stakeholders interviewed, this governance structure represents the entire Indian tea industry (Interviewees I001; I009). The only relevant group not included are labour unions, despite an initial consultation. NGOs involved believed that the unions would have brought an important contribution to Trustea; however, Trustea’s funders did not consider them strong and unified enough to be able to participate constructively (Interviewee I007). “We did consult them unofficially and they were supportive of it, but somehow we could not bring them on board […] There was a bit of a feeling that it would have become a kind of, you know, it may not go in the direction which we were looking at, considering that the Indian movement in the tea industry is not exactly what it used to be” (Interviewee I005). Moreover, involving all the workers’ representatives was thought to overcrowd the Programme Committee. Therefore, the founding members of Trustea agreed to proceed without direct representation of tea workers in the programme.
Tea producers, by contrast, are directly represented in Trustea, especially in the Programme Committee which includes two associations for larger producers and one dedicated to small-scale growers. These organisations were invited to Trustea’s meetings as soon as code development was concluded, according to an interviewee (I001). “The producers are all there, in one or another committee” (Interviewee I005). While several stakeholders emphasised that this gives everyone a voice in Trustea, interviewees also recognised the challenges of involving producers in the governance structure. On the one hand, the ability of the National Federation of Small Tea Growers to adequately represent the perspectives of small growers was questioned, as many small growers were considered to be unaware of the existence of Trustea (Interviewee I011). On the other hand, one of the NGOs involved also indicated that the inclusion of producers had increased the level of discussion in Trustea – which other Trustea members tried to carefully manage to limit the scope of discussion: “There is usually a lot of discussion at the meetings since a lot of producers have been taken on board. So the day before the meetings there is a closed-door meeting among the main decision actors to discuss the most pressing issues. After this, there is free discussion during the meeting, where everyone’s ideas are taken into account. This is done to save time, otherwise the discussions would be very long” (Interviewee I009).
This suggests that the three funding organisations and two implementing organisations are able to steer the discussion toward their own agenda, thereby retaining high control over Trustea. This was considered essential to keep the system functional and create a robust management structure (Interviewees I009; I001). Thus, producer organisations mainly perform an advisory role in Trustea, with low decision-making power in comparison with the funders of the programme and the implementing partners.
Roll-out of Trustea: focus on including small-scale growers
Although producers were not part of the code development process and do not feature prominently in the governance of Trustea, they quickly became the focus of attention as soon as the code was adopted and roll-out across the industry started. This pertained especially to small-scale growers, whose share in national production has increased continuously over the years, from 34% in 2014/15 to 47% in 2017/18, due to stagnating estate production (Seetharaman 2018). This made them a major force in tea production, already at the time of Trustea’s launch, but one which had largely been ignored by established export-oriented sustainability standards (Interviewee I005). At the same time, stakeholders were concerned that small-scale growers were mostly unorganised and often disregarded the legal framework that regulates the tea sector in India (Interviewee I011). “The challenge with them is that they usually do not keep records and the lower wages they pay to the people they involve” (Interviewee I012). As such, Trustea also positioned itself as a guardian of Indian tea regulations, with the aim of creating consistency in the industry.
Because Trustea targeted the domestic tea market where offering a price premium was not an option and hence, could not act as incentive (Interviewee I019), Trustea started an extensive producer outreach programme. This involved providing free training in compliance for estates, bought-leaf factories and small-scale growers through Farm Support Centres, located in the main production areas. The field staff attached to the centres also educated small growers in good agricultural practices and basic safety rules, encouraging the formation of self-help groups and cooperatives (Interviewee I004). “There was a lot of training for them offered by Trustea about awareness on chemicals and awareness of the law” (Interviewee I018). To avoid that producers would perceive the standard as being too demanding, Trustea explicitly emphasised the value of producers’ experiences and traditional agricultural practices. For example, the conservation of native vegetation as buffer and natural pesticide, has been included in the latest version of the Trustea code, as a result of pilot tests in small plots of land, especially established for small growers. “The Trustea code incorporates traditional agricultural practices. There’s a strong sense of local” (Interviewee I001). Furthermore, all important documents and manuals were translated into local languages and pictorial guidelines to facilitate understanding by small-scale growers (Interviewee I003).
In addition, having the Tea Board of India as a partner turned out as a critical advantage in increasing outreach towards producers. Due to its active and enthusiastic chairman, the Tea Board quickly emerged as the ‘face’ of Trustea and actively promoted its uptake (Interviewee I001). The official acceptance of Trustea by the Tea Board enhanced its credibility and increased the demand for verification by producers (Interviewees I005, I008, I009). “Once the Tea Board recommended that producers in India should be certified, it had the force of the law, the force of the government” (Interviewee I011).
Finally, while producers expressed concern that Trustea verification would increase their costs of production, the market pull exerted by HUL and Tata also became a motivating argument. These two companies buy 20% of the tea produced in India, collectively, and expressed the commitment to buy only Trustea verified tea by 2020. “They said to producers, if you don’t do the certification by 2019, we will stop buying from you” (Interviewee I005). While there were still many buyers on the market who would purchase non-verified tea, the commitment of the largest tea buyers in India was considered a pivotal driver establishing acceptance of Trustea among producers.