Recently I set out to clearly collect in one place a list of all the brands of tea owned by the Unilever Corporation. RateTea's page on Unilever Tea Brands was born.
What surprised me about this list was the number of brands of tea owned by Unilever which are the dominant players in their respective markets. This list of brands includes Lipton, PG Tips, as well as Bushells in Australia, Red Rose Tea in Canada, and ones less-known in most western countries but dominant in their respective markets, like McCollins Tea in Peru.
Just how big is Unilever? According to Unilever's page on sustainable tea, they purchase 12% of the world's black tea. That's huge. All this stuff got me thinking.
How does this make you feel?
I like to take as neutral a perspective as possible, and I recognize that there are advantages of consistency and quality control, and economy of scale associated with large corporations. Economy of scale can also provide advantages in terms of sustainability, and when a large corporation signs on to sustainable practices it can provide a major global boost to sustainability. Unilever has made a commitment to source its tea sustainably, as discussed in that page above. But is Unilever as a whole a sustainable company? Even if it is sustainable environmentally (and some would dispute this), is it doing the best to promote sustainability culturally?
I am not a fan of corporatism and consumerism, and it's hard to deny that large, multinational corporations have been a centerpiece of the globalization of consumerist culture (the culture where the economy revolves around spending and consumption, people are viewed as "consumers", and everything is dominated by brand names and large corporations), something I frankly find abhorrent. Unilever, which owns a myriad of brands, not just limited to tea or even food products, but spanning soaps and personal care products, cleaners, and much else, certainly plays its part in this globalization of consumerism.
For a more critical take on Unilever, check out PowerBase's page on Unilever's Corporate Crimes. This page levies a broad range of accusations against the corporation. Is this page heavily biased? Yes. PowerBase is a heavily biased organization. Do I agree with all of it? By no means! But is there more truth to these accusations than most people would want to admit? Of course.
Unilever & Tea Culture:
In the tea world, Unilever promotes a uniform culture by marketing mass-produced brands of tea with a consistent flavor. The majority of their sales are in tea bags. The company invests heavily in marketing to establish and maintain brand loyalty, and relies on branding psychology to maintain their market dominance. This is the opposite end of the spectrum of single-origin, single-harvest teas.
When I imagine an ideal world, I picture one in which people are connected to their food, and aware of their food...where they know where their food comes from, and how it is produced. People would make decisions based on taste, not brand loyalty or marketing. The tea industry would be focused on the growers and producers, not the packers, shippers, and retailers. Retailers would see themselves primarily as an intermediary to connect the tea drinkers with the tea producers, and the whole system would be highly transparent. And people would drink loose tea, packaged sustainably, and wouldn't throw anything out. They could toss the used tea leaves directly on their garden, where they'd be growing herbs and vegetables so that they could be eating the freshest, most local food possible.
Let's work together to move towards this world.