Friday, March 25, 2011

What Tea Brands Does Unilever Own? And How Does It Make You Feel?

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.


  1. This information surprised me. I guess a lot of consumers in the US value predictability over diversity, so they might like knowing that a bag of Lipton will taste like a bag of Red Rose. This attitude is not compatible with the "Buy Local" idea of supporting various small sources and taking your chance on quality. I prefer the risk.

  2. Yes! I think few people really understand the dominance of various large corporations; most people find it at least a little unsettling when they learn about it, which is part of the reason I like sharing it.

    First of all, I must really object to your using the word "conusmers". They're not consumers, they're people.

    But that said, I do not believe that people in the U.S. inherently value predictability. Our world is filled with thrill seekers, people who like trying new things, learning new things, trying new foods. RateBeer, a site that has been around much longer than RateTea, has thousands of users who have sampled hundreds of beers, and it has some users who have sampled tens of thousands of beers. And far more people sample just as much, but never review beers online, or use other websites.

    I think that it is the mass corporate culture that has conditioned us to seek out this uniformity. Companies have to work hard to maintain brand loyalty: they invest millions in making sure that brand names appear all over the place. It's not our natural way of being. If we were to gain our information through conversing naturally to others, and through seeking out information on our own, we would not be locked into this consumer culture.

    It's only when we sit in front of the TV, drive by billboards, and attend sporting events where sponsorships are plastered over everything in sight, that we become susceptible to the message of consumerism. And the economic and legal structure of our society affects it too. If all businesses were smaller, brand loyalty might not be such a bad thing. It's only when you have these monopolies and oligopolies of mega-corporations that it gets as bad as it is today.

  3. Alex
    If it was not for the tea productivity R&D that Unilever and a few other MNCs have undertaken over the past 50 years tea prices would be double or triple what they are today. Now Unilever has a joined Rainforest Alliance to promote sustainable tea production - every last leaf of that 12% will be sustainably produced (and RFA certified) by 2015 - looks like their aspirations and yours are converging.

    Nigel at Teacraft

  4. Yes! I agree that Unilever is doing a lot to promote sustainability. However, what is sustainability? People don't agree fully on what it is.

    Personally, I believe sustainability is much more than just environmental sustainability: I think cultural sustainability is equally important. And I think that a consumerist society, in which the economy is dominated by large corporations and individuals are focused on spending and consumption, is not sustainable.

    Unilever has done a lot to move in the direction of environmental sustainability but I have yet to see it do much in terms of cultural sustainability. It remains a powerhouse of consumerism. Will it always be this way? I don't know. Mega-corporations seem to have a huge interest in keeping consumerist culture in place. But I'd be open to seeing something novel happen here.

    Maybe Unilever will some day start selling and spinning off its brands rather than consolidating and acquiring.

  5. This is a very interesting post and somewhat related to a question that I've been thinking on for a long time about Chinese tea market. For many times, I was shocked how many Chinese tea professionals (most of them are even producers and dealers of small-estate fine tea) admire Lipton brand and dream of creating such a giant brand in China. They never drink Lipton tea, but their admiration on Lipton puzzles me a lot.

    I think one reason might be, China is in the rapid development stage, and people admire companies that are big, influential and highly profitable. It was not long ago that China became more open and Chinese people could see more of the rest of the world. They are mesmerized by the power of large corporations but don't see the ugly sides of them. Lipton currently is growing in China, with Tie Guan Yin teabags and sweetened bottled tea sold in many supermarkets. I'm a little concerned that even if Lipton is more and more disliked by western consumers, they may manage to make profit just out of young people in Asia (like what McDonald has achieved).

  6. Alex, thank you. This is a good sign that large corporations are moving in this direction but I have seen nothing in the Rainforest Alliance about pesticides. There has been green tea from China with alarming levels of pesticides which pretty much mitigates any health benefits as far as I am concerned. Perhaps one day this will be addressed, too. Until then, I buy organic.

  7. To respond to SilverGenes, Yes, I don't think the Rainforest Alliance really does as much as they could do in terms of sustainability. Their certification tends to be weaker in certain ways than most organic certification, and furthermore, even organic certification is fairly weak as well--it still allows monoculture.

    The true ideal of sustainability should be the example set by growers like Makaibari estate, where the majority (in their case, 70%) of the land is left as intact rainforest, and in which native trees are interspersed with the tea crop.

    I think it's great that Unilever is moving in the direction of sustainability, but it would be great to move them even farther; they have a long way to go.

  8. To respond to Gingko, I think it's very sad how people in China and other developing countries often look to big multinational corporations and brand names of the west, and make them into idols. Coca-cola and McDonald's are examples of companies that have achieved this sort of status in many developing countries.

    In my opinion, big corporations and global brands represent the worst things to come out of western civilization, and I think it's saddening that people aspire to these things as ideals.

    If there's any one thing that I would like developing countries to pick up from western society, it is the spirit of conservation and the caution surrounding environmental toxins and pollutants. The U.S. currently lives very unsustainably but we have been better than a lot of developing countries in terms of protecting land in nature preserves and also regulating various harmful chemicals.

    If we are to encourage China and other developing countries to emulate us in any way, we would do well to encourage them in this way.

  9. Alex,

    I like that you bring this up, encourage debate and try to stay objective about it. It's too easy to see the big, bad corporation in a critical light.

    You certainly don't give Unilever a pass, but are incredibly generous in your praise for what they seem to be doing well.

    You raise some interesting points and I'm curious how this company might look in the future.

  10. Big is not beautiful. I for one, welcome diversity, in alll facets of my life, from friends to tea and beyond. There can be responsible huge multinational companies but one wonders if this were not a "popular" position if they really would be part of things like the Rain Forest Alliance.

    McDonald's is so big that they control a great deal of the "production" of beef and potatoes suited to french fry making, which I know from personal experience living among potato chip farmers can have a diasterous effect on an ecology.

    It is sad that countries want to emulate our consumerism and pardon me, "low common denominator" of taste. I understand it but it still saddens me. I hope that is not just a statement from affluence wanting to preserve something that keeps people poor. But I have seen that too often those with less want what those with more have but do not really count the cost of getting there.

  11. You are right about potato farming having disasterous effects on ecology. And the predictable nature of McDonalds and other fast foods demands either monoculture crops or highly-processed foods that blends out differences in diversified crops. Either way, big corporations with a consistent product are tightly wedded to the industrialization of our food supply.

    This is why I say that the biggest problem that I see with a company like Unilever and its products like Lipton tea is not the direct environmental consequences of its tea production (which it seems to be doing something about), but the broader problem that its whole business model is based off uniformity, and uniformity is the opposite of diversity. Diversity is allied to sustainability, whereas uniformity is a barrier to sustainability.

    Big corporations can be sustainable...but they will not be fully sustainable until they move away from the model of a uniform, branded product existing within the framework of a consumerism society, and truly embrace diversity.