Tea Experts Discuss the Most Important Industry Issues – Part Two

Tea Issues
(Image by: World Tea Media)

In Part One of this series, tea industry experts and influencers offered their thoughts on some of the most important issues in the tea industry today. Part Two continues the dialogue, as more tea professionals speak out and share their views.

Jill Rheinheimer, TeaHaus:
“In a year rocked with a catastrophic pandemic, raging wildfires, economic free fall, disrupted transportation and millions struggling for survival – when the world seems nearly apocalyptic – how does one possibly isolate a single major threat to the tea industry, and how can an individual even make a difference? As I parse out the state of tea gardens worldwide, many of them seem extraordinarily vulnerable due to poor worker conditions, the ravages of climate change-induced weather events, and the struggle to turn a profit. Still, tea – the backbone of many economies – continues to be produced. But in my personal experience as an employee of a small, independent tea shop, and writing a research-based tea blog, it’s the micro businesses that are also extremely fragile. Profits have always been minimal, and now such businesses have had to nimbly adapt to constantly changing conditions while facing daunting transportation costs, the inability to obtain certain teas and merchandise, an eroding customer base, and so on. Within a community, it’s often the independent tea shops that are key to educating consumers not only about tea, but about tea gardens and workers as well. Knowledgeable consumers will then drive demand for decent conditions and wages for tea workers, for tea that’s been tested for purity, for high-quality teas, and for action regarding climate change. Each individual, united with others, begins to have a voice, to make a difference; education is the foundation to change. Thus, to impact a global economy, starting at home – by supporting and publicizing our local tea shops – may be a first step.”

Simon Hague, Tea, Cocoa and Coffee Lead, Kerry Taste and Nutrition (Asia Pacific, Middle East, South Africa):
“The Asia Pacific, Middle East and South Africa (APMEA) region is a unique market when it comes to the ‘health halo’ effect around drinks like tea. Many local ingredients believed to be powerful antioxidants have been used in daily cooking for generations in this region. Interestingly, scientific studies have shown that these ingredients actually do have healing properties and other health benefits. Take turmeric, a spice common in APMEA, even in tea. It is an adaptogen that’s believed to fight the effects of stress and re-balance the body. As consumers are more health-conscious today, they are more likely to buy a product if they see research-backed data that supports its health claims. So, products like tea that are deeply rooted in health traditions but show clinically supported results will likely be a hit in the market. In addition, to get consumers to try a product for the first time, it needs to contain ingredients they are already familiar with or appreciate. For example, if you’re going to create a new flavor here, you could pair it with oolong tea, which is well-known, or a popular fruit like passionfruit.”

Miguel Gil, CEO, Organic India:
“Environmental health is the most important issue affecting the global tea industry’s continued growth, especially as herbal and wellness teas continue to gain traction. We believe it is critical for manufacturers and producers to adopt methods that proactively contribute to a benevolent supply chain, from agricultural practices, to fair wages and community revitalization initiatives to move beyond “organic” and embrace the principles of regenerative agriculture. These practices are proven to increase carbon sequestration and facilitate environmental recovery, leading to economic resilience. Bio-regenerative agriculture is the first step in building sustainable, ethical supply chains – incorporating Fair Trade principles alongside these practices has allowed rural farming communities in India to recover from the environmental blight created by industrialized agriculture. Organic India calls for the industry to adapt a stance of accountability to the welfare of farmers, the environment and consumers. By doing so, the global tea market can become a value-driven system that delivers meaningful benefit at every level and every point on the supply chain.”

Michael D. Ham, President, Wild Orchard Green Tea:
“With the global pandemic forcing us all to slow down, reflect and take inventory of our health, our relationships, and our place in a rapidly evolving world, we have the opportunity as an industry to make an indelible mark on one of humanity’s greatest modern challenges – the deteriorating state of people and planetary health. Working collectively and collaboratively to align our life values into every step of the supply chain will provide consumers with more nutrient dense and healthier teas without any harmful contaminants, educate and grow a new legion of loyal tea lovers, and provide economic stability to producers. A recent study showed that regenerative farms were almost 80 percent more profitable than conventional farms. A regenerative model not only improves farmer welfare that is sorely lacking in our industry it also allows our earth’s soil biology to be restored and the sequestration of carbon into the ground to help balance our rapidly changing climate. A shared vision with people and planetary health set as foundational pillars will allow people to understand what is driving climate change. It’ll inspire us to respect natural habitats and be more mindful about how our individual lifestyle choices impact not only our health and those around us, but can also help re-balance our climate, restore ruined ecosystems, and allow for higher quality teas to be produced.”

Jason Walker, Marketing Director, Firsd Tea North America
“While innovation is important at any time and place of an industry, the demands of our current climate call for particularly innovative responses. The core areas of innovation for tea include: 1. Taste/Flavor. 2. Function. 3. Convenience. 4. Value. Without necessarily ignoring any of those areas, the immediate business environment calls for greater innovation in several areas:

Current and historical data from SARS and MERS periods revealed an uptick in tea consumption during health crises. This trend has held true, opening doors to deliver teas as wellness and to present teas as part of a healthier lifestyle. Green and white teas are often perceived as healthier forms of tea, as research on green tea is more abundant. Shortly after the COVID outbreak in China, the Chinese domestic retail market saw a flood of tea blends designed with traditional Chinese herbs associated with TCM aimed at maintaining the body’s natural health balance. These blends often used green and pu’er teas as their base. The door is still open for similar functional innovations to gain share in US tea.

Clientele along the chain will appreciate greater convenience in tea offerings and packaging. Innovation will be important for consumers needing flexibility as they shift more frequently between working from home and returning to the office. Cafes, office pantry, and other foodservice will seek smaller unit sizing to help manage cash flow and inventory levels against fluctuations in foot traffic. Given the shortages seen with toilet paper and some other grocery items, an affordable, quarantine-edition bulk item may also have greater appeal for certain segments prepping for longer intervals between shopping. Packaging that facilitates “contactless” handovers between people will also be more desirable for the foreseeable future.

Good value can be a part of all tea innovations, with value positioning options available at both ends of the spectrum. For many, value offerings during tighter economic times will mean more affordable options. However, organic, more premium functional teas, and sustainable teas (like Fair Trade) still have a place with many consumers as teas that deliver on value in terms of enhancing clean living and support for farmers economically impacted by the pandemic.

Most businesses will experience discomfort as they seek to rise to these challenges, but traditional, “old school” industries may find it especially difficult to adapt. Greater burden will shift away from the work of selling what the company has historically produced, and toward finding out what customers truly want and pushing the organizational changes necessary to produce it.”

Mackenzie Bailey, Founder, Steeped Content:
“As a digital marketing professional, specializing in serving tea companies, I have a unique perspective into the challenges retail tea businesses face communicating their brand and differentiating their product line. After examining over 150 tea retailers’ sites, one crucial marketing issue in the tea industry is an abundance of weak, relatively homogeneous content. Recipes abound, but insightful, well-researched, credible content is scarce. This means that many tea brands miss the opportunity to connect with their audience in the topics they are interested in, such as tea’s health benefits. However, this void is an opportunity for actors across the tea vertical -such as farms, wholesalers, associations and retail brands- to capture traffic and grow the market and their bottom line by stepping forward to provide exceptional content to their audience.”

Orit Eisenberg, CEO, Mennä Inc.:
“There are many points in the evolution of the hydration industry and the challenges it faces in relation to the tea merchandising industry. If I look back 10 years ago in the merchandising industry, we called it ‘drinkware’ – and it was a small part of the housewares industry. The market was small and nothing like it is today. Today, hydration has its own industry and image, and it’s trending and fashionable to have a travel mug, cup or a bottle. You walk into a trendy clothing store and they are selling travel mugs and accessories…we did not see this years ago. Hydration is all about health and how important it is to stay balanced. The era of being connected internally. This generation walks into a coffee or tea shop today with a travel mug because they are keeping in mind the environment. Innovation, sustainability, environmentally friendly is so important in product development.

I am currently working with compostable, biodegradable materials for my private label business and trying to build that into my hydration product line. We strive to keep the product fashionable, affordable and durable for reuse. It is not so easy, but we are on track. The challenges we face are the time needed for research and development, finding materials that are 100 percent compostable and that can stand heat, materials that can be printed on and are washable. Then creating the molds. It definitely does not happen over night. In the world of business product development, differentiation is always in the forefront of my mind. That’s why Mennä was such an important project for me. I had this vision to simplify the way we drink tea and address some of the challenges facing the industry. It addresses the needs of innovation that the retailers need today, and this will drive sales growth as it new and fits the fast-past world we live in.

Tea is the second most consumed beverage worldwide after water. And a shift is slowly happening – tea is now solidly experiencing  great growth across North America. Retailers are making more shelf space for the expected demands.  We have to stay focused on the needs of sustainable, earth-friendly materials in a fashionable package to offer a younger generation attractive tea merchandise… Progress is two steps forward, one step back. COVID-19 represents a step back for so many, but when we move beyond a COVID -19 world, the tea industry is in a strong position to strengthen its current position and extend its growth. Let’s get prepared and use the strength we have today to not let this hold us back!”

Read Part One of this World Tea News series here.