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The Question: What is Sustainable Tea?

In the summer of 2018, a new research project entitled SUSTEIN (SUStainable TEa INfrastructures) that investigates sustainable certification of tea in Africa, United Arab Emirates and Western Europe began at the Department of Management, Society and Communication, CBS. SUSTEIN is led by Associate Professor Martin Skrydstrup who has been awarded one of the highly sought-after Sapere Aude Starting Grants by the Danish Council for Independent Research.

Tea is the most consumed beverage in the world next to water. But what is sustainable tea? How is it being certified? And who benefits from which sustainability standards? These are some of the questions that Martin and his team are going to explore with his new research project Sustainability’s Infrastructure: A novel ethnographic approach to the global value chain of certified tea (SUSTEIN).

“In our daily life we meet more and more goods that are certified. But do we really know what labels such as MSC in the fish counter, FSC on the milk carton, UTZ on chocolate and FLO on coffee means? In this project we will investigate how the tea industry competes on sustainability and how the concept of sustainability becomes a commodity in itself,” Martin says.

The purpose of the project is not to rate the value of the specific sustainability certificates, but to clarify the terms under which such certifications are constructed, and the roles they play in the global value chains to create more transparency about sustainable certification – not least the impacts of the different types of certification. Tea is the specific case, but the research project has potential to contribute to a better understanding of sustainability certification processes across industries. According to Martin Skrydstrup, the aim is to uncover the many steps in the global supply chain prior to our encounter with sustainable certification labels that we meet in our daily lives.

“Through investigating the infrastructure of the tea industry from Kenya to Dubai we will be able to demonstrate how the concept of sustainability is understood and implemented, and who benefits from it. Among other things, this will deepen the knowledge we are able to use to advise relevant organisations on both national and international levels about sustainability standards and certification. Our ambition is to establish a new theoretical framework with which to understand sustainability standards globally.”

Follow the tea

Martin Skrydstrup received 5.886.680 DKK from DFF, which has created a new assistant professorship for Matthew Archer and a postdoctoral research fellowship for Hannah Elliott. The research team will combine anthropological fieldwork in several different sites along the global supply chain of certified tea together with archival studies, in order to explore the inter-related roles of legislation, institutions and economic structures within global value chains. The empirical imperative is to trace the interplay of tea governance and tea production systems, of tea discourse and tea materialities at local, regional, national and the global levels.

The research project is planned to run initially for 2 years.