Partnering for a better cup of tea: the Ethical Tea Partnership and systems change.

August 15, 2022

So often, we hear about the need for collaboration to address complex problems — problems like poverty, climate change, gender inequality, systemic racism, and the legacies of colonisation. Some would describe these as wicked problems- resistant to single and simple solutions delivered by actors working alone.

Now imagine trying to tackle not one, but all of these issues. And at the same time.

That’s the situation for the Ethical Tea Partnership. Since being established in 1997, ETP has been working to improve the way tea is produced, and to tackle the deep-rooted issues facing those who work in the industry, which include the health and safety of workers, gender inequality, housing and sanitation, incomes and livelihoods, climate change and the environment and access to opportunities. Today, ETP’s strategy is focused on change in three overarching areas:

  • Economics of tea.
  • Equality in tea.
  • Environmental sustainability of tea.

In our recent webinar with ETP exploring collaboration for systems change, three key takeaways emerged:

1. When tackling issues that are systemic and deep rooted, partnerships provide a mechanism for establishing long-term, shared and enduring action.

2. Multi-stakeholder and multi-sectoral partnerships that include a diversity of voices, perspectives, skills and resources are well-positioned to foster and promote multiple modes of action, targeting multiple features of a system.

3. Learning about what is working in a partnership (and what is not), and the value it creates for different stakeholders, is critical for making decisions about where to focus resources and energy. Building an inclusive culture of learning and improvement is therefore key.

From its formative years as an audit-based initiative, ETP has evolved to a partnership squarely focused on systems change. As described by ETP’s Executive Director Jenny Costelloe, achieving systems change in the tea industry requires action on multiple fronts — projects delivered on the ground; pilot initiatives with business partners; and efforts to inform and influence the policy landscape at national, regional and global levels.

“It’s an orchestration of activities, and often success comes from the timing of those activities” — Jenny Costelloe, Executive Director, ETP.

As a member-based partnership, ETP brings together 50 tea producing companies to invest in this work. One of those members, Tetley, has been part of the partnership for more than 25 years. What brings a company such as Tetley to a partnership such as ETP, and what keeps them in it?

Dr. Anurag Priyadarshi, the Global Sustainability Director for Tata Consumer Products (Tetley’s parent company) describes the value of ETP for members in three ways: (1) an improved ability to manage risk; (2) greater capacity to work on large and complex projects; and (3) a means for collaborating with leading actors from across the tea value chain.

“The tea industry is large and complex, fragmented and always changing. ETP offers a chance for us to come together and work on long-term impactful projects” — Dr. Anurag Pryadarshi.

It’s this enduring nature of ETP as a convenor of the tea industry, that appears central to its success, including coordinating on-the-ground projects that are changing the lives of those most affected by the challenges facing the industry. As described by Rachid Boumnijel, Head of Programmes at ETP, the Partnership is able to work as a critical friend for its project partners: “speaking to members, engaging members, and understanding their perspectives.” And in doing so, is able to demonstrate its programmes’ significant impact on workers, farmers and the environment.

Yet partnerships aiming to create systems change have to deliver more, and be more, than a collection of individual projects. Through ETP’s convening role, the partnership is amplifying the visibility of those working in the tea industry. Jane Nyambura, Stakeholder and Partnerships Manager for ETP in Kenya describes the Partnership’s key value as helping to “create awareness and voice the challenges and issues facing people in tea communities” — issues that do not always find their way to the surface of public discussion and debate.

“Some members, certification bodies and producing organization have been shy to talk about these issues: but with ETP, they are able to join our choir” — Jane Nyambura, Stakeholder and Partnerships Manager, ETP Kenya.

Given the complexity of ETP, and the challenges it is attempting to address, learning and evaluation becomes central to building a strong, adaptable and effective partnership. Tiphaine Valois, Insights Manager for the Partnership, highlights the importance of understanding the ‘user requirements’ for evaluative data — “who is interested in this information? Why? What will they do with it?” Understanding the needs of those who will use evaluative data about the partnership is central to building a learning culture that enables a partnership to adapt and adjust to changing contexts, as well as demonstrate the value of its work.

“It’s important that it’s owned by all staff members” describes Tiphaine, so that “it acts as a tool that supports decision making.”

And it’s this value of a partnership’s work that is so important, yet so difficult to demonstrate. For those partnerships focused on systems change, the challenge is even more problematic — particularly when we’re being asked for clear and direct linkages between the work of a partnership and changes in systems. As Tiphaine explains, the pathway forward might be less about proving the change that our partnerships have created, and more about highlighting and understanding the way systems are changing and the contributory nature of our work to those changes.

“We don’t want to attribute everything that is being achieved to our own activities. If we do that, we remove the agency of other actors that are also working toward these changes” — Tiphaine Valois, Insights Manager, ETP.

Understanding how systems are changing, and learning about those changes — including the contributions of our collective roles — is an important step for all systems-change partnerships. As ETP continues to evolve, we’re excited by what lays ahead: for the partnership, for its members, and for the communities it serves.