Entrepreneurs

Numi Tea Aims To Build Carbon Footprint Awareness, One Cup Of Tea At A Time

As impacts of the climate crisis grow more severe and immediate, more business leaders are seeking ways to take meaningful action to combat this global concern. Some brands are making commitments to reduce their carbon footprint, which is an important step if we want a fighting chance to avoid a significant rise in global temperatures. But even if companies make significant changes to their practices, it’s difficult for consumers to determine the environmental impact.

That’s one reason why Numi Tea, a Fair Trade company that specializes in unique and innovative tea blends, has removed the confusion by introducing a Carbon Footprint Label. Having been added to all of their tea boxes earlier this year, the label breaks down each product’s carbon emission for four categories — ingredients, packaging, transport, and preparation — to help people better understand the carbon impact of their tea purchases.

In measuring the carbon footprint of a cup of its tea, Numi discovered that nearly half — 46%, to be specific — comes from boiling the water, while ingredients account for 23%, packaging 18%, and transport 13%. To help reduce their carbon emissions, Numi tea drinkers are advised to use an electric tea kettle, boil only the amount of water they need, and opt for clean energy sources where available.

But Numi has broader goals for consumer education and carbon footprint awareness. To follow up on an earlier conversation about the company’s social and environmental impacts, I sat down with Jane Franch, Numi Tea’s Vice President of Strategic Sourcing & Sustainability. In our conversation, she told me more about Numi’s new Carbon Footprint Label and how it was developed. “We’re seeing this as an opportunity to open up a new line of communication with our consumers to contribute what we hope will be a growing carbon literacy in our population,” Franch says. By making this small addition to its products, Numi hopes to build people’s understanding of carbon and its impact and use that information to shape their purchases and behaviors.

Christopher Marquis: Numi Tea has a history of working to reduce its environmental footprint. Why does Numi Tea think it’s important to pursue new and better ways of reducing its environmental impact?

Jane Franch: We are a mission-driven company as well as a public benefit corporation. Baked into the charter of our organization is an imperative to benefit all of our stakeholders. We do that through mindful decisions about the way we source the products we bring to market and how we package them. That’s really been a part of our company’s DNA since the very beginning, and we have incrementally pushed ourselves further and further. As we’ve gone along, we’ve also sought to push the industry further and further. Along the way we’ve even helped co-found industry groups like One Step Closer Packaging Collaborative. We participated in these precompetitive working groups to collectively brainstorm ways to address social and environmental issues that are important to us, including fair treatment of workers in supply chains, plastics in our packaging, policy and advocacy, and even how to influence climate policy as a brand. Today, we have a long history as an organic and Fair Trade brand.

To start our carbon footprint work, we had to define our supply chain. We already had an advantage in that we built our company from direct, long-term relationships with farmers. We are very familiar with our black tea farmers and how we supply our green tea (from China) and turmeric (from Madagascar). We know those suppliers really well, but there were all these other things that we didn’t know so well. It takes a long time to track all that information down.

We worked with Soil & More Impacts capture data on farming methods and the soil. They’re based in the European Union, and we chose them because they have a lot of experience with organic tea and botanicals, in particular. When you’re doing this kind of modeling, it’s really important to understand what assumptions you’re making and why. We didn’t feel like we were going to get the right information if we just used proxy data that’s publicly available because organic farming is quite different than conventional farming. So we did that original data capture. In some cases we were translating these surveys into Chinese and we were enlisting organic auditors to collect the data during farm visits. Our objective was to get high quality data by enlisting primary sources in the collection. It took awhile — probably another six to nine months — to complete that data capture.

When we’re talking about agriculture and food products, most of the conversation rightly is around farm-level, field-level emissions. That’s because most of our row crops are conventional and have that turning of the soil, which have nitrous oxide emissions and all that. So we kind of had that in our mind, and then we got our data back and discovered that in organic tea cultivation there’s carbon sequestration happening at the farm level, which was super interesting.

Thinking about it, a tea garden is essentially an agroforest. And when you add organics so that you’re not adding synthetic fertilizer, and you have good practices around mulching and compost application, you have a sequence duration model that emerges. It was really exciting for us to see that in the numbers; to have a new way to talk about the benefits of organic and agroforestry.

What it also highlighted was that the emissions were really coming from the processing equipment in the countries of origin. So that was very interesting to think about the supply chain. From there, we analyzed the transportation and packaging. But what we learned at the farm level was the most interesting.

Marquis: Can you tell me a little bit more about how you decided to narrow down these numbers from your study onto a simple label? How do you think this carbon label will help consumers understand the impact of their purchase?

Franch: We’ve been talking about creating a carbon label for many years. You might regularly see and purchase a certain brand from the grocery store, but that is typically the limit of your interactions with them. So most of the information you get is going to be on the box. Nowadays, we have digitally native consumers who interact with brands on a deeper level. It’s no longer just about what tea they should purchase, but what they can learn from a brand. What does the brand say about the issues they care about? With this in mind, we realized that we can be more than someone’s favorite source of Earl Gray Tea. We can be someone’s source of information for world matters. In fact, during our rebrand we embraced a new tagline: “Activating Purpose.” It really challenged us as a company to embrace purposeful causes. For example, climate change is a cause we’ve always felt called to take part in, so we saw “Activating Purpose” as a way to recognize that.

Once we collected all our data, we were able todefine our full carbon footprint. For two or three years now, we’ve gone through an annual process where we gather a full accounting of our emissions and then plan how we can make reductions as part of our Climate Neutral certification. We’ve also begun to develop competency within the brand, deciding what we want to share with our consumers. Then it was just a natural progression to finally do it.

We had internal discussions about how our consumers would benefit from such a label, what the value would be, and whether they would fully understand what it means. It’s a valid discussion. If you think about when nutritional information was first required on packaging, no one could tell you what a calorie was. So it’s not about whether everybody knows what a gram of carbon is; it’s about developing that cultural competency and literacy around carbon in a similar way to how we developed it around calories. With what we now know about calories, their numbers can tell you something about the nutritional value of that food and it might impact the choice you make. We’re hoping it becomes the same with carbon.

We wanted to be part of this ecosystem that now includes brands such as Oatly, Allbirds, Just Salads, and hopefully more friends to come. So consumers can kind of start to use this information to make choices. And I think there are some simple illustrative examples that can show you the power of this. If we look at a cup of tea, our calculation came up to 0.038. But if you compare that to, let’s say an organic, fair trade latte, their number will highlight issues with milk and dairy in the food system. So I think we’re seeing this as an opportunity to open up a new line of communication with our consumers and to contribute to what we hope will be a growing carbon literacy in our population.

Marquis: Share a bit about the carbon labeling project and Numi’s work with PLANET FWD. How did it start, and how long did it take?

Franch: When we decided we wanted to move forward with our carbon labels and we had all the data we needed — for Scopes 1, 2, and 3 — we brought on PLANET FWD. They’re really smart folks who have been doing life cycle analyses (LCA) for a while. We were impressed with their collective experience, expertise, and quite frankly their focus on the food system. They understand the timeline in which we need to get things done.

So PLANET FWD came in and audited our Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. They helped transform that data into LCA data. On top of that they came up with our water calculation. We talked about how we would do it, and even though we don’t know how every household heat their tea bags, we came up with an equation. First, we have approximate distribution centers that we send our teas to. We took the data on these distribution centers and extrapolated from that. Then PLANET FWD took the distribution of all our tea across the United States and looked at the typical grid mix in each of those places as well as whether it is more common to have household gas appliances or electric in particular locations. For example, if you look at Atlanta, they researched the energy mix between electric and gas stoves, and they developed a weighted average using our distribution of data, which is sort of a grid mix and appliance mix across our distribution zones, and came up with a number.

Marquis: What percentage of the carbon is left in your control from your supply chain, and how much after it leaves the store?

Franch: It’s pretty interesting. We put a lot of tea in our tea bags, but 46% of our carbon footprint is from heating up the water. It’s a really interesting number. But one of the things I like about having this data is that, because in having talked so much about whether we should make this carbon label and then about whether we should include the information about boiling water, we ultimately decided that it’s all important because it’s a part of this carbon literacy that I’ve been talking about. Including this information opens the door to conversations around energy policy. And for many of us, this concept is still quite abstract and feels so far away. It’s something they’re talking about in Washington, so how does it impact me, right? But we bring it straight to your cup of tea. This is energy policy, right here in your cup of tea.

Marquis: One last question: What are the top suggestions you would share with other businesses considering adopting carbon labeling for their products?

Franch: The first thing you have to do is wrap your arms around your own Scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. That’s first, because it can take some time to do that, and I think it’s something we all need to do. Then, I think the information you get from there will dictate where you go next. But you first have to figure out what matters to your brand and why. And that Scope 1, 2, and 3 measurement is a really important first step.

Another piece of it is understanding how it relates to the purpose of your organization; how it fits into your corporate goals. It can help drive the conversation in terms of your stakeholders because that can be complicated — taking this one idea and getting it all the way across the finish line. So be sure to think it all the way through. Once you have the information, figure out what you’re going to do next, who you are going to present it to, and how it will fit into your narrative. Essentially, where do we go from here?

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