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Time for tea with sustainable leaves by 2020

Lipton plant in Jebel Ali free zone sets end-of-decade deadline as part of its green mission to source sustainably grown leaves and cut energy consumption.

DUBAI // What's in your cup? By the end of the decade, the world's second-biggest tea factory hopes it will be a beverage that does not harm the planet.

Unilever's Lipton tea blending and packing plant in Dubai's Jebel Ali free zone intends to source all its tea sustainably by 2020.

"If we keep depleting our resources, there won't be sufficient resources to feed the future generations," said Sanjiv Mehta, the chairman of Unilever North Africa and Middle East. "We have a very clear sustainable living plan involving the environment."

The factory also intends to cut its greenhouse gas emissions, its use of energy and water, and its waste.

By 2015, all its tea packed in the yellow label Lipton bags will be sourced sustainably and certified by the Rainforest Alliance, a non-profit organisation that promotes sustainability in agriculture and forestry. The 2020 date has been set for other tea products such as loose leaves.

"How the crops are grown and the workers' conditions will be done on a sustainable basis," Mr Mehta said. "We have the ability to influence people who grow tea to ensure that they do it in [that] manner.

"We are not destroying the environment nor the future yield of the crop and it's an obligation on us to make sure we don't destroy the planet."

The factory processes 12 per cent of the world's tea - 25,000 tonnes a year - producing 1.1 million bags an hour of earl grey, black, oolong, green and flavoured teas, which are then distributed to 46 countries including the GCC, Australia, France, Canada and South Africa.

It plans to double that by 2015 and work on an extension will start within the next fortnight. "We want to make sure we meet the future demand for tea," said Abdelaziz Salah, the plant manager.

The bigger plant is needed because the company has managed to expand the overall market for black and green tea, according to Mr Mehta, persuading more tea drinkers to upgrade to bags rather than loose tea. Dubai was chosen as a location in the late 1990s because of its position at the heart of a region of tea-lovers - and its proximity to the regions where tea is grown, in Kenya, Sri Lanka and Darjeeling in India.

"People in the Middle East are very high drinkers of tea," said Kurush Barucha, the category supply chain director for beverage and a trained tea taster. "It's comparable to the UK and Ireland that have the highest per capita consumption in the world, roughly 3.5 kilos of tea per person per year".

Demand for tea in the Middle East is growing year by year. The UAE uses 5,700 tonnes of tea leaves every year, three-quarters from the Jebel Ali factory.

"It's globally the most popular beverage after water ... because it has zero calories and it is excellent for hydration," said Mr Barucha.

Despite the variety of flavours, plain black tea is leagues ahead.

"The most popular globally is by far black tea," said Altug Kucukogly, the supply chain director. Others are growing, though, especially the herbal and flavoured teas.

The factory aims to become the top tea producer, which is held by the Unilever plant on the edge of Manchester in England. Mr Salah estimates the 10 per cent growth needed will take two to three years.

"For us, the job is to grow the market," added Mr Mehta. "When you have a 75 per cent share of the market, it's not important to grow the slice of the pie, it's important to grow the actual pie."

cmalek@thenational.ae

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