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The WILD Guide to Ethical Tea and Coffee

Updated: Jul 3, 2023

WILD Magazine’s very own, Cass Hebron, shares with us a guide on how to make your brew as ethical and sustainable as possible, from sourcing your tea bags to being eco-friendly on the go.


A tale as old as time itself. A British person, faced with an unexpected half an hour of free time. There’s only one thing that could happen next: we switch the kettle on for a brew. But as you’re watching the water boil and reflecting on the fact that ‘de-scale the kettle’ has been on your to-do list so long that you barely even register it anymore, you may begin to wonder what effect your cuppa is having on the planet. How do you ensure that your cup of tea is people and planet-friendly?

Step one: Read the packaging

There’s certain labels that can tell you a lot about the ethics of the tea or coffee you’re drinking. Look for Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance labels. Fairtrade ensures that the product production adhered to strict regulations over the ethics of the product, including the environmental impact of the farming process and the price that the workers are paid (check out our article demystifying what Fair Trade means). Rainforest Alliance certifies the sustainability of specific farms across a range of environmental and social sustainability criteria.

Many major supermarkets in the UK have own brand tea which is Fairtrade: check out Sainsburys, M&S, Co-Op and Tesco for a start. 


Look for Fairtrade or Rainforest Alliance certification on the packaging.

Step 2: Look at what your tea & coffee comes in

Most tea-bags contain tiny plastic fibres in the lining (which, yes, does mean you literally drink plastic with each cup of tea. Mmm). This means you shouldn’t actually be putting them in the compost. This is an easy fact to miss and not advertised on the packaging, but most of the brands in the UK use plastic to seal the teabag. So how do you get around it? 

There are some brands that advertise that they use a plant-based oil alternative to plastic in their tea: Pukka is the biggest plastic-free tea brand, and P&G Tips announced in 2018 that they plan to follow suit. The BBC put together a guide to the most common brands here

Another alternative is to switch to loose-leaf tea. This is an easy workaround and also means you get to store your tea leaves in glass jars and feel like a medieval medicine woman by brewing different flavours in water (err… That might just be me). 

Coffee packaging is a similar story. It probably doesn’t need to be explained to you that single-use coffee pods are not the key to sustainability. Buy coffee beans, or instant coffee if you’re cheap like me, and make your own and compost the grounds. Boom. Sustainable cup of coffee.


See if your tea bags contain plastic or better still: opt for loose leaf!

Step 3: Don’t overfill the kettle

Us Brits guzzle through an astonishing 165 million cups of tea and 95 million cups of coffee every day. So whilst boiling the kettle once may not use a huge amount of energy, it certainly all adds up. According to Energy Saving Trust, 67% of British households admitted to overfilling the kettle, which not only wastes energy but water too; tea experts warn never to reboil your kettle, so following this rule would mean wasting the excess boiled water.

A simple, easy solution: just boil what you need. It will even save you a few pounds in the long run.

Manufacturers claim that a boiling water tap could be a more sustainable option. If by any chance you have the luxury of forking out for a posh new boiling water tap, this could be a way to increase your energy and water efficiency by removing the issue of overfilling and minimising heat loss through insolation. However, research suggests energy savings are minimal – so perhaps using a kettle to boil just what you need, when you need it, will suffice for now.

Step 4: The milk debate

So I take tea and coffee black like my soul. But many more normal human beings take a splash of milk in theirs. So if you are part of the milk brigade, it’s worth pausing to examine the benefits of different kinds of milk. 

It’s no secret that there’s been a push towards veganism, and this has led to a sudden growth in the range of alternative milks available – but even if you’re not vegan let’s be real, oat milk is amazing. Plant milks tend to have a lower carbon footprint than dairy milk, and also use up less water in their production. 

Soy and oat milk are particularly low on the environmental impact scale so solid choices, and almond milk not far behind (although it uses more water than the others). 

Environmental impacts of different milks

Step 5: Reduce waste when you have tea or coffee

So if you’re having coffee at home you’re probably having it in a mug/teacup/the skull of your enemies. But if you are getting it at a cafe, ask to sit in (if you’re too busy to enjoy a 20 minute cup of coffee but not too busy to make the walk to the coffee shop and queue up in the first place you need to re-evaluate your priorities) or bring a reusable cup and take it to go. Make sure to ask for it in your cup from the start, to avoid the painful experience of watching the barista make it in a disposable cup, pour it into your reusable cup and then take your money. Definitely never happened to me. Definitely didn’t subject my boyfriend to a 25 minute rant about sustainability immediately afterwards. 

Step 6: Enjoy the damn cup of tea 

The sustainability of tea and coffee is a complex issue, with a production process that raises questions about human rights violations, plastic and water usage, and food waste. It can be difficult to take all these factors into account with every shop: what if the only Fairtrade tea has plastic in the lining? What if you can’t afford the plant milk alternatives in your local shop? It’s important to remember that it’s not about being perfectly sustainable, it’s about doing what you can to reduce your individual impact and voting for the future you want with your wallet, within your means.

About the author: Cass Hebron is the founder of WILD Magazine and now working at Oxfam EU in Brussels as Media and Communications Assistant. She is also a DICE Young Storymaker. 

Find her on Pioneers Post

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