Food & Drinks

Adapting Her Grandmother’s Iconic Tea Business To Climate Change

Ruth Campbell Bigelow built a highly successful interior design business serving wealthy clientele in the 1920’s in New York City and “often traveled out of town to decorate her clients’ second homes in Palm Beach or summer retreats in Maine.” Then the stock market crashed in 1929, wiping out the disposable income her clientele had for her services, and by the early 1940’s, Ruth and her husband David were starting over from scratch. After building a business in Chinese spices, Ruth, a tea drinker unsatisfied with the options available, decided to try her hand at developing a tea she liked.

“She was a real entrepreneur,” her granddaughter Cindi Bigelow told me on my podcast recently. “So, she found an old colonial (tea) recipe, and worked on it in her kitchen, and the next thing you know, she came out with this beautiful tea.…She sent it to a group of ladies and they loved it and continued to drink it and they said it was a source of constant comment,” and that is how the iconic Constant Comment tea came to be, Bigelow explained, now CEO of Bigelow Tea.

Today, the 75-year old tea company has to deal with the challenge of climate change to ensure their product quality and quantity. As an agricultural business and one whose crops come from all over the globe, that’s complicated.

Choosing gardens and people strategically

Bigelow’s Constant Comment tea, and others like Sweet Dreams, are blends of various botanicals, each of which, like cinnamon, may come from a different garden or country, and have different water and other climate-related needs. Mint, for example, requires careful water management, but crops grown in the wild do not, Bigelow said.

They also want to make sure the gardens they use are treating their people well, “having a more holistic view of the value of that botanical and those that are taking care of that botanical,” is how Bigelow summarized choosing their partners strategically. That includes planning ahead for what may happen to that area and that crop as a result of climate change in 5, 10 or 15 years.

“If we align on strategy, they’re very motivated” to follow Bigelow’s criteria, Bigelow said. “They need their crops to survive. They need to be able to have a quality crop for a value.” Adding, ”with the right people… people who really had that long-term mentality.”

Focusing on sustainability and mitigating climate change

Bigelow Tea became a certified B – or “benefit” – corporation in 2019 under Cindi Bigelow’s leadership. In their announcement, she said, ”Our purpose has always been about much more than making profits. We’re committed to good citizenship, ethical business practices, accountability and transparency, protecting the environment, sustainability and supporting our communities.”

To ensure their gardens are maintaining Bigelow’s sustainability standards and making sure they are treating their people well, she is “asking the difficult questions…making sure they put the right teams in place, and we’re having very serious conversations,” she told me. “It’s really just aligning of values and then aligning the strategy,” building long-term relationships, yet maintaining the freedom to change gardens if their standards are not being met.

An infographic about their corporate responsibility actions on their website says that 78 of their teas are “certified sustainable,” which they facilitate by testing, Bigelow said. “You have to test. We get the results of their tests. We also often test the competitors. So, it’s really about using independent labs to ensure what you’re buying is what you’re getting.”

When it comes to managing energy use, they use a combination of solar panels on their buildings and buying wind and water energy offsets. Bigelow says that doing so, combined with “doing everything possible to reduce the energy required,” justifies them stating “100% of their energy use comes from renewable sources,” on their infographic.

Getting employees on board?

Reducing the company’s energy use, recycling and taking other steps to reduce waste going to landfills requires employees making behavioral changes.

“Some people, Joan, just want to do it, they’re into it, they believe in it, they’re willing to do whatever it takes. They’ll take their garbage and they’ll divide it into the right garbage cans and there’s no need to tell ‘em,” Bigelow told me. “There’s others that have no idea why we’re doing this. They see no value. So, you have to role model, you can never take your foot off the pedal, and you really have to constantly share your vision.” She said it’s “not unusual” for her to occasionally pull stuff out of the trash that belongs in recycling herself, in full view of her staff.

When people on her team come to her with ideas, she implements those ideas to keep them engaged. Sometimes those ideas score big points with the employees and the community, such as the Bigelow community garden that she said produces 400 pounds of food a year, which is donated to the local food bank (pictured).

Bigelow says it all requires, “listening, believing and honoring,” being consistent in your messages and walking the talk.

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