A Steep Climb: The Secret Sustainability Story of China Mist Tea

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By Stephanie Funk
By Stephanie Funk

No one knows better than John Martinson that a good cup of tea starts with hot water. Before co-founding China Mist Iced Tea Company in 1983, he had dropped out of college twice, and both he and co-founder Dan Schweiker had separately gone broke in the coffee business.

The two tinkered with tea combinations in Martinson’s kitchen until they came up with a blend they later dubbed “China Mist” – a high-quality iced tea meant to be brewed fresh in restaurants and hotels. Within a few years, the company outgrew the kitchen, then the garage. The small China Mist team began to foster an eclectic bunch of entrepreneurs and set them up as independent distributors of China Mist products. Today, China Mist teas are sold by more than 60 distributors worldwide, including many who have been with the company for over 25 years.

Martinson’s particular “cup of tea,” his passion for sustainability, took longer to steep. His environmental sensitivity can be traced to his childhood growing up in a small town in New York’s Hudson River Valley, where the river near his hometown park was too polluted for swimming. While China Mist grew in financial moxie, Martinson’s personal values evolved (resulting in his becoming a vegetarian in 1988, for example). By the mid-1990s, with China Mist bringing in steady revenue, Martinson began to input those values to business.

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FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: JOHN MARTINSON AND DAN SCHWEIKER TINKERED WITH TEA COMBINATIONS IN MARTINSON’S KITCHEN UNTIL THEY CAME UP WITH A BLEND THEY LATER DUBBED “CHINA MIST.”

China Mist was first to market with herbal iced teas for foodservice in 1993, then green iced teas in 1998, and finally, in 2003, the first USDA Organic and Fair Trade Certified iced tea, a blend they called Estate Black. At the time, Martinson regularly attended Lifestyles of Health and Sustainability (LOHAS) conferences, where he learned about the market for sustainable products. One major hitch: “Our business was foodservice, not retail. Consumers were asking for organic products, and were willing to pay more for them, but restaurants were less interested,” said Martinson. For most foodservice buyers, the cost of the certifications made a tea like Estate Black essentially D.O.A. Most restaurant owners insisted their customers simply didn’t care.

Martinson knew that the sustainable foodservice market also needed more time to steep. “It took some time for that market to emerge. Millennials, as a generation, care more about the products they buy and the companies they do business with,” he said. Within the last five years, says Martinson, Millennials have started to become the decision makers – emerging chefs, foodservice buyers, etc. – and are heavily influencing how restaurants buy products.

FROM LEFT TO RIGHT: JOHN MARTINSON AND DAN SCHWEIKER TINKERED WITH TEA COMBINATIONS IN MARTINSON’S KITCHEN UNTIL THEY CAME UP WITH A BLEND THEY LATER DUBBED “CHINA MIST.”
“I wanted to understand sustainability as a practitioner – not simply as a marketer. I wanted to really understand [How to do sustainable business] and I wanted to do the hard work, not just buy the certifications.” – John Martinson

While the market made its slow evolution, Martinson returned to Arizona State University in 2009 to finish the undergraduate degree he started in the 1970s. His interest was immediately piqued by a course called “History and Philosophy of Sustainability.” At the time, ASU’s School of Sustainability was only three years old. “I was really excited that there was a course of study that I could really sink my teeth into,” he said.

Martinson received permission from his dean and the School of Sustainability’s dean to substitute core sustainability courses for his degree’s Urban Studies requirement, and he graduated in 2012 Summa Cum Laude. Post-grad, he found that none of the Sustainability Master’s programs were a good fit, but was told that an Executive Master’s of Sustainability Leadership Program (EMSL) was in the works. “I’ll wait,” he told his advisor.

Two years later, Martinson entered the EMSL Program, an intensive 13-month course of study geared towards giving working professionals the knowledge and tools they need to advance sustainability in their respective fields. Martinson tackled the program with a single goal in mind: “To put my values into practice with my business and my life. I wanted to understand sustainability as a practitioner – not simply as a marketer. I wanted to really understand [how to do sustainable business] and I wanted to do the hard work, not just buy the certifications.” In January 2016, Martinson graduated.

With his education earned and a foodservice market that has evolved to demand sustainable products, what “hard work” is ahead for Martinson now? He plans to create a new iced tea brand with a social purpose and launch it as a Certified B Corporation in the next two years.

“I want to do some really good work. I want to really apply my values to business. I’ve learned how to do that in the Executive Master’s Program. It’s a matter now of putting those values to work,” Martinson said.


China Mist is also now a member of the Ethical Tea Partnership, a not-for-profit that works to improve the sustainability of the tea sector, the lives of tea workers and farmers, and the environment in which tea is produced. Visit chinamist.com and follow China Mist on social media to stay updated on their sustainability news.

Stephanie Funk is a Storyteller for China Mist Iced Tea Company. She has a degree in Creative Writing from Arizona State University and is a former Green Living intern.

For more business profiles, go to greenlivingaz.com/bizprofile

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