The Future of Fair Trade Tea


| Utne Reader January / February 2007


In ancient China, according to legend, the finest teas were harvested by white-gloved virgins using golden scissors. Labor practices have evolved, but the nature of the work hasn't: Tea production today requires a low-wage labor force. A small but increasing number of tea companies are endorsing fair trade practices to ensure that growers and workers are treated with respect - and to give tea sippers one more reason to feel good about their beverage of choice.

To date, only a fraction of the world's tea gardens have adopted fair trade practices - Indian, Sri Lankan, and African estates lead the way - and even fewer have done so in Argentina, China, and Indonesia, where most of the tea in Americans' cups is harvested. While U.S. tea drinkers might be sipping only a small amount of fair trade tea (no more than 1 percent of the tea sold here), tea companies and tea shops are starting to demand more of it. In 2005 the amount of Fair Trade Certified tea and 'herbal tea' imported by the United States climbed 187 percent over the year before.

TransFair USA's black-and-white Fair Trade Certified label is the only meaningful guarantee of fairly traded tea. TransFair audits the supply chain of U.S. importers to ensure that the tea came from certified growers (which are predominantly larger-scale plantations, unlike the small growers and cooperatives in the Fair Trade Certified coffee and cocoa system). The premium paid on top of the market price flows back into a fund managed jointly by tea estate managers and worker representatives, who then allocate money toward community development projects.

Alternatives to Fair Trade certification exist, but with laxer standards. The UK-based Ethical Tea Partnership is an alliance of major UK, European, and North American tea companies (including Twinings, Tazo, and Lipton's parent company, Unilever) that independently monitors tea estates around the world to ensure that they follow local laws, trade union agreements, and some international standards. Meanwhile, the Tea Association of the USA endorses a social justice code of conduct from Nepal and seeks its adoption by China and other countries.