The Future of Fair Trade Tea

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.

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