Why Tea Lovers Should Care About Fair Trade

Tea Pickers in Terraced FieldThere are many steps from the farmer to the tea in your cup, with little of the retail price being distributed to those who actually plant and pick the leaves.  For tea lovers to continue to enjoy high quality tea in their cups, the fairness of the tea supply chain matters.

How Tea is Grown and Processed

The largest tea exporting countries are India, Kenya, and Sri Lanka where tea is grown on both small holder farms and large tea plantations (tea estates).  Tea bushes take 3 – 5 years to reach maturity, depending on the altitude where they are grown.  Most tea is picked by hand to ensure that the correct size leaves are harvested.  The tea is weighed and the picker paid based on weight.  Tea leaves are then taken to the factory and dried before processing.

Black tea, oolong tea, green tea, and white tea all come from the same leaves.  The difference is in how the leaves are picked and processed.  Black tea is oxidized during processing, while green tea is not.  Oolong teas are oxidized for half the time as black teas.  White tea is picked before buds have opened on the tea bush.

Low Wages for Tea Farmers

Since tea farmers do not have direct access to tea markets in the US and Europe, they receive only a small part of the price paid by consumers.  Processing and distribution of tea is controlled by a handful of multi-national corporations, with the majority of profits staying in the hands of the retailers and marketers of tea products.

This consolidation means that tea farmers have few potential buyers and limited bargaining power.  As a result, wages are low and labor shortages are beginning to limit tea production.  Wages are so low in India, that an investigation by the Guardian found that workers on tea plantations in India are selling children into slavery because their wages are so low.

By providing more access to markets, fair trade can help tea producers find more demand for their crop.  Higher prices paid at the source should allow for better wages to workers.  One of the major challenges to the fair trade model in the tea industry is to ensure that large-scale tea plantations actually do increase worker pay in exchange for the fair trade label.  Since most tea plantations sell only a fraction of their tea to fair trade buyers, it is difficult to monitor how the fair trade premiums are managed and measure the benefits to the workers themselves.

Climate Change Impacts Tea Crops

Since the best quality tea grows in climates with temperatures between 64 and 90 degrees Fahrenheit, a change in average temperature of only a few degrees could cause entire tea growing regions to become unsuitable for tea farming.

Extreme storms and changing weather patterns cause unpredictable harvests and price swings, causing economic hardships for small tea farmers who lack crop insurance or other protections.  The price supports offered by fair trade agreements can make a real difference in whether a small tea farmer can continue to grow the crop.

If you love tea, you can help tea farmers and also make sure that high quality tea stays in your cup by supporting fair trade.

Photo Attribution: by Jon Bragg

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