Is Chinese Tea Farming Fair Trade?
Commodity products, including tea, have come under increased scrutiny during the past few decades for the exploitative labor practices often used in production. Understandable consumer concerns have led to the development and success of several fair trade certification programs, which seek to increase equity in international trade by encouraging dialogue and transparency in the sourcing process. These are undeniably noble and worthwhile goals, and the movement has seen great success in improving wages and working conditions for laborers, especially in industries like coffee and cocoa.
Fair Trade Teas
In the context of tea, “fair trade” is most often invoked when discussing tea estates in India, Sri Lanka, and Nepal. In these regions, the production of tea is founded on a colonial model, where teas are mass-produced for export to more developed nations. The colonial power structure fosters inherent inequality, with plantation owners and overseers holding power over a large number of laborers. One method that fair trade organizations use to combat this inequality is to encourage small growers to form cooperative groups that can compete on more even footing with mass producers.
In many ways, this resembles the way tea has been farmed in China for generations, and especially so since the late 20th century. Unlike tea cultivation in southern Asia, Chinese tea has historically been produced locally, on family farms, with finished teas rarely traveling out of their home regions except as tribute to the Imperial Court. After Mao’s communes were dissolved and the land redistributed, tea farmers found themselves limited to small plots of land, necessitating the same type of community cooperation encouraged by modern fair trade proponents.
Colonial tea cultivation was designed to lower the cost of tea in Europe, thus making the popular beverage available to customers of all classes. Unfortunately, it was funded primarily by trading companies, who were mostly interested in increasing their profit margins, with little regard for labor conditions.
In contrast, the popularity of tea in China was sparked by Tang Dynasty scholars, who elevated the study of tea to a fine poetic art and established connoisseurship as a sign of high class. Regional specialties gained fame as tribute tea for the Emperor, and a farmer of fine tea was highly respected.
Today, the market division still exists, though it is not bound by the same geographical borders. Tea plantations that value quantity and profit over quality and flavor are less likely to put workers first, while small farms that specialize in high quality products are more likely to value the skills of the people they employ.
Tea Labor in the Modern World
Even with communal support and valued skills, making tea is hard work. Small tea farms have traditionally relied on seasonal labor from the local community at harvest time, but as young people leave the rural countryside for more stable jobs in the city, the necessary skilled labor has become more expensive. In Fuding County, labor shortages and rising worldwide demand have combined to drive up the price of traditional white teas like Fuding Silver Needle every year in recent memory.
Just like organic certification, fair trade certification can be a lengthy and expensive process for a small scale farmer, and isn’t always a guarantee of increased profits. While buying fair trade products is an admirable step against unjust labor practices, it is not always applicable in the context of premium teas. We recommend looking for knowledgable vendors that can tell you about the origins of their tea, rather than certification stickers.
Luckily, the modern world has made renowned yet remote tea-growing regions more accessible to buyers like us, who remove the middlemen from the equation and buy directly from farmers and craftsmen. Our direct connections allow us to talk personally with the tea pickers and crafters, who are often relatives, neighbors, or even the farm’s owners. It allows us to personally ensure the producers we respect are seeing the profits of their hard work, and it allows us to offer our customers the best quality for the price.
Do you look for fair trade certifications when buying tea? Tell us why (or why not) in the comments!
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Comments on this post (1)
I am particularly interested in buying from retailers who have a personal connection to growers. As an American, I know my family and I enjoy many privileges. I believe that I will enjoy my tea more if the workers who pick tea are able to earn a living wage, picking organic tea that will not threaten their health, nor mine. I would hope that these people, doing hard work, enjoy decent, sanitary living conditions, and have health care available when the need arises. That is something that we Americans do not have (free universal health care), and I would wish this for everyone on the planet!
I don’t have a very big budget for tea at the level Red Blossom sources, but now that I have found you, I can ask for gifts for Mother’s Day, birthday, and Christmas! (I will buy some for myself, too!)
— Carolyn Messina-Yauchzy