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One Lump or Two? Fair Trade Tea Sweetens the Deal for Growers

The most interesting story about tea doesn't come from reading leaves at the bottom of your cup, but from the long journey it took them to get there.

Following Fair Trade: Even the most locally minded eaters tend to consume some foods and beverages that only grow in distant regions—usually the hot and tropical ones—and many of those areas are also home to some of the world’s poorest populations. To ensure people at the origin of global supply chains receive just treatment, adequate pay, and access to health, education and a good quality of life, the Fair Trade standard was created. Fair Trade regulations often have positive environmental consequences, but at the root protects people—facilitating farming practices and trade relationships that empower farmers and their communities.

One of the oldest beverages in the world, tea is the most widely consumed drink in the world, second only to water. In America, it's not quite as popular as coffee, but its become a fast growing segment in the beverage market. Tea leaves are all plucked from the camellia sinensis tree and different kinds—black, oolong, green—come from different varieties of this bush. And sorry de-caf fans, but herbal teas from flowers and herbs (like chrysanthemum, ginger, and rooibos) are technically not teas at all, but herbal (or "tisane") infusions.

For centuries, the insatiable demand for tea in the West resulted in widespread trading and importing practices that gave little regard to quality control, fair compensation to purveyors, and worse, the human rights of workers. Today, Fair Trade-certified tea is helping to protect tea leaf quality and the basic rights for those who produce them. Here's how it works:


With coffee, most fair trade farmers operate their own small family farms within a cooperative network of other small producers, but tea is still commonly produced on large plantations where workers are hired laborers rather than shareholders or owners. For tea workers, one key provision under Fair Trade standards is adequate understanding of labor rights. Workers are supposed to be assured not only a fair wage for cultivating and harvesting tea, but also training in filing grievances in the event of unjust or unsafe conditions. Fair Trade also stipulates a worker representation model in which employees have their own elected body of advocates who work with plantation managers to enforce the standards. Approximately half of the Fair Trade tea sold in the US is also certified organic, but tea that is not organic is grown with a hefty amount of pesticides, which can add to the list of health problems workers encounter.


As with other Fair Trade products, tea carries a premium that is to be reinvested into community development according to the needs of the community from which it comes. In the case of tea, the premiums often go toward supporting elderly workers through retirement plans, pensions and heath care. Because many young people now migrate into urban areas to find more lucrative work, Fair Trade works simultaneously to create a safety net for elderly farmers and a better incentive for younger generations to work in agriculture and remain near their families, many of whom occupy housing on the plantations.


Most tea comes from China, South Asia and Africa. A tea bag labeled Fair Trade must contain 100 percent fair trade-grown tea leaves, though products that combine tea with other ingredients, such as chai mixes, can contain non-fair trade ingredients and still carry the label.

Image 1 (cc) from Flickr user Raphael Fauveau

Image 2 (cc) from Flickr user luvjnx

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