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How fair trade is rebuilding the tea industry, one cup at a time. by Veronica Meewes

March 5, 2015

At the end of a recent feast at Restaurant R’evolution in New Orleans, I ordered a cup of hot tea and was presented with an elegant silver kettle filled with an intoxicatingly aromatic lemon meritage brew. Another notable meal enjoyed not long ago at Fixe in Austin began with a tableside steeping of their house iced tea, a black tea and fruit blend customized for them by a local “tea guru.”

Tea has been a cherished beverage in the Eastern Hemisphere since the third millennium B.C., but didn’t make its way to the U.K. until late in the 17th century, where it enjoyed immediate popularity. Another two centuries later, Southerners in the United States began drinking theirs sweet and iced, but not until recently has tea appreciation started to spread throughout the rest of North America. These days, it’s not uncommon to find Earl Grey in your cocktail or learn that your fried chicken was brined in the stuff.

“I believe tea is still in its infancy in our country,” says Zhena Muzyka, owner of Zhena’s Gypsy Tea, a Fair Trade Certified™ organic tea company, now in its 13th year. “It’s the second most consumed beverage in the world, but the sixth most consumed in the U.S.”

But like a newborn, the U.S. tea industry is growing, fast. Since 1990, Americans have quadrupled their tea consumption, bringing it to a $10 billion industry in 2014, according to the Tea Association of the USA. Tea imports to the United States have grown by 70 percent in the last two decades alone. Starbucks, which started out selling more than two-dozen varieties of loose-leaf tea at their first location in Seattle, bought high-end tea-shop chain Teavana in 2012, in what The Economist saw as a play for millennial customers.

The concurrent artisanal food and beverage trend means that as more Americans learn to appreciate a cup of tea, they’re also more interested in the source of the leaves, making “Fair Trade” teas particularly attractive. Fair Trade USA calculates that just between 2012 and 2013, Fair Trade Certified tea—produced by cooperatives and farms—imports jumped by 26 percent.

Nurse Sangita Gogoi, 30, treats Rajini, the child of a tea picker at Sewpur Tea Estate hospital. The medicines at the hospital are paid for with Fair Trade premiums

Fair Trade certification ensures that farmers receive safe working conditions as well as a sustainable wage and fair capital, determined by the prices they set for their products. All workers also receive a Fair Trade premium, which they may choose to invest back into their farm or community.

“I believe that Americans love fair trade—they’ve backed it and bought it even when the economy was trashed,” Muzyka says, recalling when tea first joined coffee, bananas, and cocoa on the short list of available Fair Trade Certified products.

Muzyka has visited Sri Lanka, India, and China many times, growing closer with each visit to the families who grow and harvest the tea she uses for her blends. On conventional farms, a tea worker’s daily quota is 17.6 pounds of a tea per day, or about 16,000 individual plucks of leaves, she says. This strenuous work is usually done on steep hillsides at altitudes of 5,000 feet or higher, and workers collect leaves into large baskets on their backs, which are held in place by a forehead strap.

Back when she was starting her company, Muzyka spent several years educating consumers and buyers at major grocery stores to choose Fair Trade suppliers over those without the certification. “I showed them the photos I’d taken in the conventional fields, and explained that the workers were being paid $1.35 a day and unable to feed their families,” she says.

“It is mostly women who tend the fields, often carrying their babies on their back,” explains Reem Rahim Hassani, co-founder of Oakland, California-based Numi Organic Tea, the leading importer of Fair Trade Certified teas in the United States.

Sumoti Gorh, 29, picks tea at the Maud estate in Assam, India

“Agriculture is hard work,” says Jeffrey Lorien, co-founder of Austin-based Zhi Tea, who sources tea from China, Japan, Taiwan, India, and Sri Lanka. “That leaf represents months of toil and tons of man hours to process the artisan result. Ask any farmer and they would say it’s a labor of love. However, when certain negative conditions are not a matter of choice, but neglect, we need to look at ways to elevate the workers’ standard of living.”

Inhumane conditions on large, conventional tea plantations have recently led to violent outbursts against plantation owners in India. In a 2013 investigative report, the Guardian linked poor pay on Indian plantations to human trafficking, as tea workers send their children to bigger cities for what they are told will be better work opportunities. For these reasons and more, business owners like Muzyka, Lorien, and Hassani only work with Fair Trade Certified tea farms.

“Once a farm is Fair Trade Certified, [the farmers] are given the opportunity to democratically decide how their Fair Trade premiums—the extra price that a consumer pays for a product [that] goes directly back to the farm source—are used,” explains Hassani. “In India, we see Fair Trade funds going to college scholarships or retirement funds whereas in China, it goes to building school dormitories, building roads, installing gas stoves, or building sanitation facilities.”

While Fair Trade certification does not require that farms be organic, many farmers choose to invest their Fair Trade premiums into such certification. Regardless, Fair Trade certification does impose certain environmental standards in order to maintain healthy living and working conditions for workers. These include restricting the use of pesticides and fertilizers, banning the use of genetically modified organisms, and protecting water resources.

Sorting supervisor Romen Bhumiz at the Maud estate.

“Just think about the amount of acreage dedicated to the monumental task of making enough tea for the entire planet,” says Lorien. It takes about four pounds of freshly picked tea leaves to produce a pound of dry leaves for commercial sale. “Imagine how many pesticides and herbicides are used. Imagine the runoff into the water. Imagine the workers encountering those toxins all day, every day. It’s my observation that sustainability gets eclipsed by focus on yield. Mindful consumers will pay more to align with purity as they know the cost and downsides in terms of worker and planet health in large scale operations.”

Like Muzyka, Lorien backs up his belief in mindful consumers by citing the success of fair trade in other commodity markets. “The coffee industry did a great job of making specialty coffee accessible, and the passion for organics and sustainability understandable to their customers. However, tea lovers definitely care about sustainability, too,” says Lorien, who sees a growth of about 20 percent each year at Zhi Tea. “People are learning more about the impact of their decisions and what quality tea truly is and what it is worth to them.”

For many niche American tea companies, the commitment to this idea of quality and worth goes beyond fair trade. Numi’s focus on sustainability starts with the leaves and ends with their packaging, which is minimal, biodegradable, and made up of 95 percent post-consumer waste or bamboo. Boulder, Colorado-based Bhakti Chai, which has grown sales by 48 percent in the past two years, is not only Fair Trade Certified and organic, but Non-GMO Project Verified and one of the first beverage businesses to become a Certified B Corporation four years ago. Companies with this designation voluntarily undergo a yearly audit assessing their measurable impact as well as social and environmental performance standards.

Bhakti founder Brook Eddy was inspired to start her tea company after studying a social movement influenced by the Hindu notion of bhakti (devotion through social action) in India. Part of Bhakti Chai’s mission-driven model includes a grant program for organizations that empower and educate women. Through Muzyka’s Robin Hood Laptop Project, Zhena’s Gypsy Tea collects and distributes laptops to the families of Sri Lankan tea workers, not only encouraging higher education but also empowering them to grow their tea farms by independently managing sales, yields, and inventory. Driven by similar motives, Numi recently partnered with charity:water to raise money for clean water efforts in developing countries.

Students play near a wall at Xitou Elementary, paid for by Fair Trade premiums. Many are the children of local tea farmers in Jiangxi province.

When Numi COO Brian Durkee and co-founder Ahmed Rahim (Hassani’s brother), visited a tea farm in China in 2008, they had an opportunity to interview the farmers and their children. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up, the kids shouted with enthusiasm: “A doctor! A teacher!”

“When I asked if any of the kids wanted to be a tea farmer when they grew up, they all began to laugh,” remembers Durkee. Two years later, he returned to the same farm for the unveiling of a school dormitory made possible by Fair Trade premiums. During the celebration, Durkee met with the same farmers and children. “This time, about one-half of them said they wanted to be just like their parents: tea farmers. I then asked the farmers what they wanted—what they needed for their community. ‘What do we need? For people to buy more tea!’”

As American consumers are learning more about the industry, they are doing just that. In fact, Fair Trade Certified teas grew at more than twice the rate of non-Fair Trade Certified teas in 2014, according to Fair Trade USA. On a global scale, however, there is much room for growth. According to Fairtrade International, of the 4.6 million metric tons of tea consumed globally, just 130,000 were consumed in the United States and only 2 percent of that tea was sold on Fairtrade International terms.

“The more Fair Trade Certified tea and products that are purchased, the more benefits farmers receive to invest in their communities,” says Hassani. “While it sounds simple, it is truly the way that Fair Trade programs work. It is not charity—it is dignity, empowerment, choice, and reward for hard work.”

Correction: A previous version of this story misattributed Brian Durkee’s quotes about visiting China. 

All photos taken by Theodore Kaye in 2013. Courtesy of Fair Trade USA.

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Steep Progress How fair trade is rebuilding the tea industry, one cup at a time.