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Monday, January 12, 2009

Of Tea and Trade

Tea is both a luxury and a necessity.  A luxury since it cannot be grown anywhere near where I live (except for a small plantation in South Carolina).  A necessity because it carries me through the day, calms when I need calm and excites when I need energy.  
The venerable anthropologist Sidney Mintz, in his amazing book Sweetness and Power, charts the history and significance of sugar production since the Columbian Exchange, but he rightly suggests that we can't talk about sugar without talking about tea, the most important non-alcoholic beverage in the United Kingdom and many of its former colonial holdings.  Tea and sugar, produced through slave labor in the Caribbean, became the mainstays of the English working class, and yet they also represent the refined, the social, and the ceremonial.  In its history, though, controversies have always surrounded the labor used to produce tea.   Given that, it's actually no surprise to see a well-established fair trade movement for tea.  What is fair trade and what is organic, however, don't always connect.  
Convergences do happen: Zhena's Gypsy Tea, which has been at the forefront of the Fair Trade argument, just this week announced  that their new CEO would be Don Gaidano, who led Rachel's Organics and Horizon Foods in the last ten years.   This move comes at an important juncture in the fair trade and organic tea movement. While the acreage being dedicated to organic tea production has risen 44% in the last year, the issue of sustainable labor remains problematic.  Recent case studies and news from  a British Times investigative report suggest that workers on tea plantations in India, Sri Lanka,  Kenya, and Bangladesh are still working under colonial conditions with very little trickle-down of simple benefits like laundry baskets and gas cylinders for cooking.  
At the same time, Assam News in India reports that there is a growing international demand for certain teas, including the traditional Singpho tea, marketed as "Phalap" and grown in Guwahati, which is produced organically.  A joint venture by a local NGO and a private Canadian company, the goal of the project is also to get young workers involved in the overall production process.  It would be great to see that kind of initiative happening in the US market as well: the South Carolina plantation may have good labor conditions, but it is not organic.
One interesting fact about premium organic tea companies is that they are often run by young eco-entrepreneurs.  Two of my favorites, Ocean of Tea and Tea Guys, have energetic and enthusiastic owners who defy the image of staid English matrons or wizened Indian yogis sipping slowly.   While most of their items are well labeled (certified or not), feel free to ask about fair trade labor practices before you order.  Unlike the bigger companies, you will more than likely get an answer!
photo from the website: planet tea

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