- The tea plant is hardier with respect to cold than the coffee plant. Coffee requires a tropical climate, whereas tea grows and thrives in mild subtropical climates and at higher elevations in the tropics. This means, among other things, that there are many regions which can produce tea commercially, but cannot feasibly grow coffee.
- As a bulk commodity, tea tends to cost considerably less per cup than coffee. This has several implications; it opens the door to price gouging by businesses selling tea in the West (thus further concentrating profits in wealthy countries), but it also means that informed shoppers can buy remarkably high-quality tea for a reasonable price, and can comfortably afford products that have been produced in more ethically and environmentally sound ways.
- In many regions of the world, tea production pays considerably less per acre than coffee. People unfamiliar with the tea and coffee industries usually are surprised to learn that, climate-wise, tea can be commercially grown throughout much of South and Central America, and that the greater economic prosperity of these regions, rather than the climate, explains why most tea is produced in Asia and Africa.
- Tea production has increased more than demand in recent years, leading to a fall in prices. This has created economic pressure that has led to falling wages for seasonal laborers engaged in tea production.
- Buy single origin tea, rather than blends - Blending is a practice carried out primarily in wealthy countries. When you buy blended tea (a generic tea marked only as "tea", "green tea" or "orange pekoe black tea"), it is more likely that the teas that went into the blend were lower quality, and purchased for a lower price. With single-origin tea, it is more likely that a greater portion of the price you pay will reach the original producer.
- Buy loose-leaf tea, rather than tea bags - The packaging of tea into tea bags, besides using energy and resources that are discarded, also tends to concentrate profit in wealthy countries. By buying loose-leaf tea, you not only reduce waste and resource usage, but you make it more likely that a greater portion of the price you are paying reaches the producers.
- Seek out quality - The biggest economic pinch, driving the race to the bottom, resulting in poor working conditions and environmental degradation, comes when producers sell tea as a bulk commodity. Unique and artisan teas can fetch a higher price for the producer. Kenya in particular, which has until recently produced mainly bulk tea for blending, is rapidly becoming a global leader in tea innovation, developing new cultivars of tea, as well as putting their own unique spin on traditional Chinese and Japanese styles of tea. Because the skill and art resides with the producer of artisan teas, the producer has greater agency and is able to command a higher share of profits than in the case of bulk commodity tea. Innovation also stands to help both producers and tea growing countries in the long-run, as growers develop cultivars better adapted to local conditions and more resilient in the face of climate change.
- Comparison shop, and buy reasonably priced tea - One unfortunate side-effect of the Fair Trade movement is the idea that paying more for a tea is the best way to achieve ethical and environmental goals. But from the standpoint of a shopper concerned with the conditions for tea producers and pickers, the worst outcome is to spend a large amount of money on a low-quality tea on which a large markup has been charged, where the profit is mostly being taken by the final seller. Shopping around, and making sure that you are paying a reasonable price and getting good value, especially whenever you buy tea that is not fair trade certified, can help put a cap on the most obscene profits. Then, when you do splurge, make sure you are spending in accordance with your values.
- Buy direct sourced tea - The tea industry is hardly transparent; retailers rarely reveal their sources of tea, and wholesalers rarely reveal their clients. A claim that a company directly sources their teas from a region of production is not a guarantee of this fact. But, I would recommend avoiding buying from companies that do not identify anything about the origin of their teas. Farmer-owned cooperatives with a retail presence, which may or may not be fair trade certified, can also be a good source of tea. A few tea gardens, like Makaibari Estate in Darjeeling, India, have a web presence and sell some tea directly. Makaibari has been a global pioneer in organic and biodynamic tea production, as well as in Fair Trade and the empowerment of women. Companies shipping directly from a tea's region of production are becoming more common now both in China and India. One example of such a company is Yunnan Sourcing, specializing in Pu-erh and other teas from China's Yunnan province, which sells many products at a fraction of the price at which they are available from other retailers.
If you have a Fair Trade related issue, project, or perspective you would like to share as a guest blogger on Journey for Fair Trade, please feel free to contact me directly. On a personal note, my Journey for Fair Trade has come to it's completion and after a period of rest, I have endeavored on yet another journey...