I visited many fair trade co-ops and producers on my trip. They were producers of coffee, cacao, fruit, quinoa, cotton, flowers, to name a few. But the world’s most popular drink – tea – was one that never came near my radar. Very little tea is produced in Central and South America. Being such a popular drink, even outdoing coffee, it has a large cultural, economic and social impact on people throughout the world. From it’s origins in China, through colonisation and oppression in bringing it to the West, flashpoints in popular history (the Boston Tea Party), tea has shaped the lives of millions.
I bring this up because of the some myths and half-truths that recently came to light for me were dispelled when I read a detailed and enlightening report into the tea industry conducted by the UK non-profit organisation Ethical Consumer (learn more here).
Poor wages and working conditions remain the stand-out problem in the industry. Tea monoculture has an impact on biodiversity and has increased the need for pesticides. The most lucrative stages in tea processing – blending, packaging and marketing – are mainly carried out by tea brands in buyer countries, which continues to leave tea farmers and workers in the most vulnerable position.
Four corporations dominate global tea trade, the top two being Unilever (Lipton, PG Tips) and Tata Tea (Tetley). Little of the profit included in the retail price of a box of tea goes to the producing country e.g. for a GBP1.60 box of tea bags sold in the UK a tea picker will make just 1 pence. According to an Oxfam investigation, pickers in Assam, India receive only $1.60/day, half the legal minimum wage. Families struggle to support themselves; children become vulnerable to human trafficking.
Various labels now adorn boxes and packets of tea in our shops (see examples below). Unfortunately, the same report highlighted that neither Fairtrade nor Rainforest Alliance certification resulted in higher wages in these large-scale plantations. Fairtrade certification alone has limited power to bring about wage increases, as they are usually decided at a regional or national level. Fairtrade did bring other benefits, though, such as proper contracts, better working conditions and a social premium for the local community.
Rainforest Alliance is a relatively new certification (2006) but has spread quickly due to deals with multinationals Unilever and Lipton. Its rapid rise is arguably due to it being a more ‘business-friendly’ ethical label (similar for the UTZ label). Rainforest Alliance focuses on how farms are managed, which is in stark contrast to Fairtrade and its emphasis of minimum prices and shofting the terms of trade more toward producers.
No, not the famous blues musician. Rainforest Alliance and UTZ now muddy the waters of ethical labelling. On the surface it sounds laudable yet in reality they are too vague. Fairtrade and organic standards are stringent, clear and measurable. Fairtrade certainly has flaws, but not to the extent of Rainforest Alliance.
Another consequence of the proliferation of Rainforest Alliance certification and sales is that it takes away from the Fairtrade and organic certified farms. One of the reasons why so little Fairtrade certified tea is sold at Fairtrade prices is because of the rush to support competing labels by the multinationals.
Only 6% of fairtrade tea is sold at fairtrade tea prices due to lack of demand.
Are you confused yet?
Can you tell the difference between different ethical labels? Is there a real difference and does it matter?
Similar claims are made by these competing labels. And they have many common objectives that are hard to disagree with in principle. However, some objectives are hard to measure.
With Rainforest Alliance being applied on such large-scale farms and estates, auditing them properly is also a problem. One such estate investigated in 2011 by Oxfam was 75km long and employed 16,000 workers.
What to do?
Despite some concnerns over what Fairtrade can deliver, it is still the best overall option for ethical purchasing. Rainforest Alliance or UTZ tea would be preferable to non-certified tea, but it is ‘buyer beware’. Many people have a certain sense of a feel-good factor when buying ethical products. But the key is to be aware of the certification (even Fairtrade) and particularly with Rainforest Alliance, realise that it is a very flawed label.
There are also some other ways in which you can make a positive contribution to those workers. These include:
-buying direct sourced tea
-buying single origin, not blends
-buying loose leaf tea rather than tea bags
Ethical labels you might see:
At A Glance – label summary:
Fairtrade: aims to reduce poverty, integrate sustainable development and for tea farms and estates, promote sustainable management
Organic: strict criteria on wildlife and the environment
Rainforest Alliance: Promote better management of tea farms and estates through environmental, social and economic criteria, with focus on environmental criteria. Only 30% of the tea needs to meet the standards in order to gain certification
UTZ: like Rainforest Alliance, focus on better management of farms and estates