A Fuller, Warmer Cup of Tea: Fair Trade 101

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October, I just learned, is Fair Trade Month, conveniently coinciding with my travels in Darjeeling and my discovery of a kinder, gentler side of India’s tea industry.

Where does your tea (or coffee, sugar, bananas, chocolate) come from? Knowing the answer to this question is the heart of understanding what Fair Trade is and why it is one of the most important movements of our time.

Buying products with the Fair Trade label (and learning what that means) creates a human bond between the curious, educated consumer and the newly empowered producer, along with his or her family. Fair Trade and Organic-certified products are usually superior in taste as well, because the quality of a product is inextricably tied to the quality of the lives of those that produce it and the quality of the environment in which they live (in the paraphrased words of Paul Katzeff, owner of the Thanksgiving Coffee Company). Or, as Rajah Banarjee, owner of Makaibari Tea, put it yesterday morning, if you have health in the soil and health in the tea bushes, everything else follows. Including a fair price for the growers of tea.

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TransfairUSA’s “Warmer Cup” campaign describes Fair Trade as “a partnership between tea pickers, tea traders and tea drinkers,” and explains in detail what being certified means for all of the above parties.

After tracking down a few Fair Trade and Organic certified tea gardens in the Darjeeling area, I hope to visit them, perhaps even include them in our malnutrition survey, comparing the conditions of Fair Trade workers to those of workers on conventional gardens (following in the footsteps of my compañero, the esteemed Dr. Bacon, who has developed the methodology for such a survey in the coffee plantations of Latin America).

I also want to be sure that Fair Trade Tea does indeed exist beyond its branding, as opposed to what was suggested on Saunam Bhattacharjee’s tea blog.

I am a believer—I have spent time on Fair Trade Certified coffee plantations in Nicaragua, sleeping in the producers’ huts, learning how to pick the beans and de-pulp them by hand, walking in the delicious shade of their cloud-forested rows of coffee plants. I have seen the difference between communities built around Fair Trade cooperatives and those dependent on a feudal-style hacienda grower. Perhaps things are different in the world of tea; I do not know but have faith that the just system, the “warmer cup,” will prevail. But there is history at work here, different colonial hierarchies still in place, corrupt trade unions, profit-skimming managers, and completely disempowered workers—I don’t know how all this will be overcome, but I want to see an alternative, and that is what I intend to do this week.

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And you, dear readers, are involved as well. In addition to reviewing the activities and opportunities associated with Fair Trade Month,get involved during your next visit to the supermarket. Look for the Fair Trade sticker, buy the product to which it is affixed, and contemplate what it means as you enjoy the final act — the consumption — of the long, intertwined chain of soil, seeds, leaves, people, and families that placed that warm sip in your belly.

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Here are a few places to shop for Fair Trade Tea (if you know of others, please post them in the comments below):

Equal Exchange

Choice Organic Tea

Fair Trade Toronto

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