Direct Trade Tea: Interview with Beth Johnston from Teas Etc

Fair trade is something I’ve written about before on Tea Finely Brewed. I wrote last year about why I believe it’s important and before Christmas I shared a post about four online shops selling fair trade tea.

A while after writing that second article, I noticed a note on Teas Etc about direct trade tea. Until then, I hadn’t heard of this concept; intrigued, I asked Beth Johnston, Teas Etc’s tea purveyor, if she would mind sharing a bit more about what direct trade tea is, how it compares to fair trade, and her thoughts on fair trade tea in general. I hope you find her responses as interesting as I did!

Beth Johnston from Teas Etc
Beth Johnston from Teas Etc

What is direct trade tea?

Direct trade is a term that refers to the sourcing and buying relationship of a supplier who works directly with the farmer or processor. While many tea sellers believe that they are going ?direct?, true direct trade is not a trading company or broker which is the case in many instances.

In what ways is direct trade different from fair trade tea? How is it similar?

Direct trade is different from Fair Trade because of the transparency for us as a buyer. It allows me the peace of mind to know exactly where my tea purchasing dollars are going and that any premium I am paying (which is often the case) is going to the grower and processor not to run an organization. Conceptually they are similar in that there is a desire to pay a fair price to those responsible for the tea in our cup. I believe that direct trade is more substance over form.

Why do you believe direct trade is important?

Direct trade is important to us for a number of reasons. One important distinction is my insider knowledge of the authenticity of the tea and its origin. For example you can buy Bi Lo Chun from a variety of different growing areas in China and now even in Taiwan. True origin authentic Bi Lo Chun comes only from East West Mountain, outside of Suzhoug. So while you may be buying a Bi Lo Chun (Pi Lo Chun or Green Spring Snail) it is only going to represent a varietal that is truly authentic if it comes from the area that it originates from.

Direct trade is also about building relationships with my growers. This gives me a better overall understanding of my teas, the culture and people who produce them. It provides a sense of intimacy with my teas and positive well being knowing that we (Teas Etc) are paying a fair price for the hard work and effort that is put in to the teas we buy and sell.

Lastly, that intimacy absolutely helps me sell more tea! I would like to sit here and tell you it is all because I am a nice person but that really wouldn’t be honest. Consumers want a more global connection to the products that they purchase and as a supplier of direct trade teas it allows me to truly supply that experience. As specialty tea grows in popularity we are finding that wholesale clients are beginning to recognize the value of that direct trade relationship and are requesting more and more information and images of the teas. They want the ?story? and that gives us a competitive edge.

Should tea drinkers sacrifice quality in favor of fair trade?

I wouldn’t sacrifice quality in the cup for Fair Trade or any other certification on the label! Just because a tea does not carry the FT logo does not mean that it is produced under deplorable circumstances. I have traveled extensively and I have yet to see any indication of slavery or the exploitation of children in relationship to the production of tea.

The other part of the story that is often overlooked is how opinionated we are about how other people live around the world. Just because we (the US and other developed nations) believe that circumstances should be changed in a way that fits our lifestyle or ideals we fail to recognize that people may be quite content with the way they live despite our thoughts or lack of understanding. They are likely to be happy to have a job and given the choice may not wish to live the way we do.

I believe that while the intentions are good and may have been born out of kindness it is unconsciously a bit arrogant. Our way is not necessarily the right way.

What does 2010 hold in store for Teas Etc?

2010 is going to be an exciting year for Teas Etc. We have some new products on the horizon that I am personally very enthusiastic about and frankly are long overdue! While I had hoped to be announcing many of these in the beginning of the 2nd quarter we need a bit more research and development to get things right before launching. I wish I could reveal more but at this point that would be premature.

I can tell you that our new Tea Traveler, due out the last week of April, is 100% BPA free, has a newly designed finer mesh to accommodate even the smallest cut leaf and will be available in 3 new designs. This remains our number 1 selling accessory and we believe these changes will make it even more popular.


Thank you Beth for taking the time to share about direct trade tea and your perspective on fair trade.

On a final note, I wanted to mention an article I read earlier today on the T Ching blog: Behind the curtain of tea wholesale. I think it exposes some of the major flaws with tea businesses that don’t source their tea directly, but instead just order from wholesalers in the US (and often without trying the tea first). It further shows just how valuable direct trade can be in providing consumers with tea that is of a higher quality, while also offering greater benefits for the growers themselves.


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