Fair Trade Organic Tea and the Ethics of What We Drink

Tea worker in Kenya
Tea worker in Kenya. Photo by daveblume.

A passage from Peter Singer’s and Jim Mason’s The Ethics of What We Eat has been resounding with me lately. The passage comes after a detailed exploration of the ecological and ethical costs of intensive chicken farming, especially by Tyson Foods.

Tyson produces chicken cheaply because it passes many costs on to others. Some of the cost is paid by people who can’t enjoy being outside in their yard because of the lies and have to keep their windows shut because of the stench. Some is paid by kids who can’t swim in the local streams. Some is paid by those who have to buy bottled water because their drinking water is polluted. Some is paid by people who want to be able to enjoy a natural environment with all its beauty and rich biological diversity. These costs are, in the terms used by economists, ‘externalities’ because the people who pay them are external to the transaction between the producer and the purchaser.

Consumers may choose to buy Tyson chicken, but those who bear the other, external costs of intensive chicken production do not choose to incur them. Short of moving house – which has its own substantial cost – there is often little they can do about it. Economists – even those who are loudest in extolling the virtues of the free market – agree that the existence of such externalities is a sign of market failure. In theory, to eliminate this market failure, Tyson should compensate everyone adversely affected by its pollution. Then its chicken would no longer be so cheap.

What does any of this have to do with tea? This ain’t Chicken Finely Brewed after all.

The Tea Spot: Fair trade, organic, loose leaf tea.

Singer and Mason focus primarily on the meat industry in their book, but I believe that this passage has resonance for us as tea drinkers. When we purchase cheap supermarket tea bags, we save money; but who is paying the price?

The majority of tea produced worldwide is sprayed with a plethora of pesticides, herbicides and other chemicals, all for the simple purpose of increasing crop yields. The people who work these plantations, picking two leaves and a bud morning to night, year-round, pay for our cheap tea with their health. They pay for our cheap tea as they come into contact with hazardous chemicals. They pay for our cheap tea as their water supply grows contaminated. They pay for our cheap tea as the skies grow silent, birds forced to move on because of the chemicals.

And you know how much they get paid? On average, workers are paid between 60 cents and $1.50 per day. That is, if they pluck their daily quota. If they’re sick and unable to work, or if there just isn’t any work to do, they are paid less or not paid at all.

We save. They lose. We are shielded from the true cost of our tea by artificially low prices. And when a new tea label appears on our supermarket shelves selling fair trade, organic tea, but for a dollar extra, too often we shrug and keep buying the cheaper labels because we can’t “afford” the other label.

The Case for Fair Trade Organic Tea

I choose to buy fair trade organic tea as much as possible because I believe it goes part of the way to restoring balance to the tea trade. If me paying an extra dollar for my tea means that a tea worker’s conditions are improved, it’s worth it. The equation is stacked so heavily in our favour in the first place, that paying more for tea that ensures a better deal for the workers is a way of narrowing the gap.

Let’s not get caught in naivety here. There are flaws to the fair trade system, as there are flaws to the organic system. Workers don’t always see their lives improve as much as the fair trade label promises. As organic tea becomes a mainstream phenomena, big business latches on and may lower the standards of what it means to be organic.

The fair trade and organic movements are imperfect, but they’re a step in the right direction. Ultimately, deeper systemic changes need to be made to give tea workers a fair wage, good living conditions and the freedom to live their lives as they’d like to.

For now though, I’m happy to invest the extra dollars into buying fair trade, organic tea.

Learn more

If you’re interested in learning more about fair trade, organic, or the plight of tea workers, I recommend checking out Liquid Jade: The Story of Tea from East to West by Beatrice Hohenegger. I just finished reading this and the final chapters, provide a great overview of these issues. Suffice it to say that reading her book was part of the inspiration for putting this post together.

One website which I strongly recommend – and which I want to explore more myself – is Raisa Rasheeka’s blog, which is about tea plantation workers in Bangladesh. Seriously, for a first-hand perspective of life on a tea plantation, Raisa’s blog is amazing.

And, lastly, The Ethics of What We Eat by Peter Singer and Jim Mason is an eye-opening exploration of the modern meat industry. I didn’t agree with every conclusion they came to, but it was easily the most influential book I read last year.


  • 1

    I never thought much of fair trade tea until visiting a regular tea garden in West Bengal, India. Workers made, on average, between $1 – $1.50 a day working for 6-8 hours. Most of the women working were illiterate and had no other alternatives for work. The tea gardens were supposed to provide school and medical care for the workers and their families, but this wasn’t the norm.

    I agree that there are flaws to the fair trade and organic systems, but do think they try to protect the workers and land a bit more. I now make a point to seek out this type of tea (and coffee).

  • 2

    Thanks for this challenging article. It is important that those of us who love tea work to change the conditions for those who work to bring our beloved beverage to us.

  • 3

    I find it difficult to decide whether to buy tea based on price, ethics or taste, but taste usually wins. I don’t find that the average fair trade tea is the tastiest tea. I have a box of fair trade tea for moments when all I want is tea and I don’t care what it tastes like, but mostly I come home and have a paricular tea in mind, which may or may not be ethically sound. Having said that, I have never had an organic tea that I didn’t think was excellent, and I genuinely think it tastes better when it is grown organically. I enjoyed your artical a lot and it made me consider what the real ethical considerations are about tea and why they are important.

  • 4

    Great, thought-provoking post. Thank you for further opening my eyes to the situation faced by tea workers and others in tea producing regions. As you point out, everyone buying organic fair trade tea will not solve the root of the problem, but it is certainly a good start.

    P.S. – I think you may have mistakenly wrote “tea” instead of “meat” in the last paragraph.

  • 5

    Audrey, thanks for sharing your personal experiences. It’s great to hear from people like you who have seen the conditions on tea plantations first hand.

    Lainie, you are absolutely correct. As tea drinkers we ought to work towards improving the conditions of those working at the bottom rungs of the tea industry.

    Grinnyguy, very interesting point. I know exactly what you mean about fair trade tea often being sub-par quality. This is especially the case with tea bags. Finding fair trade *organic* tea is the key, because as you mention, organic tea is pretty much always excellent.

    Dan, thanks for pointing that little mistake out:) Just fixed that up.

  • 6

    I think you are speaking of “Fairtrade” branded tea. While there are ‘brands’ (i.e. organizations) like ‘Fairtrade’, ‘TransFair’ or ‘Trade Aid’ that market fair trade products under their own label, they are usually not specialized in tea and often have generic products like “green tea”.
    But there is also a “fair trade” certification process that usually applies to tea gardens (especially in India, Sri Lanka and Africa). These tea gardens sometimes (actually, more often than not) produce teas of outstanding quality which are available through specialized tea merchants.
    Since customers become more discriminating about quality and ethics, I think number of these fair trade certified teas will increase in the future.

  • 7

    every food that we eat should come from Organic Farming. i really get scared about those toxins coming from chemical fertilizers and chemical pesticides. I only eat foods which are certified that they are organically grown

  • 8

    Although it has not yet been scientifically proved, eating food free of chemicals has got to be an option to seriously consider.Organic food are now more easily obtainable through many different outlets. Many farmers sell organic fruit and vegetables. By doing a search on the Internet you will immediately be able to find suppliers of many different types of organic food in many different countries. Supermarkets sell organic fruit and vegetables and other organic produce.

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