How to find ethically produced tea

A few years ago while nicely enjoying my tea and reading the news, I was seeing mentions of the conditions of tea pickers in some areas of India. What I was reading was enough for me to put down my tea and look at it wondering just how badly the people who picked it might be suffering to make ends meet, feed their families, send their kids to school – everything most Westerners who drink tea in bucketfuls take for granted. This heartbreaking article about how thousands of young mothers in India are dying while producing tea will greatly open your eyes to the conditions of workers on mass production tea plantations.

Tea pickers in Wayanad District of India

Tea pickers in Wayanad District of India. Creative Commons License: Steenbergs  https://www.flickr.com/photos/steenbergs/

According to University of Michigan News, “In the U.S. the most-prized first-flush tea leaves—designated SFTGFOP, meaning ‘Super Fine Tippy Golden Flowery Orange Pekoe’—sell for more than $60 for eight ounces, when you can get them. But the field workers who pick the delicate leaves earn just over a dollar for a full day’s work.” (1)

That is a lot of money for a little bit of tea and very little money for the people who pick it. Then I was seeing mentions of protests by tea plantation workers who just wanted enough to feed their kids eggs and send them to school.

An article in The Hindu Business Line covering protests in India by tea workers said, “Sheela Dorjee complained that it was impossible to educate her children beyond the primary level. ‘Our children are only 10 or 15 years old. They have to work so that our families can survive,’ she said. Sumitra Topua insisted that workers like her should be paid a minimum wage of at least ₹300 ($4.49USD) a day. ‘We need that to cover just our education and medical costs. Our bosses have cars. We don’t even have a cycle. Are birthdays, funerals or weddings not important for people like us?’ (2)

In the same article, they talk about the protests by plantation workers who just want a minimum wage.

“With workers in Darjeeling being paid a daily wage of ₹90 ($1.34USD) and those in the Dooars and Terai regions earning a marginally higher ₹95 ($1.42USD) a day, there was a growing clamour for the introduction of a minimum wage.” (2)

Wait! Didn’t they just say that the workers need ₹300($4.49USD) a day? I started thinking that there have to be options out there where we’re not drinking the blood, sweat and tears of people who have an incredibly steep uphill battle to improve their lives. While these protests mentioned in these articles happened a few years ago, the image above of tea pickers protesting is from February 11, 2017 in a different part of India.

Where to find ethically produced teas?

So I started looking into teas that are produced ethically. First I looked locally here in the US, and the options are small. There is an organization that manufacturers and retailers can join to show that their teas are produced ethically, The Ethical Tea Partnership. They work with producers and NGOs to help with training of tea producers and certification that helps end consumers figure out if the tea has been produced in a way that helps improve the lives of its farmers. The producers do have to contribute money to this program, so it may be cost prohibitive to smaller operations to get the certification. I’ll do a subsequent article about this later.

However, it was the concept of tea farmer co-ops that gave me real confidence that the tea I was drinking was helping the not only the farmers but the community where it’s produced. We hear about co-ops more when it comes to fair-trade coffee than we do when talking about tea. By their nature, co-ops are democratically organized and smaller in scale. And the people working on the farms not only have direct control over their conditions, they also get a fair share of the earnings for the tea sold that year.

The first time that I tasted a tea from a co-op was when Teatulia (https://www.teatulia.com/about-us.htm) was at Whole Foods giving out samples. The man I spoke with there was from Teatulia and gave me a few samples to bring home. Their tea comes from a single garden in Northern Bangladesh at the base of the Himalayas. My first impression was that they were stronger and earthier than I’m used to, but good. The difference that I was tasting could very well be attributed to the fact that their tea is grown in Bangladesh. They’ve consistently placed at the North American Tea Championship for the past five years (2015 not included for some reason).

Kanchanjangha Organics – Nepal Tea

Another co-op that I’ve recently learned about in the past few months is Kanchanjangha Organics(KTE) Nepal Tea. This co-op reached out to me to talk about their teas, and the more and more I heard the more and more I loved the idea of their co-op. Similar in concept to Teatulia, but in Nepal. Nepalese teas are so similar to Darjeeling teas that they’re sometimes sold under the Darjeeling name. I asked Nepal Tea founder, Nishchal Banskota, about their growing conditions being similar:

“Our garden actually borders Darjeeling, so I would say the climatic conditions, topography, elevation would pretty much be the same. Yes, our teas are very much comparable to Darjeeling teas. In fact, in the past couple of years what has been happening is that Darjeeling is selling more tea than it can actually produce (given the land that they have), so to cater to the growing demand, there have been instances where they buy Nepal teas and sell it under their brand. This is one of the major reasons I have taken into my hands to build a separate identity for Nepal Tea itself. So, the point is, it is very much comparable but ours would be more floral and a little less muscatel in terms of black tea.”

Raising up Nepal Tea families

Not only do they have the co-op but they also give farmers free housing, loan out cows to supplement farmers’ food and income and fund scholarships for local children to go to school through university. These kids come back and add to their community. Banskota explained:

“We have provided scholarship to 2300 students till date, and I added 96 more students in 2016. The scholarship is divided into two phases. One is for primary till grade 10. And if the students are interested, a buyer from Japan actually collaborates with us to fund higher education in specific fields of study mostly that are of high importance to the village such as organic farming, engineering, entrepreneurship and so on.”

Two sample success stories that Banskota relayed included one where a girl, now woman, named Januka received scholarships for 13 years, and she now runs her own Ayurvedic clinic in the village. Another scholarship success story is of Pradip who received scholarships for about 12 years, and he now works as an accountant in our own factory. “There are 3 nurses, 2 vets, 1 engineer that I personally know of and many that I don’t even know,” said Banskota

Watch this video put together by Nepal Tea:

 

KTE Nepal Tea – Review

Kanchanjangha Noir, KTE Nepal Tea Tasting

Kanchanjangha Noir, KTE Nepal Tea Tasting

KTE Nepal Tea sent me samples to try their teas for free. Because black tea is my favorite (I need my caffeine), I tried their Kanchanjangha Noir first. My first reaction – I could drink this without milk; there’s very little bitterness and it’s smooth. Granted, after leaving it in the teapot for a while while I worked and sipped my tea, it brewed too long and got slightly bitter. But still no earthiness in it that isn’t an everyday taste I’m going after. There is a marked difference in quality than your usual black tea out there, even when compared to more well-known higher-end brands. I can definitely taste that this isn’t a mass produced tea and the whole leaves make quite a difference. I was able to pour it out of my teapot with very few leaves coming out. I’m not a certified tea taster, so I don’t know all the descriptions on how to describe the taste of tea. But because I’ve had so much tea, I know what I like. And I LOVE this tea. Bonus is that it’s organic.

How to get your own KTE Nepal Tea – Kickstarter

Right now until March 8, 2017 at 2pm PST you can help Nepal Tea grow their business with their Kickstarter  and perhaps get a section of the farm all for yourself .

There are various levels at which you can contribute:

  • $25 –50g of tea or 10 bags
  • $50 – 100g of tea or 20 bags and a tea cup
  • $75 – 150 g of tea and 2 tea cups
  • $100 – 11 types of tea (6 g) , 5 tea bags, 6 g of Golden Needle
  • $150 – a HALF YEAR of tea
  • $250 – a YEAR of tea
  • $250 – Sampler of all teas and help a farmer learn meditation
  • $500 – Sponser a child’s year of education plus a HALF YEAR of tea
  • $750 – Give a cow and get a YEAR of tea
  • $1000 – a plot of 100 tea bushes will be named after you and you get 5 POUNDS of tea AND you get the first offer to buy 50 lbs of tea in subsequent years
  • $4000 – a plot of 1000 tea bushes will be named after you, you get the ENTIRE FIRST YEAR’S HARVEST of that plot, processed to your liking, and an option to private label it.
  • $5000 – 7-day tour of the area with Nishchal Banskota, plus all the benefits of the $1000 level, and you get to go home with 5 POUNDS of tea.
  • $10,000 – Build an eco-house for a family, and get 1000 tea bushes all to yourself.

If I had the money to invest, I’d do both the $5,000 and $4,000 level. But the average Joe purchase at the lower levels are a deal. You can chip in to help on Kickstarter here: https://www.kickstarter.com/projects/nishchalbanskota/tea-from-nepal-the-best-kept-secret-in-the-tea-ind?ref=project_link

Footnotes:
  1. Tea and sympathy: Fair trade leads to unfair deal for Darjeeling workers, March 18, 2014, Michigan News http://ns.umich.edu/new/multimedia/videos/22053-tea-and-sympathy-fair-trade-leads-to-unfair-deal-for-darjeeling-workers
  1. The brew darkens, March 6, 2015, The Hindu Business Line, http://www.thehindubusinessline.com/blink/cover/the-brew-darkens/article6963043.ece
  2. Darjeeling growers seek to halt Nepal tea imports, The Hindu, July 15, 2016 http://www.thehindu.com/business/Industry/Darjeeling-growers-seek-halt-to-Nepal-tea-imports/article14490963.ece