An Update on Fair Trade in Tea in China

Investigating Fair Trade Certification

This entry has been sitting around unfinished in my drafts folder for sometime now. I have wanted to write an update about Fair Trade since I saw Heidi Kaiser’s articles about “How Fair is Fair Trade(Part One)” and “How Fair is Fair Trade(Part Two)” Both articles are good reading. There was a article in the New York Times from 2006 that I wrote about at the time also discussing the meaningfulness of Fair Trade Certification. Although the certification has questionable value outside of marketing, consumers still look for the fair trade logo in making buying choices.

One of the things that I love about the internet is that you can pretty easily research statistics and the claims that someone is making about their labels. It seems as though not a lot of consumers are doing the same, or they would find that the claims are greatly exaggerated.  I spend a lot of time in China and have been very interested in fair trade for many years. I know that there is not a big fair trade movement in China, especially with tea, so when I hear that there is, I’m a bit puzzled. Both of the organizations mentioned in Heidi’s article have a website so I decided to do some fact checking. There are some links below so that you can some investigating of your own.

Fair trade certification  is based to a large degree is based on price. The theory is that you are not an exploiter of peasant farmers if you are paying a ‘fair’ price for the product. The European FLO, which is more comprehensive than the American version TransFair USA, does have guidelines for plantation workers. I looked up the price for tea in China and the ‘Fair’ price using their price database. I was surprised to see that it was $1.20 per kilo and add $.50 for the fair price. I can tell you that you cannot buy the lowest quality tea that China produces for that price. So, it would appear that the bar is set very low for fair trade certification.

You would think that because the requirements are pretty easily met that there would be a lot more people signing up for certification. There are only a handful of certified producers in China. They are, for the most part, clustered around the Wu Yuan Mountain area Jiangxi province. Of course the only agency that can do that kind of organizing across such a large area is governmental. The was a producer in Yunnan that was listed on the TransFair USA site, but their profile has been removed. I still see a lot of TransFair USA logos on tea products that are said to come from other provinces, and it makes me wonder what that is all about.

Still, there is a bigger question about what is meaningful in relationship to fair trade regarding tea in China. I would say that fair trade is not relevant at all in relationship to good quality tea. The producers of this level of tea do pretty well financially compared to peasant farmers in China that are growing other crops, and all of the skilled workers benefit financially-from farmers, to pickers, to tea makers. Chinese agriculture is not based on the corporate/plantation model as it is in the rest of the world. Fair trade issues are much more relevant on the plantations of Africa and South America where most of America’s tea comes from and where conditions for workers can be abysmal. That is not to say that the peasant tea farmers don’t need the support of consumers, but issues are much more complicated than just price alone. Virtually all farming in China is done by small farmers so the organizational issues are very different than in the international plantation model.

Last year I visited the office of IMO in Nanjing. IMO does all of the international organic certifications within China. They had just implemented a socially responsible fair trade certification that  would have a meaningful impact in the communities that received it. It is a certification that is called IMO Social & Fair Trade Certification. This certification is a good start and more meaningful in China. It is also not expensive. With the IMO certification they are not focusing on price guidelines, but for things like insuring workers for health and retirement and providing education in the rural communities for children. They have yet to certify anyone in China because the program is new, but I’m hoping to see it become more important in the future.

China is not the black box it once was, and I think that consumers need to check the Fair Trade and Organic certifications that are being placed on Chinese products.  The tea company has the responsibility to supply verification for those claims and consumers need not just take it at face value. There is a lot of deception that goes on in the tea industry, and it is rooted in sourcing as a trade secret. Nevertheless, the agent for change will not be tea companies. Instead, it will be the consumer that asks the hard questions and demands answers.