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Sipping towards sustainability, part IV

by Ali Roth November 11, 2020



The third angle to address the topic of sustainability is socially.  How are tea businesses operate to ensure equity and growth for workers and their communities?  Different tea regions address this question in different ways, but here are some ways I’ve seen tea communities tackle this question. 

Historically, in tea growing regions, the art of crafting tea is passed down through the generations.  However, increased mobility and interconnectedness has changed this in many places around the world.  Global demand for tea has skyrocketed, making it impossible to satisfy in strictly traditional methods.  Plus many young people elect not to go into tea production (read more on this is part III).  The result is a massive increase in large-scale tea operations, many of which operate in ways that view workers as cogs in a money making machine.  

It's not like this everywhere, and many areas have never fallen into this type of predatory capitalism.  Even in areas that have a history of poor workers rights people are claiming their power and re-writing how the industry operates.   

There is a growing number of tea collectives in India where workers own a share of the company and benefit from its success.  When workers are financially invested, they become personally invested, and it leads to some pretty incredible outcomes.  


In Nepal, farmers are revitalizing neglected tea fields and converting them to organic.  Women are banding together and managing tea operations in areas that are historically controlled by men.  In Taiwan, tea farms share factories and labor, ensuring equal access to processing and guaranteed regular work with high wages.  In China, successful tea operations are using their profits to invest in the local community to provide opportunities for other tea businesses to grow. 

On small farms and in collectives, experience and knowledge of everyone participating is valued and used to help increase productivity and efficiency.  Farmers from different gardens work together to tend to the plants and share resources so that everyone is uplifted. 

The idea that different operations are not competitors but are invested in each other’s mutual success might seem like a foreign idea here, but in the world of tea it is a common attitude. 


Tea for Thought 

As the population increases and access to resources becomes more unstable, the issue of sustainability lurks front and center, and directly affects my tea import business. As a business owner, I take personal responsibility for the impact my business has and how and where we spend our money.  It has always been a goal to source sustainably, but in the past several years I have made this a definitive commitment.  I have stopped carrying tea from operations that don't align with these values. I don't support larger companies who keep wages at a minimum to bring maximum profits to the top. Instead, I have shifted my focus to smaller operations focused on the sustainability and improvement of the local economy, environment, and social structures. 

I’ve been thinking, learning about, and discussing sustainability within the tea world for years, and it always brings up more questions about how to expand this push into every part of our lives:

  • How are we able to enact these principles of sustainability in our own lives?
  • Are there organizations, businesses, and farmers that adopt these principles that we can support?
  • Are we willing to part with convenience and rock-bottom pricing to pay working people what they’re worth?
  • Are there ways we can scale back our consumption while supporting investment in areas doing this important work?

It’s a lot to unpack, but it's time. 

Ali Roth
Ali Roth


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