TEA: A Challenge for the Fair Trade Model

Rink Dickinson
March 9, 2006
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Over the past decade the Fair Trade movement has experienced an unimaginable level of success. As Fair Trade grows and mainstreams over the next few years, there will be an increasing struggle to control its definition. Some changes have already taken place that are influencing its future direction. Several years ago, in a controversial move, one of the two Fair Trade certifiers changed a key requirement when they constructed the Fair Trade model for tea. They decided that due to the scarcity of small farmers in the major tea producing countries such as India and Sri Lanka, the model would revolve around plantations rather than small farms. In addition, a vague "higher than normal" price replaced the easily verifiable "minimum price" requirement. The result was a certification that has significantly different standards than its coffee counterpart.

By focusing the Fair Trade model on plantations, small farmers already weak in the tea economy, were further marginalized. The current tea model does allow money to return to the gardens and helps farmers to develop their voice. It allows a great deal of plantation tea to be sold as a Fair Trade due to the looser requirements. However, the present Fair Trade tea model has lowered the standard and has opened the door for other "plantation grown" products such as grapes, citrus, apples, and bananas to be allowed into the Fair Trade system.

In 1998, Equal Exchange entered the tea market because we saw an opportunity to work with the small farmers of the Mineral Springs Cooperative in Darjeeling. We visited the co-op and observed the growth in the capacity of the co-op. But more importantly, we saw how co-op members were sharing their experience and knowledge with other small tea farmers. The Equal Exchange tea program has a strong network of support which also includes a larger partner, Tea Promoters of India (TPI), a group of six family-owned tea plantations that has an exemplary history of supporting alternative tea models.

Mission-driven Fair Trade organizations have played a key role in taking risks and creating a market for small farmer tea. Our allies in this work include organizations such as Equal Exchange (U.K.), SERRV (U.S.), and Alter Eco (France). But the most important allies for small farmer tea are food co-ops, natural food stores, and churches. The support of these groups will be vital in building the market and educating consumers, and in helping to make a small farmer Fair Trade tea a success.

Tea Trivia: Less than 5% of the world's supply of Fair Trade Certified tea comes from small farmer cooperatives.