I got to thinking that perhaps with higher quality tea, working conditions are intrinsically better, and the need for programs such as Fair Trade is not as pressing. So I asked around, and Benjamin Harrison, one of the three founders of Rishi-Tea, was kind enough to give me a detailed and candid answer and gave me permission to post it here:
"FTC and quality do not go hand in hand, much like Organic and quality. You can have both but it’s not automatic. For us, finding Organic that hit our quality requirements (which is our guiding principle above all else) was a huge challenge. We spent years looking and developing relationships at origin to do so. It wasn’t until 2003 that the quality of Organic tea really started to catch up with the rest of the market. A lot of FTC products are “commodity” products from depressed areas, where the product is subject to macroeconomic forces (largely export markets) and/or where there isn’t a domestic market for high quality production. This usually comes at the expense of the producer and quality is in many cases a moot point. Rather, FTC is a system that tries to level the playing field on an economic scale. The market for mass produced cheap tea will never go away so long as consumers want cheap teabags and cheap bottled drinks. Quality is needed for those products but quantity is required to support that market demand. Hence, FTC sends something back to the producer but doesn’t provide any incentive to produce higher quality product.
This, of course, is not always the case and high quality products can be produced and go hand in hand with FTC. Our teas from Yunnan are a perfect example of this dynamic. This origin produces very high quality teas and has for a long time, in part due to a rich tradition of producing tea along with the fact that Rishi Teas from this project are made from a wild and semi-wild tea trees that offer a unique flavor profile that is quite appealing. The FTC premiums paid on these teas have gone a long way to helping to develop infrastructure (roads, schools, waterworks, etc.) that help the standard of living as well as help the producers get their teas to market. This is an extremely remote part of China so one of the biggest challenges in the past has been actually getting the tea to market. The premiums have also gone towards programs to help protect and maintain the trees and the land in the region. As you know, economic development is a double-edged sword. It provides access to market, creates wealth but also attracts others looking to take advantage, develop the area for tourism, etc, etc. For the most part, our FTC project in Yunnan has been a huge success, almost to our detriment, such that Rishi has been challenged to get enough of Yunnan tea to support our own growth and maintain price stability. What’s not lost on us, though, is the larger fact that this is what we wanted to see happen. The origin doesn’t exist just for Rishi, and the farmers and producers there are now making a lot of money. Moreover, they’re in an increasingly improving situation: they have access to a growing domestic market, a growing international market and demand exceeds supply.
Working conditions at our projects, non-FTC and FTC are very good. People work their butts off, as most farmers do. But they make good money, are looked after by the managers of the projects and enjoy better than average living standards. There is no small amount of pride on the line on how a manager’s workers appear. If they look bad it reflects on him/her. And in many cases, there is a larger sense of community in place that helps maintain and improve working conditions. At the same time, I don’t want to paint a picture of rainbows and butterflies. It’s still in most areas the 3rd world and has a host of social problems in the towns, inadequate infrastructure and struggling economies. But tea production is one of the best agricultural jobs to have in China and provides good paying jobs to a lot of people who would be otherwise destitute. So if you’re concerned that we’re making tea in a Nike factory, our model is anything but that.
There are less than 5 FTC tea projects in China that I am aware of (maybe as few as 3), and Rishi has been instrumental in developing 2 of them. One big obstacle is politics. FT projects are based on democratic principles and of course this does not sit well with the Chinese government. But they tend to look the other way when they see that it does more the economic vitality of a region than they can provide on their own. In other cases, there is simply no need since the farmers make more than enough money to need or want Fair Trade premiums. This is one reason why there is no FT oolong – oolong teas command such strong prices every year that the producers make plenty of money."
Thanks again to Benjamin who has helped me better understand the situation and feel better about my purchases. For more information about Rishi's Fair Trade projects in China, check out an excerpt from this interview with Joshua Kaiser:
“In India,” Josh explains, “you have hundreds of Fair Trade projects. Then you go to China, which has the world’s largest tea production, and there’s just two [Fair Trade projects] and these are just right now in their pilot stage. They’re [TransFair] actually just monitoring how we’re developing and how we’re working with people to get an idea of how they can even introduce the Fair Trade project in China. There are so many areas of China that desperately need this Fair Trade compensation that we’ve been doing all we can. Because there are so many tea projects in China, especially where the working conditions are not good, not clean and it needs this sort of third-party sourcing.“We go to these areas,” Josh continues, “to buy our teas and interface with the people who grow our tea, but also to monitor how the Fair Trade funds are being spent in the area. Basically Fair Trade funds have gone into water-purification systems, hot-water shower systems, an agri-training center and to send the first college student ever from this village to study Agricultural Science.”
This specific tea project is the cooperative called The Jing Mai Ancient Tea Association, an elected group of leaders from each village in the area’s ancient tea forests who preside over the group and vote on how to best spend the money. They come together and discuss everyone’s needs, then go back to their village and consult with their communities. To be clear though, Josh says, “Many of our products are made by small holders and they don’t have cooperatives.” A family or an extended family group will have ten acres of tea that they pick and process. Typically the women pick the tea and the men handle the processing.”
* I want to make it clear that while I strongly advocate Fair Trade, I am not trying to imply that any tea without the label is using exploited workers or unsafe working conditions. I do think it behooves us all to be more aware fo where our products come from, particularly in light of the recent recalls on Chinese goods. It benefits us, and it benefits them.