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The Arbor Teas Blog

Fair Trade, Tea, and How We’re Going to Change the World

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If you asked a stranger on the street, "Do you care about people?", you'd probably get a confused look, and maybe even offend the person. Of course, we all care. But it's not always obvious what aspects of our lives this question touches. Most everyone is concerned about acting ethically towards our friends and family, our coworkers and colleagues. But what about actions that affect people we'll never even meet? People halfway around the world, whose names we’ll never know, whose faces we’ll never see?


The truth is, we make global decisions every day. When we drive our cars, we change the climate of Mongolia. When we throw away an old computer, we could impact the environmental health of a third world neighborhood. And when we choose which bananas, chocolate, or tea we're purchasing (whether online or in a grocery store), we're making decisions that affect the livelihood of families all around the world. This is often an unsettling realization for us, and as person who cares, it's probably unsettling for you, too. But as transparency in business grows, we can begin to understand just how each swipe of our credit card changes the world – and a great place to start learning is by understanding Fair Trade certification.

Fair Trade Certification: Just the Facts
What all Fair Trade certification systems have in common is that the farmer groups earn a fair price for their product (which is often above market price). They also enjoy freedom of association, safe working conditions, and a living wage.  To allow these producers to be competitive in the global marketplace, efforts are made for importers to purchase directly from the producers in order to cut out middlemen, and support the development of their business. Genetically modified organisms (GMOs) are disallowed in most Fair Trade initiatives (and always disallowed in certified organic products), and pesticides and fertilizers are prohibited if found to be unsafe for workers. For more information on these standards, be sure to check out an article we wrote during last year’s Fair Trade Month, “8 Things You Need to Know About Fair Trade.”

Over the last 20 years, we've witnessed Fair Trade products expand from specialty retail 'world shops' to the shelves of major chain grocery stores and mainstream cafes. In that timeframe, the Fair Trade movement has gone from the fringe of conscious consumerism, to nearly a household name. In fact, from just 2008 to 2009, the sale of Fair Trade certified products grew an incredible 15%! These products are now being produced in 58 countries by 827 organizations, making up 20-50 percent of the market share in products like coffee and chocolate (Source: FairTrade.net). To learn more about the development of Arbor Teas’ Fair Trade tea suppliers, check out our Fair Trade Tea Growers page.

Looking Forward: The Future of Fair Trade
Will we see a time when Fair Trade’s market share approaches 100 percent? The increasing global transparency suggests that this is almost becoming fathomable. Tools like the internet allow a consumer to track down exactly where the product in question is coming from, quickly explore the environmental and labor standards in the producing country, and make a decision about whether or not they want to participate in that economy. But this relies on two things: (1) a transparent supply chain, and (2) consumer education.

In most cases, producing goods sustainably costs more money – plain and simple. Without consumer education, could we reasonably expect a customer to purchase a more costly item simply because of a symbol on its packaging? For instance, when Wal-Mart introduced Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certified fish in 2006, they found themselves unable to set a premium price on these products - their customers simply ignored the labeling they didn't understand, and would almost always choose the cheaper product (Source: The Greening of Wal-Mart, Stanford Graduate School of Business).

But how do we, as a society, educate consumers? Let everyone fend for themselves, decoding the myriad symbols we encounter in the grocery store? In many mainstream stores, you probably couldn’t even find an employee that could confidently define many of these. And keep in mind, not everyone will have the access or skills to find this information online. Consequently, we think that consumer education should be a fundamental part of our academic upbringing. Educators teach students about the workings of their government so that we can be thoughtful, engaged citizens - why not explore the realities of our global economy so that we can all be thoughtful, engaged consumers?

If consumers demand information on where their products are coming from, and make purchasing decisions based on this information (or lack thereof), businesses will accommodate. The truth is that in an educated market, it's competitive to be sustainable and transparent. Choosing to work exclusively with fair, sustainable suppliers might be expensive, but when consumers understand that purchasing decisions are ethical decisions, not doing so becomes a competitive disadvantage. If we can present this view to young people as they are just beginning to make their own choices about how to spend their money, we could transform the entire way this country (perhaps the world) does business - in just one generation.

Looking to the future, we‘re hopeful that both the demand for, and positive impact of, Fair Trade tea (and other Fair Trade products) will continue to grow. We very proud to offer a catalog of 56 Fair Trade Certified Teas, and are grateful for the growing number of customers (like you!) who care as much about Fair Trade as we do!