I write this post in hopes of stimulating some dialogue on the subject of fair trade certified teas.

I would like to preface this post by saying that I am NOT an expert on the technical details or the official position taken by Transfair or other Fair Trade organizations. If I misquoted something, or if my interpretation is incorrect, I sincerely apologize and hope to have it clarified/rectified in this discussion. My objective with this post is ultimately to learn from this discussion and debate the various aspects of this movement and its implications to the tea industry.

According to Transfair USA’s website (www.transfairusa.org) and Rob Clarke of Transfair Canada (www.transfair.ca), the organization certifies products from developing countries that stand for “… fair price, fair labor conditions, direct trade, democratic and transparent organizations, community development, and environmental sustainability.” The movement seems to have gained the greatest impact in the coffee industry, and has since spread to other industries including tea.

In principle, I strongly favor all of those values mentioned above, particularly because there are areas of the tea industry that have ethical issues that still need to be resolved. However, upon further research, I discovered an unfortunate “catch 22” that I have not received satisfactory answers from anyone associated with Transfair so far.

#1) Fair Trade Certification for Developed Countries

As a grower and producer based in Japan, we technically do not qualify as a “Fair Trade Certifiable” entity because Japan is a developed country. Even though our ethical, equitable and environmental approach to business is significantly higher than those valued by the “Fair Trade” organizations, we are implicitly penalized because we are not allowed to “authenticate” our ethical business through their influential organization. Is it “fair” that we are punished for being “too good”?

#2) Composites Products Policy

The only solution suggested so far to us by the Transfair organization was that we “… blend 20% of “fair trade certified” (non-Japanese) teas into our matcha so that we can take advantage of their “composites products policy”. This supposedly allows us to use the Fair Trade logo to communicate our ethical behavior. Is this not somewhat perverting the principles Fair Trade is supposed to stand for? This suggests that we blend potentially “less ethically procured” teas into our product to make it “Fair Trade” viable.

Japan and Korea as examples, are two famous tea growing, developed countries that have a very distinct method of growing and processing teas that cannot be replicated by other countries. Blending 20% plus of foreign teas that were not produced “authentically” in Japan or Korea would result in an invariably different product. Is this how this Fair Trade system is supposed to work?

I do not think anyone really disputes the value and the intentions of the Fair Trade movement. It is wonderful to see such a noble minded cause make headway in our industries, and I personally am a strong supporter of its principles. However, I do not think it is fair that companies and communities are implicitly penalized because our originating countries did not abuse our farmers as others have in the past.

I look forward to hearing from others, particularly those involved in the Fair Trade business and those growers of premium teas in developed countries for your insight.