With the recent announcement of the closing of the majority of Starbucks’ Teavana Tea Bars, some may be saying the “tea trend” is dying, but this is far from the truth. There are new tea shops popping up around the world, and still more tea companies are starting up. And every year there are new trends that both established tea shops and these tea startups embrace, or as people in the industry say, “buzz words”. 2015 was about specialty tea. 2016 is all about transparency. There are no certifications or quick definitions to clarify what transparency means, but looking at the current situation of the tea industry and market trends can help understand how to make tea merchants accountable for transparency.
The term transparency is not a new one. But transparency, specifically in agriculture supply chains, is an extremely new term in our globalized food system. The trend that has popularized farmer’s markets across the nation is the same trend that has consumers questioning the ethics of their tea and the agriculture practices used. The recent exposes on major retail brands and their sources of tea from places like India and Sri Lanka involving low wages and human trafficking has gotten the public demanding more transparency. Some governments such as [the state of California have already implemented some laws (but with little enforcement) on transparency reporting for large ($100M+ global annual revenue) companies in order to verify there is no human trafficking or unfair treatment in their supply chains. This regulation was passed in 2010 and requires that these companies present this transparency reporting on the front page of their websites. Not all companies are in compliance (only 31% of mandated tea companies are in compliance) but it will only be a matter of time before transparency becomes the mainstream in tea retail.
In 2016, transparency is much more difficult to achieve on the large, commodity scale, but is quite feasible for small tea companies that are purchasing a carefully-curated catalog of teas. Tea wholesalers and producers have found an opportunity in this market niche and have started to offer transparency through “single-origin”, “single-estate”, and “farm-direct teas”. These labels can be quite expansive and can also be used to describe very large tea producing operations, that use the support of thousands of workers and/or the raw materials from thousands of small holder tea growers. A responsible consumer and retailer that wants to be accountable for true transparency will not accept these labels at face value and will ask the detailed questions to know the full story. Transparency does not end at the tea shop, tea wholesaler, tea factory, or tea farm, but must also extend into the work and life of the workers on the farm and the condition of the soil and seeds of the plants.
If you want to support honesty and true transparency in tea, get in the habit of asking questions about not only where the tea is grown but also about the agricultural practices and workers behind the tea. Merchants that are doing true direct trade and can provide transparency will be able to answer even the most detailed of questions. Don’t be surprised to see the terms direct trade and transparency in the marketing of your favorite tea brands, but don’t accept it at face value. True transparency requires much risk and sacrifice compared to the commodity business model that was the major trend of the past where the buyer was just looking for the lowest price.