The international tea industry has grown an extreme interest in the topic of sustainability, but there remain many uncertainties as to how sustainability is achieved. In this article series we will look at the factors involved with tea sustainability and propose some solutions for ensuring future sustainability. In the previous article, issues and consequences in regards to environmental sustainability were discussed. In this article we will look at the interaction of people and society and the role they play with tea and how it affects sustainability.
According to the Merriam-Webster Dictionary, sustainable means “able to be used without being completely used up or destroyed.” Applied to the tea industry it means that the industry will be able to continue to operate without being destroyed.
Although tea, or Camellia sinensis, is a natural product that grows in the soil, processed tea is ultimately made by man. The world’s growing thirst for tea is supported by entire communities of people that dedicate their life and lifestyle to growing and making tea. Traditionally, tea was processed in small batches by individual families to be consumed by those same families or by the local community. The rapid growth in demand for tea through international trade developed the need for a larger infrastructure of tea growing and tea making.
All tea growing regions have their own style of infrastructure and management. The one that is the most prevalent around the world is the plantation system which was modeled after the American plantation system which is no longer existent since slavery was outlawed after the Civil War. The famous tea estates of India and Sri Lanka are extremely large tea fields and tea processing factory that employ thousands and thousands of employees. The objective of this style of agriculture and food production is quantity.
Although the demand for tea has increased, the market has been flooded with large quantities of low-quality tea that is traded as a commodity, where buyers are always looking for a lower price. Static or lower market prices force these plantations to operate on extremely low margins. The easiest expense to control is labor, which is why wages on these plantations are low and the government has mandated that the estate offer additional social services such as food, health care, and education. Communities of thousands of people are born into lives as tea farm workers and are 100% dependent upon the estate providing the needs they have for their families. This system can be defined as indentured slavery. Either the consumer will not support this system or the government will require changes to increase the standard of living of these communities. In either case, this form of business is not sustainable and tea producers will have to seek alternative methods for producing low-priced commodity tea.
Labor sustainability is not an issue seen in just the commodity tea industry, it is also prevalent in specialty tea production. Harvesting and handling tea leaves is a labor-intensive activity that requires high skill and experience. Skilled tea farm workers in countries like China and Taiwan are in high demand, but limited in quantity. Tea farmers and tea producers find it more and more difficult every year to hire tea farm workers to harvest their tea affordably and with high skill. Younger people that have grown a liking for the city life are refusing to work in the fields and the cost of labor continues to rise. If the market price of high-quality tea does not grow with this rising labor cost, it will be difficult for tea producers to continue making the leaf we all so much.
Communities that have been growing and processing tea for several generations are the holders of some of the richest cultural heritage in the world. If the sustainability of tea production is at risk, so too is the sustainability of this heritage. This concerns not only tea but also pride and a connection to a community’s history. Growing and producing tea may be a major element of that community’s identity and be what holds people together. This is not to say that the community may not evolve and remained united, but it is unpredictable. The market is putting the heritage of these communities at risk, all for the sake of cheap tea.
If we don’t support the people and communities that make our tea, then there will be no tea. This is why it is important for all of us to think about and contribute to the sustainability of the tea industry.
So far have looked at the importance of a healthy environment and healthy society for tea; next, we will look at the economics.