The Challenge of Sustainable Tea

Tea is a massive international crop. It propels the economies of at least a dozen nations and provides financial security for millions of people who work in the industry as growers, processors and laborers. In nations like China, India, Kenya and Sri Lanka, tea is a vital economic resource without which those nations would face commercial stagnation.

What is sustainable, environmentally-friendly tea, and how can consumers promote its success? Unfortunately, many beverage companies are anything but socially responsible entities. That’s why it is doubly important for tea lovers to learn what sustainable tea is, and how to make sure it achieves economic success. Socially aware consumers are an important part of the economic cycle of responsibility. Here are some key facts that can help anyone make a more informed choice when it comes time to purchase tea:

The tea market is huge, but fragile: In the past decade, the income of typical tea farmers has been steadily decreasing. This is the result of many factors, notably the increased cost of fertilizers and processing. In addition, there is a growing trend in countries like Sri Lanka and China for tea laborers to move to large cities whenever they get a chance to do so. Incomes for most city jobs are higher than the average wages of a person who picks tea leaves for a living. Tea labor is difficult, and maturing economies have trouble keeping rural workers of all types from moving to urban centers in search of work.

Tea prices will likely go up for at least the next several years: World demand for tea continues to increase steadily, propelled by a gradual shift from coffee-drinking in places like the U.K., the U.S. and elsewhere. For reasons of health and taste, to name but two, consumers in developed economies are fueling a tea resurgence that can’t be easily met by supply. As long as that scenario exists, prices will rise. Note that the price of tea has already doubled since 2002, after having been relatively stable for decades before that.

Global climate change has the potential to affect tea crops everywhere: Because the tea plant is uniquely sensitive to even the slightest changes in climate, it faces more danger than other crops in the face of continuing global climate disturbances. The good news is that tea can be grown in many more places than it already is, so there is a promising potential for diversification of sourcing.

The world tea market is dominated by five nations and a handful of corporations: Today, the massive global tea market is in the hands of just more than a half-dozen multinational companies. In fact, seven corporations account for more than 90 percent of all tea sold on earth! Coupled with the fact that just five nations account for more than 75 percent of all tea grown, that makes for a very centralized economic structure.

Consumers should carefully scrutinize the policies of companies that make their favorite kind of tea. Keep in mind that there is a growing segment that consists of small, environmentally-friendly entities that work hard to promote sustainability and fair trade. (To remember the names of the five biggest tea-growing nations, use the acronym “Vicks,” which stands for Vietnam, India, China, Kenya, and Sri Lanka).

Consumers have power in the tea market and should use it to promote environmental and socially responsible growing and selling: Individuals can do several things to help support sustainable tea. Purchasing “fair trade” products is a good start. It’s also wise to choose organic products sold as loose tea leaves when available. Loose tea, rather than tea bags, involves less processing, fewer resources and of course simpler packaging.

Used tea leaves are ideal for composting, whether as discarded loose tea or tea bags. It also makes good environmental sense to prepare your own tea at home rather than purchase it in ready-made bottles and cans. Home brew is much more economical too, and keeps for several weeks in the refrigerator. Some enterprising tea lovers even grow their own herbs and tea plants in the backyard, as long as the climate is agreeable.

Consumers should spend a little time researching the companies they buy tea from. The Internet is a useful, convenient resource for this endeavor. Find out whether your favorite manufacturer follows fair trade guidelines, uses sustainable agricultural practices and treats its labor force equitably. If they don’t, then contact their public relations department and tell them you intend to buy from a company that does a better job of maintaining the ecosystem and dealing with a large workforce. Even large multinational firms listen to such feedback and your efforts can make a difference.

After voicing your concerns, locate a seller that practices sustainable tea production and is socially responsible. Even in the global economy, individual consumers have some power, but it’s wasted if it is not exercised. So, speak up, speak out, and advocate for sustainable tea whenever you get a chance.

Matcha tea and Japan

Japan, though not one of the world’s largest producers, has cornered the market for matcha tea, a specially-grown variety of green tea that has historic cultural roots going back at least a thousand years. In today’s international marketplace, matcha tea has become a coveted beverage that is consumed all over the world.

The Japanese government works closely with matcha growers, many of whom are certified and officially approved harvesters of that nation’s highly valuable export, matcha green tea. Because matcha is the only kind of tea that uses the entire leaf, it offers health benefits and environmental advantages that other varieties of tea do not. A typical tea plant that is used to produce matcha can live for a half-century or more, making it one of the most sustainable and environmental food crops in existence.

Compared with most other kinds of crops, tea can be among the most earth-friendly of all. Much depends, however, on the ways in which the growers deal with such issues as crop rotation, processing and sustainable business practices. Consumers should stay informed about the products they buy, always seeking out the ones that offer fair trade tea that has been grown in ways that do little or no damage to the environment.

Filed under Lifestyle, Matcha, Tea

Yuki thinks simplicity is the ultimate sophistication. His most significant accomplishment is learning how to sit with a good cup of tea and listen. When not online, Yuki talks with all things wild and free. He is a blogger and a matcha lover.

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