In tea, like in many other global commodities, standards around social and environmental sustainability have created awareness about practices on estates and plantations and led to some improvements. The key ones include Fairtrade, Ethical Tea Partnership, UTZ, Rainforest Alliance and of course organic standards. Many of these are very well regarded, require certification by third parties and are mutually recognized between the standards.
But for consumers the actual meaning of the labels remains unclear. Some certifications are misleading in that they only require a certain amount of certified product and still obtain the label. And information about the supply chain and tea origins is missing altogether.
If these labels are so valuable, why is it that child labour was found on a Rainforest Alliance and Ethical Tea Partnership Certified farm? Why are big supermarkets like Sainsbury’s leaving the Fair Trade standard to set up their own ethical standard? Why is it that mostly large estates and plantations are on the list of Fair Trade and Organic certified estates while smallholders go all natural but choose not to certify? Why is it that there is such a mushrooming of fair trade and ethical standards that no one (even tea folks) can keep up?
In the process of sourcing suitable growers for Tea Rebellion, we have found that many standard setters don’t have a close connection to the growers. Instead it’s other people who are in business with them as partners or buyers who know whether worker salaries on a farm are above or below market and how the farm is viewed in the community, whether their efforts to strive for environmental and social standards are authentic and core to their mission or an add-on. That’s not something you get from a certifying body.
So then, is certification still the gold standard for ensuring things are done the right way in tea? Are certification standards not more of a basic check that should be topped up by full transparency, information, direct connection and constant dialogue about farm practices? A purchasing decision guided by a standard is about trust. Trust in turn is about knowledge and information. Labels on a package don’t provide that.
Is it time to go beyond fair trade? We at Tea Rebellion believe it is. We believe that direct trade, full transparency and the sharing of the complete human story from bush to cup will build connection, trust and mutual learning that certification alone cannot. Lets raise our cups to a breakthrough beyond certification to benefit both consumers and producers.