Difficult History (or Present!): A Chat with The Rare Tea Lady

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Last month, I decided to start a posting series called “Difficult History,” in which I examine the darker corners of Western tea culture and its connections to colonialism, imperialism, and slavery. But before I dive deeper into the historical context of the dark side of tea, I thought it was important to examine the current state of the tea industry, since history is continuous and these historical origins have led to the injustices perpetuated today. To that end, I scheduled some time to sit down with Henrietta Lovell of the The Rare Tea Company to discuss how the modern tea industry perpetuates some of the same injustices that we think of as blots on history.

Of course, I’ve talked about Henrietta before in my review of her book, Infused, and as I’ve sipped my way through the offerings of The Rare Tea Company (full disclosure: their Earl Grey is my favorite Earl Grey and I am endeavoring to get all my Earl-Grey-loving friends hooked on it), but I had never had a chance to chat directly with her, other than a few brief exchanges on Instagram. But when I messaged her to ask if I could quote her Story in my post on injustice in tea, she suggested we meet over FaceTime to talk further and I rather leapt at the opportunity. We “met” in the morning for me, and the afternoon for her. I had just poured my second cup of tea of the day, the single-origin English breakfast from the Rare Tea Company because, yes, I am that guy, and she tried to make me jealous with a shot of the gorgeous Danish bakery in which she was sitting.

She started our conversation by pointing out that more than 90% of the tea in North American and Europe is bought and sold primarily by seven companies, which act as brokers for smaller vendors down the line. These companies even own many of the industrial tea gardens from which a large portion of our tea is sourced. This helps smaller companies because the brokerage companies act as a sort of a bank — they assume the primary financial risk of buying up the tea, and the smaller companies can simply purchase what they need to sell, rather than assuming the risk of buying an entire harvest from a large-scale farm. But because of this, the brokerage firms can drive down the wage that farmers earn from their tea, leading to widespread poverty in tea-producing communities in India, Sri Lanka, and the tea-producing African countries, like Kenya and Malawi.

As she had previously said in her Instagram Story, the average life expectancy of people living and working in these tea-producing communities is only about their 40s, with few seeing their 50s. They’re experiencing a lack of access to education, medical care, or even clean water. And initiatives like Fair Trade, Henrietta says, only work to improve the system within this status quo of the brokers setting the prices: “They’re there to make sure we’re not total [jerks].” And it’s not helping. Tea prices are dropping and conditions are getting worse.

Part of the problem is that young people are moving away from drinking commodity tea. She compares it to the issues happening in the dairy industry: as young people move towards plant-based diets, milk prices are dropping, and farmers are finding it harder and harder to move the inventory they have. And that leads to dairy farming communities experiencing serious hardship. “It’s not just cows that are suffering; it’s whole communities,” she says. And in the same way, it is necessary to find a way to make tea sustainable, not just for the planet, but for the people who produce it.

Henrietta’s solution is direct trade, rather than Fair Trade. By dealing directly with farmers, she and The Rare Tea Company not only have the opportunity to visit gardens and deal directly with farmers, so they can see the conditions in which the workers live rather than dealing with a faceless broker, but they can also give the farmers the advantage of being able to sell an interest in an entire harvest and negotiate their own prices, ahead of production. This involves some risk to her company, but it gives the farmers security and provides her company with high-quality tea produced by farmers who are paid a wage that they had a say in negotiating.

That’s not to say it is all unicorns and rainbows. There is still the problem of people expecting cheap tea. The Rare Tea Company, and other direct-trade tea sellers, tend to charge more for their tea than you would see at the grocery store, and many of their large orders come from businesses that don’t want to pay more for a better cup of tea. But Henrietta is heartened by the amount of interest consumers have started taking in the companies from which they are buying. She says that she can see that, rather than searching for a product, finding the product page, and immediately making a purchase or else leaving, consumers now are taking upwards of ten or twenty minutes looking at mission statements and information about the ethics and sustainability of their purchase. It’s something that gives her hope for the future, despite being called a Pollyanna whose company would never make it in the past.

But the pandemic is not making this easier. In addition to the disruptions to tea production itself — India and Nepal had no first flush this year, while China has lower output from their spring harvests, in part due to the difficulty in getting temporary migrant workers to do the picking — the entire model of the company representatives visiting farmers directly to buy new harvests has been disrupted. Plus, a large portion of The Rare Tea Company’s business comes from the hospitality industry, which has been devastated by the drop in travel. If a hotel was hesitant to serve a more expensive cup of tea in the past, they probably will not be more willing to take that risk now. But she is adapting. By using social media apps and tasting samples that are sent through the mail, Henrietta is able to keep in touch with her farmers, tour gardens virtually, and select teas to buy. And she remains optimistic that the continuing shift of public opinion towards paying attention to where your tea comes from will put pressure on other companies to adopt a more transparent, equitable business model.

In her ideal tea economy, Henrietta explains, rather than brokers acting as a go-between, tea sellers and tea producers work together. Farmers would work directly with the sellers. Right now, often the farmers and the sellers have no idea what the other is getting for the tea, and the brokers can drive up their profits either by driving up the selling price when there is high demand, or by driving down the price paid to farmers when there is low demand and selling prices drop. If sellers work directly with farmers, not only is there more transparency, but the broker profits are removed from the equation. But it does mean more risk for sellers, as farmers are given a guaranteed order at a set price and for a set quantity.

And Henrietta has seen these risks. Her small group of Rare Tea Company employees, including herself, have taken 20% salary cuts this year to make sure they can fulfill their financial obligations to their farmers. She also helps manage the Rare Charity, which works to provide educational opportunities for those living in these tea-producing communities. It all comes down to her personal philosophy: “There’s more to a successful business than a profitable business.”

So that is where we are in the world of tea. Many of the brands that you may think of are probably working with these large brokerage companies, especially if you are buying Fair Trade rather than direct trade. There are smaller companies out there who are moving to a direct trade model, but the cultural issue of direct trade and economically-sustainable tea being considered “posh” is part of the problem. Just as we’ve started looking at avoiding companies like Amazon or Walmart, those of us with the means to choose can vote with our dollars as one way of encouraging the tea industry to follow in the footsteps of those who are concerned with mitigating these inequalities.

NB: Nothing to disclose. The tea mentioned was purchased by me and I was not paid or incentivized to write this post. If you are interested in collaborating, please see my collaboration and contact information.

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