Rishi Tea’s Long Journey To Fair Trade Sourcing

Rishi Tea, based in Milwaukee, Wisconsin, is one of the first tea companies to embrace fair trade.  Its founder, Joshua Kaiser, figured that the same aficionado who enjoyed good wines and had a discerning palate for coffee would enjoy unique varieties of teas available around the world.

At the same time, Kaiser wanted sustainability to be central to Rishi’s values, and realized that sourcing fair trade tea would be the best way to ensure that farmers and workers received fair prices and wages for their work.  Rishi Tea was one of the first tea companies to earn certification under the USDA’s Natural Organic Program in 2002, and shortly afterwards, the company became an official fair trade company as well.  I recently had a chat with Kaiser, who is now the CEO, and Rishi’s Marketing Director, Ghazal Sheei.

Triple Pundit: How did your life and career path eventually lead you to tea?

Joshua Kaiser:   I fell in love with tea in college. The energy, history and cultures that flow from the world of tea made me realize that I could pursue my dreams to be a constant scholar and businessman at the same time. I went to school for international relations and political science. I decided to make tea my business just before I graduated because I wanted to do international trade that would involve my passion for tea, food culture, constant travel and study in distant lands. Today, I spend about 9 months a year sourcing, developing and studying tea in Asia and my passion for tea grows with each new adventure and discovery.

3p: What challenges do you face with placing these products on store shelves?  What do retailers tell you?

Ghazal Sheei:  For a small company, we have been very lucky with getting our tea on store shelves. Whole Foods is one of our oldest and largest retailers and we’ve built a strong relationship with them over the years which has afforded us great shelf presence. But like most other food products, competition is a big challenge. As tea has grown in popularity over the last decade, many more tea companies have come into existence. We set ourselves apart by offering award-winning quality loose leaf teas, the majority of which are organic and Fair Trade Certified. Product differentiation always helps, so we offer single origin teas and unique blends which are hand blended in our Milwaukee facility using different combinations of herbs, fruits, spices and essential oils.

3p: Can you share an example of how a farmer, or collective, from which you source ingredients, has benefited?

GS:  In 2007 we partnered with the Mannong Ancient Tea Association and helped initiate Fair Trade Certification for the Mannong Manmai Ancient Tree Forest in Yunnan, China. Although Mannong and Manmai Villages are rich in ancient tea culture and traditions, the area is very underdeveloped, remote and poor. The funds generated by the sale of Fair Trade tea harvested in Mannong Manmai have done quite a bit to help the tea farming communities. The funds have developed 16 miles of main pipeline to link a high mountain water spring with a system of tanks and pipes that serve fresh, clean water to the villagers. It has also provided funds for tuition, room, board and uniforms for elementary schools as well as scholarships for students to attend college. Many miles of road, including the worst parts of the old road, were hardened and improved to make transport of tea and goods easier for the villagers. New temples were built, a basketball court was put in, along with a community center and sewer system which did not previously exist. It has been incredibly rewarding to witness the great developments in Mannong Manmai since the start of our partnership.

You can explore Rishi’s world of tea here.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye has written for TriplePundit since 2010. He has lived across the U.S., as well as in South Korea, Abu Dhabi and Uruguay. Some of Leon's work can also be found in The Guardian, Sustainable Brands and CleanTechnica. You can follow him on Twitter (@LeonKaye) and Instagram (GreenGoPost).

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