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Fair Trade USA Sponsored Series

The Future of Fair Trade

From Field to Cup: Why It’s Important to Know the Story of Fair Trade Tea

By Fair Trade USA

This is the third article in a series on "The Future of Fair Trade," written in collaboration with Fair Trade USA. A 501 (c) (3) nonprofit organization, Fair Trade USA is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. To follow along with the rest of the series, click here.

Pour a cup of tea, let it steep, and then take a sip as you ponder this fact: After water, tea is the most popular beverage in the world, with 15,000 cups drunk per second. Tea is everywhere -- in our cafes, our kitchens, our offices, schools and stores -- but how many of us really know the story of each leaf as it travels from field to cup?

The tea supply chain is a complex trade network with many different players. Each and every farmer, worker, exporter, importer, processor, auctioneer, buying agent, retailer, café worker and tea drinker in the chain played an important role in bringing you the world’s favorite beverage.

Historically, low market prices for tea have led to poor labor and living conditions for both tea garden workers and tea farmers at the beginning of this supply chain, encapsulating them in a cycle of poverty and hardship.  Fair Trade certification seeks to stop this cycle, giving tea garden farmers and workers in eleven different countries the chance to lift themselves out of poverty, improve their communities, and protect their environment.

From the Tea Garden to Your Tea Cup

Since the Fair Trade Certified™ tea program began in late 2000, certified imports by U.S. traders have totaled more than 9.2 million pounds and generated more than $3.1 million in premium payments to producer groups.

This impact was driven by businesses like Honest Tea, Runa, Choice Organic Teas, Rishi Tea, and Numi Tea, and supplemented by growing awareness and demand from U.S. consumers. In fact, the annual growth rate of tea imports from 2010 to 2011 increased by 21 percent, reaching imports of over two million pounds for the first time in Fair Trade USA’s history.

This increase in imports means more impact for the tea garden workers (on large farms) and tea farmers (in a cooperative) who work so hard to grow and harvest our tea.

Community Development Premiums Improve Lives

Tea farmers and workers across Asia and Africa benefit most when U.S. consumers care about where their tea comes from. When you look for tea bearing the Fair Trade Certified label, you know that the people who produced it are paid fair prices and wages, work in safe conditions, and protect the environment. Fair Trade Certified tea gardens and farms also form committees or associations of workers who then democratically determine how to manage and use their community development premiums. Many choose to invest in things like healthcare, education, environmental conversation, community infrastructure, quality and productivity.

Take, for example, United Nilgiri Tea Estates Co. Ltd (UNTE), a Fair Trade Certified tea garden located in South India who has greatly benefited from Fair Trade. UNTE is comprised of four neighboring tea estates: Chamraj, Korakundah, Allada Valley and Devabetta. Historically, the living and working conditions of the laborers on remote tea estates were notoriously poor. However, Fair Trade has helped to change this story. Thanks to their Fair Trade premiums, UNTE is now able to help fund the higher education of laborers' children and expose them to new career opportunities.

Chamraj, one of the four tea estates of UNTE, provides secondary education in both Tamil and English through age 18, to prepare students for college and university.  In addition, UNTE used their Fair Trade premiums to build local school lab facilities and eight new classroom multimedia centers.  UNTE also purchased buses to help ensure that children who live up to 30km away have the opportunity to attend school every day. Additionally, the salaries of two secondary teachers are partly paid with Fair Trade premium funds.


“Our standard of education has improved and the computer training has improved our chances of going to college and getting a good job… my knowledge has grown because we have access to all the information on the internet.” – Jenifer Jency, UNTE



Similar impact can be seen in Dazhangshan Organic Tea Farmer Association (DOTFA), situated in the Wuyuan Mountains of China. The Dazhangshan Organic Tea Farmer Association was also the first producer organization in China to gain Fair Trade certification. The group has over 5,400 member households; additionally, the number of female members has increased dramatically since the cooperative’s inception. Today, women make up almost 35 percent of the organization.

The association extends membership not only to farmers, but also to technicians and tea processors who handle the teas and prepare them for sale to buyers. DOTFA has democratically elected to use their Fair Trade community development premium funds for organic agriculture training and education; high school and university scholarships for children of farm workers, and building a new school with a library, computer lab and student dormitory.

“Without the money from the Fair Trade fund, our daughter would not have gone to university.” -- Zhang Jianyou and Yu Xiying, Association Members of DOTFA

“Last year, we invested funds to build a dormitory in Tuocuan Middle School that greatly improved the living conditions for the students. The premium also supports student enrollment in high schools and universities, and helps disadvantaged girls in our community gain access to an education.” – Association Member of DOTFA

Remember that your purchase of Fair Trade Certified tea helps improve lives and protect the environment. Click here to learn more about the tea garden workers and tea farmers of Fair Trade.
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Fair Trade USA is a nonprofit organization that is the leading third-party certifier of Fair Trade products in the United States. Fair Trade USA audits and certifies transactions between U.S. companies and their international suppliers to guarantee that the farmers and workers producing Fair Trade Certified goods were paid fair prices and wages, work in safe conditions, protect the environment, and receive community development funds to empower and uplift their communities. 

Read more stories by Fair Trade USA