In this post I want to tell you about the road from tea farm to the retailer, and why it's important to buy Direct Trade tea, i.e. tea trade that has no middlemen: the tea comes straight from the tea farm to the retailer. I'll dive into the history of tea trade and how we Westerners lost contact with the origin.
Most often, as you can see from the chart, tea has A LOT of middlemen, and the tea market is the buyer's market: the biggest tea buyers tell the farmers at what price the tea will be bought. Often the tea is sold in auctions, where the predictability is hard, and sometimes farmers get their share of money and sometimes it's under priced.
The more middlemen are in the mix, the cheaper the buyers need to buy their teas, as each and every middleman take their part of the cake. That means really low income to tea farmers and the younger generation is abandoning tea farming as a whole, because there are more prosperous and easy ways of making a livelihood. A report from Oxfam stated that tea workers’ wages are often below the poverty line, whether they are on certified or non-certified estates. When the farm owners get a low wage, they won't have the money to pay enough wage to the employees either and start compromising their working conditions and using questionable work force, such as child labor. When bought directly (and being responsible in choosing the right kind of farmers with right values) all these problems disappear, because finally the farmers get to say their price, not the other way round!
This situation is enabled mostly because the market is taught to buy cheap tea bags that contain the lowest grades of tea - dust and fannings. This is ground tea or the left-overs and rejects after larger leaf pieces are gathered for sale as loose tea and the name tells it all: its dust-like material that has nothing to do with real whole leaf teas.
Why are the Westerners drinking this traditionally low-quality tea?
All began with the huge demand in the last century as the practice of tea drinking became popular. The industrial revolution played a part, as the production shifted from manual to machines. The commercialization of tea was the end of slow-produced tea and bigger leaves as they need to come to the market faster and the leaves take more space to pack in to bags than dust.
One single machine produces two-million tea bags a day and this required the tea leaf to be crushed and replaced by a lower grade. They started making CTC (Crush, Tear, Curl: tea is manually ground to tiny pieces and agitated so that the flavors become more robust) Big tea factories prefer dust tea because it is cheap and also produces a very strong brew; consequently, more cups are obtained per measure of tea dust.
So if you want to be ethical and have transparency in your tea cup, choose the right retailers and get to know the farmer behind the tea.