Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Sustainable, Organic, Fair-Trade: A Conversation with Nigel Melican [iii]


EDITOR'S NOTE: At the 2010 World Tea Expo, Cinnabar of spoke at length with Nigel Melican of Teacraft Ltd on the topics of sustainable, organic, and fair-trade tea. What follows here is the third and final part of a three-part transcript of that conversation. Parts I and II can be read by clicking here and here respectively.

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C: When companies and managing organizations talk about sustainability, do they also talk about labor practices? Are labor rights and working conditions part of the discussion on sustainability?

NM: Part of sustainability is social responsibility, and it's a very embracing concept.

C: So it's more of a big-picture view of the tea industry ... not damaging anything in the long run.

NM: That is the way Unilever interpreted [sustainability], and they have sort of passed it on to the Rainforest Alliance. The Rainforest Alliance was a bit more on the corporate social-responsibility side, and less on the [side of] sustainable husbandry, so it's a very good match. And yes, it's right land use, it’s water use, it's energy use, erosion, bio-diversity - the whole picture ... and empowerment of the workers.

C: How that information transfers to the end consumer, that's important, but there's no recognizable label that consumers are seeing at this point that confers that much information, is there?

NM: [With regard to guarantees of sustainability and labeling] at this point, all they're getting is the Rainforest Alliance frog, which when people see that they're supposed to think about all of this.

C: But they don't.

NM: Mostly they don't even know the story. But the idea is to pass the story on, I think. If I were driving it, that's what my idea would be. Some people need a lot [of detail on where the tea comes from] and some people can't deal with a lot of information.

C: One of the statements that was made during the panel discussion - I don't remember which of the panelists said it, but it may have been the representative from the organic certification organization - was that "30% of Americans are ethical consumers."

NM: Well, that's good news. [laughs]

C: Hearing it, I thought that it really doesn't mean anything. I assume that part of what that really means on a practical level is that when they talk to people they're often likely to grab the package that has the organic or fair-trade label because they have a sense of it being better in some vaguely altruistic way. To me that does not translate into evidence that they have closely evaluated their ethics with regard to what they consume.

NM: Right, someone wrote down the script to ask, “If you had a choice and you have an ethical product and a non-ethical product which one would you buy?” 30% said, “I’d go for the one with the little frog ... because I like frogs.”

C: And 70% said ...

NM: “Frogs are slimy; no, I don’t want it.” But people make choices on that sort of a basis.

C: I don't get the impression that there are broadly-informed consumers even among tea drinkers. There's a lot of demand for organic tea or fair-trade tea, but that is sometimes at the expense of quality and at the expense of programs that will actually help people and the environment more in the long run. I don’t want to be entirely cynical, however. It's definitely good progress to be thinking in those terms instead of not caring where things come from at all.

NM: And we do have a [largely unsolvable] problem with food miles in tea. You can't get tea without it being shipped a minimum of 10,000 miles.

C: Related to those distances that tea has to travel, it's very interesting seeing tea cropping up in unexpected places like New Zealand, for example.

NM: At [the Expo] I was approached by people who want to grow tea in the West Indies and people who want to grow tea in the Philippines.

C: The Philippines seems like a place where there would already be tea growing. I can see how the culture of that region wouldn’t have produced a natural place for growing tea.

NM: Yes, [the Philippines has] an American and Spanish background. Neither of those groups are tea drinkers or growers.

C: Right. The Spanish wouldn't have brought tea-drinking or tea-growing to the Philippines, but it seems like the climate would be right for growing.

NM: I’ve often wondered why there isn't tea in the Philippines already.

C: Maybe nobody's thought of it yet?

NM: Now somebody has, and then in the West Indies too. Coffee grows in Jamaica, very good coffee, some of the best, so why not tea?

C: I would expect the tea industry in Hawaii to get bigger, in spite of problems like the one you were describing about sulfur. But that's not a huge amount of land, really is it? It’s never going to be a major player in the tea world because it's just not a big place.

NM: No, it isn’t. And with the cost of production in these countries it just has to be a high value, niche product. It would kill itself if it went large amounts. High labor costs and large amounts just don't work.

C: That would be the only way they'd be doing it in Hawaii, right? So it's not really expandable or scalable?

NM: No, it isn't.

C: It would always be small scale. I didn't talk a great deal to the people from New Zealand, but it seems like their approach and how they're growing tea in New Zealand is that way too. They're starting out at the top with very expensive tea and really high quality.

NM: The Taiwanese guy wanted to grow tea in New Zealand, and food regulations in New Zealand are so rigorous, because they are a food exporting country, that the only sort of tea that he could grow passed the regulations. That puts him in a high-cost situation, even though he brings in Taiwanese workers to pluck the tea. He flies them in, and that costs a lot of money!

C: The cost of getting the tea from one place to another is expensive, but importing your labor force ...

NM: Yes - it puts your carbon footprint up! So he is really forced into that area where he has to charge $500 a kilo, and he must match the quality that people expect for that price, and he has. He's done a superb job.

C: Yes, he has, and he may be able to take up some of the slack for drops in production in Taiwan. So much of Taiwanese tea is not sustainable due to the environmental devastation and dangerous conditions surrounding the tea growing regions.

NM: A lot of Taiwanese tea – [some of what gets sold as] Formosa Oolong - is grown in [mainland] China.

C: I’ve heard that.

NM: You have to ask the vendor, specifically, "where was this grown?" The Japanese are doing exactly the same: they offer a “Sencha,” it might mean, "grown in the style of the Japanese" by Chinese workers who have been trained by the Japanese, who are making it on Japanese-supplied equipment. But actually, it's Chinese-supplied Sencha.

C: There's even Sencha coming out of Brazil. It's not very good ... and really that's different, because it is clearly identified as being from Brazil, not misrepresented as Japanese tea.

NM: I had an inquiry at the show from [a tea grower from] an unspecified country for machinery to make Sencha tea. I resource machinery, so I'll happily source him [the equipment], if he can afford it. But the source will amaze people: "Well I didn't know they grew Sencha there!"

C: The attempts at growing one place’s regionally-specific tea in a different location seem strange to me, because if you're taking a type of tea varietal and growing it somewhere else, with a totally different climate and different soil conditions, it's not going to taste the same. It seems like the more reasonable approach, rather than trying to reproduce a traditional kind of tea in a new place, would be to figure out what works best under the new conditions, and represent the tea as a new type, but perhaps that's not as marketable.

NM: If you look at consumers, they often go for what they know. Someone who knows a Sencha will always, given an unknown tea or the old-fashioned one that they know and love, they'll choose the one they know and love. But you're right, that's what they ought to do, and it's what I push people in Africa to do, to take the plants that they were growing for CTC tea, and do wonderful things with it.

C: and the specialty teas coming out of Africa are wonderful, some of them. They're not like teas grown somewhere else. They have their own character, which is wonderful. But that industry is probably getting to the point where it's starting to mature, because it's been around long enough, as opposed to a country that's been growing tea for six months.

NM: I generally find that my clients who've only been doing something for six months are much more imaginative, much less traditional, much more prepared to try and leap ahead.

C: Because they have less to lose?

NM: Less to lose and more to gain. And they're going to invest anyway, and it's much better to invest to get ahead rather than invest just to be behind.

C: Is there a lot of tea growing in South America?

NM: 40% of US tea comes from South America. Overall there's not a lot, but you import a disproportionate amount of that tea mainly for three reasons: it's close by, it's cheap, and it has no taste whatsoever.

C: So it fits the American palate?

NM: Yes: without being insulting, it's ideal for iced tea. Because it doesn't go cloudy, has good color, and has a taste that is easy to flavor. It's never bitter, which Americans hate. So it's a good match.

C: I don't think it's widely known that there's tea coming from South America. But that's within the tea community, and the tea community is not generally talking about the source for iced tea anyway.

NM: How many people care where their iced tea came from?

C: Nobody does. But that's an interesting thing, because no-one is talking about organic farming for the tea production that goes into iced tea in the United States, but why not?

NM: Look at the consumer profile of the people who drink iced tea.

C: They don't care, and it wouldn't occur to them that that would be a concern.

NM: Again, not to be insulting, but the main thing for them is, "shall we get a Big Mac?”

C: Or sweet tea? McDonald's is selling Sweet Tea now. I think there's a big discrepancy in those two consumer bases in the United States and even that statement about "30% of all Americans are ethical consumers" - that's of the small number of people they talk to. I think that the mainstream American consumer is not in a position of wanting to evaluate the labels or think about organic farming.

NM: Not just America, anywhere in the world you can say that. There's a small percentage in most countries who are concerned, interested, and will pay a little bit extra, but for the majority, it doesn't impinge upon them at all. But one of the reasons why the tea trade was never very keen on organic tea was because it downgrades their main tea. If you say, "this tea is organic, it contains no pesticides," the immediate thought is, okay what about the regular tea? The traders, the big boys, were never particularly keen. I keep using Unilever as an example because I know Unilever and know their workings. I don't think you'll find a Unilever organic tea on the market anywhere in the world, because it would signal to consumers that their other tea is non-organic.

C: Which brings up another important issue, that organic and fair trade, and all of these things bring the cost of the end product up. Ultimately, if the standard practices become more sustainable will those labels go away and not be necessary. Is that a trend, do you think?

NM: I don't know about in all things, but in tea, organic tea has had a good run and it will move aside for sustainable [tea]. I think already they're seeing that the prices they can get are coming down. They're coming closer to the standard tea prices. [Organic tea producers] can't get that premium anymore.

C: But the impact overall in the industry is probably a good thing, to try to encourage better practices and to get consumers to start thinking about the wider implications of what goes into bringing that tea to the cup.

NM: I think generally it's a good thing. The only problem is where you have small farmers who are not in groups who cannot afford to get on board. But that's the downside. The upside may be that it will encourage them to form small groups. And [some of them will] never be able to do it. [Some of the very small specialty producers] don't have a great deal of opportunity, but [they have] a high-value product, and can afford to do the certification if [they] wish.

C: It seems that in the tea industry, among people who are drinking the more high-end expensive teas, they're not drinking anything that comes out of a grocery shelf box with an organic label on it in the first place, but they're hopefully paying more attention to actually how the tea is produced. I see a divide between the really top-end production of really expensive specialty teas versus the whole of the tea industry.

NM: Yes, there is [that difference].

C: The labeling and the focus on ethical practices has a smaller impact on this part of the tea industry than it does on this other part of the tea industry, partly just functionally because if this tea isn't being produced in a plantation that is using a labor force that is being exploited because the business model doesn't work that way in the first place ...

NM: Yes, it's about business model; it's about ethos; it's about transparency - and if you are selling real high-value tea then you're not going to put DDT on it just because you've got some aphids. You're going to say, "what would our customers expect us to do?" and use a biological control. And that's exactly what [those tea producers] will do. And once you're using biological controls, the strange thing is you can't use pesticides, because it kills away your controls.

C: I find it really fascinating that there is a certain very small part of the tea industry that is centered around wild-tea growth - in Yunnan Province, for example, where these plants are thousands of years old and they're still being harvested, but they're growing in natural forests. The tea trees grow within the natural ecosystem alongside the other native foliage and animals. The yield per acre is probably minuscule, but that's about as sustainable as tea production could possible be. It's not practical for worldwide tea production, of course, even if you could recreate a “natural” tea forest in another place, but it’s a very interesting model for preservation.

NM: Talking about Rishi, that's their bread and butter.

C: Because they've got people that they can sell it to, that are interested in that. It's good that there's enough interest to keep those tea plants and their environments safe where they are.

NM: ... for another thousand years ...

C: ... at least.

NM: I have my doubts about those thousand-year-old trees. The Chinese are very elastic on their large numbers. They have this thing that any big number is ten thousand. No-one's going to believe a ten thousand year old tea plant, but a thousand is a big number. They're pretty old, I agree.

C: And who knows how old the actual forest is. It doesn't matter anyway, but it's quite interesting that there are places where really sustainable tea means just leaving it growing as a tea plant as one element of the local ecosystem, and having it do whatever it does, and having it picked by the ethnic minority that lives in that area that has picked the tea for hundreds of years.

NM: Or by monkeys ...


DougH said...


Very nice series, with timely information. Cinnabar's questions were to the point and comprehensive, and anything from Nigel Melican is worth hearing and seeing.

Maybe you should get them to do more stuff for you!


corax said...

AMEN doug! i would love that too.

Lelia said...

These were great questions and I hope to see Nigel at this years Expo. In my little corner of the world fair trade coffee seemed to lead the way to some people thinking about fair trade and organic tea but it is still not a huge percentage of the population.

Anonymous said...


It struck me that concern for field workers, processors, and labor conditions, some of the contemporary issues surrounding tea, was first broached over a thousand years ago by the poet Lu Tong 陸仝 in the Song of Tea:

“Where are the immortal isles of Mount Penglai?
I, Master Jade Stream, wish instead to ride this pure wind back
To the tea mountain where other immortals gather to oversee the land,
protecting the pure, high places from wind and rain.
Yet, how can I bear knowing the bitter fate of the myriad peasants
toiling beneath the tumbled tea cliffs!
I have but to ask Grand Master Meng about them;
whether they can ever regain some peace.”


Unknown said...

Thank you for bringing historical continuity (and such a marvelous bit of poetry) to the discussion. Those of us who bear the privilege of drinking tea without having to work the fields would do well to keep sight of the human toil that goes into bringing the leaf to our cup.