Not for all the Tea in China?
This Sunday over 1.5 billion people across the globe will be celebrating the most important Chinese holiday, the Chinese New Year. Based on a lunar calendar, the Chinese New Year falls on the 2nd new moon following the winter solstice. This year we leave the praised dragon of the 12-year zodiac and enter into the year of the snake, specifically the water snake. While some theorize tumultuous times ahead, this snake is considered to be a gentle snake, characterized by looking inward, having great insight, thinking, being a great sensor, seeking truth and identifying falsehoods.
Like snakes, Chinese made goods are also negatively perceived by many in the western world. Poor quality and copycat products are cited as the basis for consumer’s disdain for Chinese made products in “‘Thanks, But No Thanks’ to Made in China?” (Knowledge @ Wharton 2012). But for conscious consumers, Chinese labor practices are at the heart of the problem. Based on the availability of Chinese Fair Trade products, it would be safe to say that many Fair Traders’ attitudes about selling (or buying) Chinese made goods could be summed up by the expression, “not for all the tea in China.”
As we celebrate the Chinese New Year and come under the influence of the water snake, maybe it is time to re-think this approach? Let’s take a closer look, starting with the obvious. Tea.
Believed to have been discovered in China in the Yunnan province during the Shang Dynasty more than 3,000 years ago, today, tea is the most widely consumed beverage in the world, second only to water. To put this into perspective, more people drink tea than coffee, chocolate, soft drinks, and alcohol… combined! In recent years, China has surpassed India as the largest producer of tea in the world. While it is easy to find Fair Trade tea from India, it takes a bit more effort to find Certified Fair Trade teas from China.
In the US, Numi Organic Tea is the leading brand importer of Fair Trade teas and has several varieties of tea from China including Jasmine Green, Breakfast Blend and Magnolia Puerh. Sourced from the Dazhangshan Organic Tea Farmer Association (DOFTA) of the Wuyuan Mountains in the Jiangxi region. According to Fair Trade USA (FTUSA), DOFTA has an impressive 5,4000 member households, and is China’s first and largest producer of certified Fair Trade teas.
Rishi tea also boasts several varieties of FTUSA Certified teas, including: Jade Cloud, China Breakfast and Pu-erh Classic. Founder Joshua Kaiser believes China is ripe for expanding the production of fair trade tea because it is rich in small-hold tea growers with no huge estates or plantations. “China is the perfect platform for fair trade organizations to work in because it’s all small-holders. There’s not these very huge tea estates. Part of the fair trade mission is to empower small-holder farmers to get access to international markets and there’s very few fair trade organic certified projects in China, but that trend is growing and it’s going to expand more and more and I do think that fair trade in China is needed.” (Fast Company 2010)
If we look outside the cup, China’s tepid role in the handmade sector is sadly a near empty cup. Of the 324 World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO) members of, only two come from China, accounting for only 0.6% of the total members, they are Cangzhou Yuji Zhenhuafa Charcoal Company and Threads of Yunnan.
Threads of Yunnan sell a variety of traditionally inspired products from tea to brightly colored embroidered cards, table linens and jewelry. Threads of Yunnan works with women from the many ethnic minorities in the Yunnan province and also provide training in nutrition, hygiene, money management and personal development. In the US, Threads of Yunnan products can be purchased from SERRV, Gifts with Humanity, and World Crafts.
While I’ve laid out only a few examples of Fair Trade in China, to be truthful there isn’t much more out there to report. Some would argue that as China is the 2nd largest economy in the world, expanding fair trade production for consumption in the “developed world” is not applicable. Others argue that the electronics industry is in the most need of fair trade due to their well-documented poor labor practices, see “Bring Fair Trade to Electronics (Huffington Post 2012). Clearly this would not only require introspection, but would also require a shift from the norm of agriculture or handicraft production. Not sure if this will happen soon? Lastly some may say fair trade is just not feasible in a government controlled society. Even if workers wanted to implement FT practices, it might not be possible to do so, see “Fair Trade in China” (Seven Cups of Tea).
As Fair Trade is a consumer-led movement, it is difficult to imagine that western shoppers will have a taste for FT products made in China. Shoppers would have to overcome their disdain for Chinese made products and go one step further, champion the expansion of FT products in China, recognizing that every step to expand the movement is a step in the right direction. Perhaps, expansion efforts in China require a different approach than the traditional model where production in “developing” countries is exported to the “developed” world. Growth might instead be directed inward for domestic consumption as is discussed in “Expansion of FT Products in Chinese Market” (Journal of Sustainable Development). This would be a big boost to the FT movement with China itself being the single largest market in the world.
But this article isn’t about an effective, domestic labor movement, or foreign influence to improve labor practices, it’s about us, the western consumer, are we really ready to welcome China with open arms into the movement?
For now, we enjoy a hot cup of tea, celebrate the New Year and welcome the Water Snake!
What are your thoughts? Are you aware of other Fair Trade products from China? Would you buy them?