Sustainability is a hot topic these days and the word is used to refer to a lot of things from climate change, to being environmentally conscious, or having a small carbon footprint. Sustainability is not just about the environment, or labels like "organic" or "fair trade".
At The Karma Tea Co, we’re concerned with a broader economic sustainability when it comes to tea from South Asia. We view sustainability as an approach to sustaining the tea industry for future generations through promoting high value specialty tea.
To understand why it helps to know a little bit about the background of tea. For generations tea has been a very exploitative industry, no more so than in South Asia. It’s in India and Sri Lanka where the first tea plantations were created under colonial rule around 200 years ago. The plantation model (where workers are entirely dependent on the estate owners for everything from housing, to food, healthcare and education) still lives on today, and many might argue that it hasn’t changed much since this time.
What has changed is that prices for most tea in this part of the world have steadily got lower and lower. Today, big brands try to win new customers by offering customers cheaper and cheaper tea, to the extent where we don’t expect to pay more than a few pounds for a hundred tea bags or so.
As companies don’t want to risk losing customers by lowering their prices, pressure is put on tea growers to reduce their costs, and it's a struggle to remain profitable. The upshot is that farming communities slip deeper and deeper into poverty, or growers are forced to give up and abandon gardens. For those that remain in business, intense pressure to increase yields over the years has also created a widespread dependence on chemical fertilisers and pesticides, creating a vicious cycle.
Given the growing awareness that the conventional system of tea production in India is increasingly untenable, a new generation of tea makers have taken a more back-to-basics approach and returned to an emphasis on producing higher quality specialty teas. It is these teas that we are focused on showcasing at Karma Tea.
After decades of struggling with low prices, can the rise of specialty teas herald a new era of tea making in South Asia? For sure, this market does remain niche for now; “specialty” tea only makes up less than 5% of total production. But when you remember that all tea (black, white, green, and oolong) is made from the same raw leaf, the potential is huge.
As with everything, a sustainable tea model will always be a fine balance between economic viability and social/ environmental concerns. Ultimately, the question of whether the rise of artisanal tea can help to build a more sustainable tea industry in India will be driven by the market, us tea drinkers.
Against this backdrop, our mission at Karma Tea is to champion producers of specialty tea from this region, and inspire tea lovers to enjoy these crafted teas in the same way that they enjoy fine wine, single origin coffee or chocolate. If we all buy tea in the same way as we buy wine or coffee, with a focus on provenance and taste, and not just price, then maybe tea gardens can thrive once again.
How do we do this?
- We carefully source quality loose leaf that is crafted and sustainably grown (not produced in big factories and then mixed and blended with other sources).
- We’re very transparent about where are tea comes (to give growers the recognition they deserve and foster more connoisseurship around tea).
- We buy directly from growers (allowing them to achieve higher prices for their teas and offer an alternative to the auction system).
The end goal is simple; the more good tea we're all buying, the more demand we create for superior teas and the more impact we create at the source. In the meantime, there's still a lot of work to be done to tell the story of every tea and where it comes from, and a lot of very good tea to be drunk in the process.
Discover extraordinary sustainable tea here.