Ethics works both ways

Offered a cup of tea which prominently advertised its ‘fair’ heritage and its contribution to the welfare of the workers involved in its production, I unhesitatingly accepted. That acceptance unfortunately lasted only until the first sip when it became apparent that any claim to ‘fairness’ in this cuppa, did not apply to the consumer. The dark brown liquor hid a very old, very mediocre and very overpriced tea which seemed aligned quite unashamedly at selling on the strength of the feelings of guilt its heavily ‘fair trade’ branded packaging would kindle. Give the ‘inappropriateness’ of being too honest in criticizing a product that is so wonderfully ‘good’ it seemed that my fellow tea drinkers were quite happy to swallow the insipid brew or to douse it in milk and sugar to mask its taste. Most left the tea without complaint. There were a couple of examples of greater honesty that I found on the web though.

The thing about fairness is that it needs to work both ways. It needs to represent integrity – to all involved in that product; producer, retailer and consumer. Discriminating against the consumer to offer a token improvement to the producer is as unacceptable as the other way round. There is a way to achieve both, and it is a lot simpler than the way in which this and most other ‘fair trade’ teas are marketed, but the drawback for those involved in the fairtrade ‘phenomenon, is that neither they nor their global marketing apparatus figure in this.

More than anyone else the producer understands his or her product. Much as fairtrade advocates would wish to portray their certification based schemes as the only solution to exploitation, producers who live and work amongst tea, coffee, cocoa and cotton pickers, understand and empathise with them. As the evolving Primark scandal demonstrates though, exploitation does take place and it is not only in undeveloped countries but also in England that it can happen. The reasons are the same – price. Primark defended its sourcing policies when it was caught out by BBC’s Panorama in June 2008. In India and Sri Lanka, we don’t use child labour, especially not children suffering in refugee camps. That is a requirement that is enforced by law. We have in Sri Lanka, as in India, companies with a commitment to human rights, to the development of their workers through empowerment. MAS is one, Brandix is another, and in our case (Dilmah) in addition to protecting and empowering workers we also deploy a minimum of 10% of our revenue to help the underprivileged in our community.

The reason Primark chose to work with an ‘agency’ that, ‘unknown to Primark’ used child labour was price. And that is also the reason why in January 2009, 7 months after the India child labour scandal, Primark finds itself ‘extremely concerned’ about a similar sweatshop scandal in its backyard, in England.

As producers, we know how to care for our workers – there may be exceptions, but they are caused by other factors like those mentioned above. As producers we also understand quality. Fairness for a producer involves more than just paying a ‘fairtrade premium’, it means integrity, in terms of tangibly enhancing the lives of workers, tangibly enhancing the future of the industry in which we operate and preserving it for future generations, and doing so by being fair to consumers as much as to our workers. Fairtrade should not change that  by shifting the emphasis. Genuinely fair tea, coffee, cocoa must offer as much benefit to the consumer as to the worker. The solution is there, but it is quite different to that which has been presented by the organisation which calls itself fairtrade.

2 Comments Ethics works both ways

  1. Bruce March 2, 2009 at 11:11 am

    I’m familiar with the Fairtrade tea to which you refer, Dilhan – “the dark brown liquor hid a very old, very mediocre and very overpriced tea which seemed aligned quite unashamedly at selling on the strength of the feelings of guilt its heavily ‘fair trade’ branded packaging would kindle…”.

    Actually, the owners have FT estates in two countries and they’re notorious in the trade since I was a kid back in the 1960’s for making horrible goods. To give an idea, their organic fairtrade tea is regularly sold in two auctions and to date, the best price they fetched at auction (this is since they converted to organic six years ago) was the equivalent of USD$ 1.03 KG EX-AUCTION. Generally, their maingrades sell at more like USD$ 0.80 KG.

    One might think that this absurdly low price level for the “double-brag” of “organic” and “Fairtrade” might entice some of the big blenders, but no. The stuff tastes horrid and cannot be used even in small proportions in the cheapest of blends, because it’s guaranteed to dominate the blend – it is that bad.

    The producer’s target market: smallish so-called “specialty tea blenders” who haven’t a clue – except a price target that’s a joke and a requirement for both Organic and Fairtrade Certifications on every kilo of tea they buy. Merrill, Malik, you and I know the buyer well. We tried selling them some Ceylons that fit their criteria – and indeed they increased their price target for us, albeit with the comment that Ceylon goods in this catagory sell for 3 to 4X the price of the favored origins.

    We pushed them +/- about one MT per year for a few years – this naturally allowed them put on their boxes “Organic & Fairtrade Emperor’s Blend – Featuring Ceylon’s Best Teas”. I gather they sprinkled a few grams of our tea for every metric ton of other origins they ran in the blending drum.’

    They had a very good fiscal Q4 / 2009. The announcement pushed their shares straight up. One reporter from CBS ventured a guess that this maybe because the company belonged to fairtrade, rainbow alliance, etc and they worked so closely with their producer colleagues at origins in order to insure healthful, organic, top quality produce.

    We need a global tea association to establish minimum quality standards for export. The reasons are clear for this need – it will help cut down on the lies and garbage qualities promoted by a tiny proportion of producers who pull down the image of our product for all.

  2. Bruce March 2, 2009 at 11:16 am

    Sorry. That should’ve read “Q4 2008.” Apologies for the typo.

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