Our Fair Trade Philosophy

Shanti Tea was founded on the value and ideal of fair trade. In fact, during our first 2 years of business, many of our products were fair trade certified by a third party. However, as we visited more farms and learned more about what fair trade was all about, we chose to remove the restrictive nature of privatized fair trade certification. Our fair trade certifier was doing their job, no doubt about that, but our philosophy on fair trade was to be much more hands on and grounded. We've visited many of our supplier farms. We've spoken to the managers, the workers, and have developed our own perspective on the our position in the current fair trade environment. The following are some observations we have made that we feel important to consider when thinking about fair trade tea.

Fair Trade Certification is a private enterprise:

Unlike Organic certification, which is enforced by private companies but whose guidelines are laid down by governments, fair trade certification guidelines and enforcement both primarily lay in the private sector. This means that if 'Company A' certifies 'Farm A' as fair trade, and 'Company B' certifies 'Farm B' as fair trade certified, then Company A will not recognize Farm B as a fair trade farm even though they have met the fair trade guidelines of 'Company B', an equally reputable fair trade certifier.

Fair Trade Branding:

The phrase "Fair Trade Certified' is a Trademark owned by a private company. According to trademark law, we cannot call a product Fair Trade Certified unless it has been certified by that particular company. So even though a tea may be produced by a farm that was fair trade certified by another company, it cannot be called "Fair Trade Certified", because that trademark is owned by another company. We find this situation strange, since most consumers do not realize that "Fair Trade Certified" is a private brand, not a publicly accessible governmental endorsement of fair trade practices, similar to the Certified Organic we are all used to seeing.

Fair trade before 'Fair Trade Certified':

One of the most striking reasons that we dropped fair trade certification was based on a visit to a farm in Sri Lanka. We were basically informed that the only reason they subscribed to fair trade registration was because they felt it was a good marketing strategy in the west. From their perspective, fair trade was a no brainer, and their farm has been fair trade form the beginning. It just made sense.

In a farm that hovers 5000 to 8000 feet above sea level, the plantation managers and workers all live right on the farm - some for generations. Tea picking is not something you can learn from a book - it's passed on from generation to generation through practice and technique. So the wealth of experience that a farm has is embedded in the families that work there. If the farms do not provide a good living environment and access to education and medical facilities, the children, as they grow up, will be motivated to leave the farm and seek their fortune elsewhere. If this happens, the farm suffers from a loss of experience and knowledge. So it is already in the farms best interest to ensure that the generations of families that live there feel that hey are well taken care of, and earn a good wage that allows them to live a fulfilled life. The children must feel that life on the farm is good enough to choose to stay. So in the end, fair trade certification for this farm was really more a matter of a marketing decision. They picked a certifier, paid the fees, and got the branding. But unfortunately, if I were to be certified by a different certification company than the farm, I could not buy this farm's tea and call it 'Fair Trade Certified'. This seemed pretty un'Fair' to us, and to the farm.

Non 'Fair Trade' Farms:

What I have described in the last segment is not the status quo, however. Many farms do not actually pay a fair wage to their workers and allow for access only to the most rudimentary dwellings and facilities. Their philosophy is in cost efficiency, not tradition. For these farms, Fair Trade Certification is also a marketing opportunity. They work hard to meet all the guidelines set by fair trade certification companies and then pay for inspection and get their branding of "Fair Trade Certified" or other such brand. In this light, privatized fair trade certification does shine. It's marketing strategy that actually forces such farms to elevate the status quo. I fully support the initiation of this type of change. However, in our minds, we would prefer to buy from a farm that has a base philosophy of treating their workers well, rather than a farm that has changed for the marketing benefits. This is by no means a clear line distinguishing these two types of farms, however this is why we prefer to visit the farms ourselves and get to know them better. We choose to make our decision of which farm to support based on information we have gathered.

Shanti Tea Fair Trade Guidelines

We will begin the process of considering a farm 'fair trade' on a case by case basis ONLY if it is a Certified Organic farm, AND meets the following base considerations:

  • Currently fair trade certified by any reputable fair trade certifier (optional).
  • Pays its workers a comparable wage to fair trade certified farms, and provides access to quality residential, educational, medical, commercial, and religious facilities. For example: schools, medical clinics, good housing / land, access to goods, etc.
  • Has been referred to us by a reputable farm that has been in the industry for at least 10 years and has been Certified Organic for at least 10 years. Additionally, the referring farm must meet either point A or B above.
  • That will allow us to visit their farm without prior appointment, and bring our own guide and translator to speak to the workers.
Fresh organic tea leaves, Certified Organic Tea by Shanti Tea Canada
Handmade organic tea and weeding at a fair trade organic tea garden, Certified Organic Tea by Shanti Tea Canada