It makes no difference how many mythological hypotheses surround its origins, from a quasi-divine emperor to the Gautama Buddha; one thing is certain: tea is from Asia, and for a long time, its cultivation was under the monopoly of China. This was before 1840, when a British doctor planted the first tea seeds in his garden in Beechwood, Darjeeling, India.

Tea became an integral part of the world’s economies and cultures. Age-old India welcomed it into the Hindu pantheon like a new god. There, tea became a cultural symbol, a national beverage that shaped various aspects of life. Conversion to tea knew no borders: next to water, tea is now the world’s most consumed drink. In the time it takes to read these words, tens of thousands of cups will be swallowed worldwide.

It also makes no difference how many colours it comes in—white, black, green, blue, red, and even yellow. All tea comes from one kind of tree,

, with two varieties,


, found naturally all over Asia, but historically concentrated in China.

In its natural state,

can grow up to 20 metres tall, which is not very practical for harvesting. Domesticating tea trees restricts them to a height of 1.2 metres, to maximize production and make picking the leaves easier. The science, if not the art, of harvesting, lies in a strategy that has to take into account the time of day (tea picked in the morning is higher in tannins) and also the conditions necessary for growth and quality. For the most delicate flavour, only the first leaf below the bud is picked. To encourage growth, several leaves, sometimes including the bud, are collected.

Patali Sarki picks organic Fair Trade tea in the Ambotia tea Garden, located in the mythic Darjeeling region. 

Photo by: Eric St Pierre

From Fair Trade; A Human Journey

Then there are the decisions concerning the fermentation of the leaves—light, medium, full, or simply not at all—to produce the different types, or colours, of tea. The Japanese have made green tea (not fermented but roasted) their sole passion, whereas semi-fermented teas (oolongs) are Chinese in origin. Black tea, allegedly the result of accidentally prolonged fermentation during a delayed delivery in the 17th century, became so popular with the subjects of the British Crown that they thenceforth demanded tea produced only by this method.

Nowadays, the conventional tea market is controlled by a small number of multinationals that greatly influence the prices at regional auctions. The overproduction of tea in recent years has pushed prices down, and as a result, there has been an attempt to encourage higher consumption in producing countries (India and China), whose citizens are already among the most avid tea drinkers. On the other hand, per capita, Indians drink only 650g per year, compared to 2200g for the English.

The Fair Trade market includes green, black, and oolong teas, as well as herbal infusions such as camomile, mint, and South African rooibos. After a recent explosion in demand at the end of 2007, the Fair Trade tea market has now stabilized. It saw a growth of only eight percent in 2011 compared to 112 percent between 2007 and 2008.

Fair Trade tea is also significant in that it represents the first product imported from Fairtrade certified plantations that use hired labour. The inclusion of Fair Trade tea plantations caused a shockwave of resistance within the Fair Trade movement—most significantly from the democratic cooperatives of small-scale producers that were, until that moment, the emblem of Fair Trade. At the heart of the debate is the capacity of smallholder cooperatives to compete with these large-scale businesses.

There are 16 product sectors in the Fairtrade International certification system that are limited to democratic small-scale producer organizations (coffee, cocoa, sugar, rice, cotton, among others), while seven (fruit juice, fruit, bananas, tea, wine, flowers, and sports balls) also allow for private enterprises, such as large plantations, that use hired labour.

Debates around the issue of plantations versus small-scale producers will likely continue to shape the system of Fair Trade certification in the future.

Fair Trade is an important development for plantation workers, as it requires owners to adhere to strict labour standards that guarantee safe working conditions and prohibit the use of child labour. Further, all workers receive fair wages and have the right to unionize.

Not only are producers guaranteed fair prices that will cover the costs of production, but they also receive additional social premiums. Certified plantations are required to form a Joint Body, where representatives are elected from the workers and management to make decisions on how those premiums are spent.

Moore, Lindsey Bornhofft (2010). “Reading Tea Leaves: The Impact of Mainstreaming Fair Trade.”

2011 Fairtrade International Annual Report (p. 13)

Éric St-Pierre is a Canadian photojournalist specializing in Fair Trade. He is the author of three photography books, which include his latest, 

. He is a founding member of the Quebec Association of Fair Trade.

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