Thursday, May 6, 2010

Sustainability: Why is it important for tea?

I'm really passionate about sustainability--which encompasses environmental and human rights issues, public health, education, preservation of cultures, economic stability, fairness and efficiency in the use and distribution of resources, and a whole bunch of other things. (More detailed discussion of what exactly sustainability is on RateTea's page on tea and sustainability) One of the purposes behind my creation of RateTea is to promote sustainability in the world of tea. Also, RateTea is, in some sense, a side project of my business Merit Exchange LLC, and the main project, Merit Exchange (which, alas, is on the back burner for the time being) is all about sustainability.

Why is sustainability so important?

If we live unsustainability, future generations will not be able to enjoy the same quality of life that we currently have. They will have fewer resources and face greater problems and suffering. Caring about sustainability is caring about our children and the future of human civilization.

Environmental issues are already present all around us. Where I live, signs of former generations unsustainable activities are all around me. Living in Delaware, between the Delaware river and Chesapeake bay, I see waterways where once thriving fishing industries have been almost completely destroyed, due to some combination of unsustainable agriculture (toxic chemicals, nutrient pollution running off into waterways) and possibly unsustainable fishing practices as well. With the collapse of these industries, local economies, and thus communities and culture have been destroyed as well. The picture above is a 2002 picture of oysters from the Chesapeake bay, taken while working for UMCES, a marine lab on the Chesapeake bay. Virtually all the oyster bars we visited were completely dead.

There is also a lot of beauty that is destroyed, and often, we don't even really understand what is going on, why it's happening, and what we could do about it. I see once abundant bird and plant species that are now endangered...while a few species like the Bald Eagle have made a dramatic recovery, other once abundant species like the Rusty Blackbird and Cerulean Warbler are rapidly dying off. The ecosystems here are out of overpopulation of deer causes problems in forest regrowth. I know the most about my local ecosystems, and I know that the ones here are not doing particularly well. But I know that I live in a country that has relatively strong environmental protection, and a strong conservation movement, and an abundance of open space...and I still see serious problems. I can only read about and imagine what it must be like in places like China and India.

How is this relevant to tea?

I'm not going to duplicate what I wrote in my article on tea and sustainability but I would really recommend reading that article if you haven't--and I'd appreciate feedback and constructive criticism--especially if there are any omissions. But a few things to think about:
  • Most tea comes from developing countries with great population pressure and weakly enforced environmental standards. The global economic system tends to "outsource" environmental problems out of wealthier developed countries and into developing countries. But in general, the countries producing tea face far more severe environmental problems than developed western countries buying tea.

  • Tea is one area where each person can easily make a difference through conscious shopping / tea drinking habits. Drinking loose tea is not only more sustainable, but it's cheaper! And tea is relatively inexpensive (compared to coffee, alcohol, even fruit juice)--people can't make the claim that they can't afford to pay a premium for tea that is produced in a sustainable way. Even the more expensive tea is relatively affordable.

Choosing teas so as to best promote sustainability is hardly clear-cut. It's not as simple as buying organic or fair trade tea. However...thinking about these issues is a necessary step. When you buy tea...ask yourself the question..."Where does this come from?" And then over time start asking more: "How much of my purchase are the people who produced this tea earning?" and "What are the environment impacts of the production of this tea?". Take it a little bit at a time. Asking questions is ultimately the best way to start working towards addressing these issues.


  1. Informative!
    I agree with you on all points though!
    It will take some small baby steps to move to complete sustainability though. Nothing will ever get done immediately. We all wish it could!

  2. Thanks!

    I think it's also important to realize that "baby steps" are happening both at the "top" and the "bottom".

    For example, it's exciting to see the launch of new companies like Shanti Tea whose main focus is organic and biodynamic teas...but it also makes a difference when companies like Lipton take smaller steps too.

    Unfortunately, Lipton seems to be moving in the opposite 2006 they redesigned their teabags to move from paper to nylon, moving from a biodegradable / compostable material to one that does not break down and ends up in a landfill. I was also saddened when they redesigned their bags again, more recently, and did not seem to even take this into account.

    One thing I'm hoping to do with is to gently prod companies (whether the leaders or the ones like Lipton that are a bit slow on the uptake) to keep doing better in terms of sustainability...cause when it comes down to it, there is always more that each of us can do

  3. Alex, thanks so much for this post and your article. I often think about the tea pickers when I'm drinking a cup of tea. Sustainability is a complex topic, yet it's one we must face - and no better way to begin than with each cup of tea !

  4. Thank you for bringing this up. i grew up on a farm and it was heaven to me to walk the fields, drink from the creek, swim in the pond and see the wildlife all around me. Years later I lived in a farming area that was selling out to developers - acres of top-grade fields going into exurbia. All I could think is - Who will grow our food? Will it be any good? What is the price of natural beauty? We won't get those fields back, we won't hear the sound of contented hens clucking in the yard, the trilliums will disappear. If we can support sustainability, with every (well most) cup of tea we drink, let's do it. Life is worth it.

  5. It is most saddening when people build un-sustainable communities...many of those new exurbs are so far from sustainability...cheaply made, identical housing, sold at inflated prices, in subdivisions entirely built around the car.

    I'm not uniformly anti-suburb...I've lived in some beautiful older suburbs myself, and many of them can be more sustainable (in certain ways) than cities or rural areas because you can walk places but have enough space to grow your own food!

    But I wish we could learn...and start building in a way that was for more than just profit...building communities. I love how old towns and even some old suburbs would center around a town square or other public spaces...storefronts, churches, park space, and you can walk everywhere...I love that.

  6. Hey - You have good taste in teawares!

  7. Very good and important article. I'll be following/linking you as well. Thanks

  8. Thank you! If you or anyone is interested in linking to this blog, I would encourage you to consider linking to directly. I put a lot more effort into researching and writing the articles on that site...this blog is more for opinions, and personal explanations.


    I'm also interested in suggestions of topics to write about, if anyone thinks there are any key sustainability-oriented issues that it would be good to write about.