Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Tea And Prostate Cancer: Keep Headlines Truthful and Stay Out of Advocacy on Points You Don't Know

This post centers around the relatively recent study published on the topic of Tea and Prostate Cancer. If you're interested, here is a link to the actual study: Tea Consumption and the Risk of Overall and Grade Specific Prostate Cancer: A Large Prospective Cohort Study of Scottish Men.

In this post, I highlight something that happens on a nearly daily basis, which oversteps an ethical boundary for me, in the area of popular science coverage by the media. I also examine the way the UK Tea Council reacted to this research, and I urge them to take a different approach, which I think would ultimately be more helpful not only for the tea industry as a whole, but for their own organization, and for the state of popular science in society at large.

Specifically, I call them to focus their efforts on the media, ensuring truthful comments, rather than making statements about scientific studies in which they had not played any direct role.

An article about tea and health, where the headline poses ethical problems for me:

An article was recently published in the Telegraph, a UK newspaper, with the headline "Men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer". I am not going to link to this article because I have ethical problems with the choice of headline, and I do not wish to endorse it. You can find it in a search engine if you want. Here is a screenshot of the article:

I see a serious ethical problem with the choice of headline: it is less than fully truthful, and, when read in isolation, could be misleading. The objective reality is that a recent study found evidence that men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer. It is not truthful to state as fact that "Men who drink 7 cups of tea are 50 per cent more likely to develop prostate cancer".

Because a far greater number of people see a headline than actually read the article, even though the sub-heading of the article, and the article's text itself, clarify the more truthful, objective reality of the matter, a large number of people are going to read only the headline, and settle on the piece of information presented as fact (which is the result of a single study, certainly not accepted as scientific fact). I think that, collectively, this sort of simplistic news coverage leads the public consciousness to oscillate between one-sided views, like "tea is healthy" or "tea is unhealthy" rather than thinking holistically, and in more balanced terms.

The fact that this practice is the norm in the mainstream media does not make it ethically okay. Personally, I find it conflicts with my beliefs, as it less than untruthful, and I think that this sort of sloppy choice of headline serves to encourage simplistic thinking and spread misinformation. I would urge all news media to put greater care into maintaining truthfulness in headlines, and I would encourage all readers of media to put pressure on the businesses that run these organizations, to have greater integrity in their choice of headlines.

The UK Tea Council's Reaction:

The Tea Advisory Panel, which is run by the UK Tea Council, issued a statement which was presented in this article, that the "research was flawed and the higher incidence of prostate cancer could be attributed to other factors, such as smoking, stress or diet."

I also have ethical problems with this advisory panel issuing a statement on this matter. Was the person who made this statement directly involved in the research? Did the council include one or more of the scientists who carried out the peer review in the journal in which the study was published? Have they conducted a thorough meta-analysis of the research to date on tea and prostate cancer? I suspect that the answer to all three of these questions is no.

From a scientific perspective, if this person is just making an assertion of fact not backed by any evidence, their statement has no validity whatsoever. I definitely think that scientific research needs to be approached with a critical mind, and I think people and groups outside the scientific establishment often offer valid and useful criticisms of science. But I also think that blind criticism coming from an industry interest group has no role in science, and no credibility in my eyes.

I would like to call anyone who is a member of the UK Tea Council, or who has any sway over them, to ask them to refrain from these sorts of statements, and instead, to focus their efforts on the media, like the Telegraph (and numerous other papers), who have chosen a less-than-truthful headline. The study was just a scientific study, and it found some strongly suggestive evidence, but it certainly did not establish anything as undisputable fact. If there are flaws with the study, it will take deeper scrutiny, considerable time, and possibly further research to uncover them. It is highly doubtful that anyone from the UK Tea Council would have had time to scrutinize this study deeply enough to uncover any serious flaws in it, in the brief time between when it was published and when the advisory panel issued their statement.

What do you think?

Do you agree with me that the original headline, as shown here, is less-than-truthful? Would you prefer media to use greater care in creating headlines that are truthful when read on their own?

How do you feel about the statement from the UK Tea Council's Tea Advisory Panel? Do you think they have also overstepped an ethical bound? Do you agree with me that it would advance the public interest more for them to focus more on the truthful presentation of the study by mainstream media, than to make statements about a study in which they had no involvement and have not taken the time to scrutinize in depth from a scientific perspective?

I think that if the UK Tea Council's Advisory Panel focused on the media in the manner described above, they would ultimately be having much more of a positive impact on the world, in terms of promoting an accurate public understanding of the facts in this case. I also think they would look a lot more credible, both to me, and to the scientific community as a whole.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Price and Deals When Buying Tea Online

I recently received a box of samples from the newly launched Paisley Tea Co, which is an effort of Two Leaves Tea (Formerly Two Leaves and a Bud).

This post is not about the company's teas; I have more to say about them later; if you're itching to read more, you can peek at my lengthy review of their English Breakfast on RateTea. This post, however, is about a phenomenon that I've seen occur with a variety of companies that sell online. This post is directed both at tea shoppers and tea companies, and I hope there will be some useful tidbits in the post for both audiences.

Pictured here is a clipping from a screenshot of the page for Paisley Tea Co's Organic English Breakfast, on the official online store of Two Leaves Tea:

The price, for a box of 24 tea bags, is $5.95. Now, take a peek at this screenshot, taken from Amazon.com:

Now the price is $3.82. But the product is out of stock. I discovered this page, supposedly selling this tea, after reading a post on The Everyday Tea Blog, titled Paisley Tea Co, Organic Double Earl Grey. This price is discounted over 35% off the price listed on the company's official site. A little more searching turns up the following listings:

These are sold by Amazon.com's Add-on program, and some of them are in stock. This program lists items that would be cost-prohibitive to ship on their own, and they are intended to be purchased when someone makes a larger ($25 or more) purchase from Amazon, and they ship for free in these large purchases.

Sometimes you can find deals online:

If you are looking to buy a product online, you can sometimes find it cheaper than the list price on the company's main website. You may also sometimes find coupon codes if you search for them. This can be good news if you are a tea drinker looking to buy tea online. Three suggestions I'd have if you want to look for deals on a product you've already decided to buy would be:
  • Check Amazon.com, eBay, and other major online marketplaces.
  • Try searching Google shopping.
  • Do a basic search for coupon codes for the company you are buying from.
Is this sort of setup beneficial for the company selling the tea? Often, yes, as I explain below. I do want to point out, however, that these "off-the-main-website" deals usually are limited to larger, more mainstream tea companies.

Why do such discounts exist?

Teas can be available at a discount for a variety of reasons. Some of them include:
  • If a company is hoping to sell a major portion of their products through Amazon, eBay, or any other marketplace website which has its own reputation system, sellers sometimes initially sell products at a discounted price in order to establish a track record. They forgo additional profits as an investment to establish their reputation. This practice is most common with smaller companies.
  • If a company is launching a new line of teas, or a new tea brand, like Paisley tea in this example, they may offer a discount to help jump start their new products.
  • Sometimes packaged teas end up in the hands of a company (or individual) that cannot easily sell them or put them to use, and wants to get rid of them, and they then mark the price down below the company's list price, as a way of recovering some of their loss. Discount stores can also buy random shipments of tea for discounted prices, and sell them at a modest profit, still below list price.

A word of caution on bargains being displayed but not available:

I just want to highlight one potential problem that can arise from a setup like the one here, especially if it persists in the long-run.

I think that it can be potentially problematic, and can hurt companies, when there is a lower-priced item available on a third party website, but the item is out of stock. This is especially true if the price is presented as a normal price, rather than being advertised as a special discount (sometimes this can be harmful even if it is in stock). If a person searches around and somehow finds the bargain-priced item labelled as normal (like the Amazon example above), they may get excited and think: "Wow, at that price, I want to buy this product." But then they go to buy it and it is out of stock. But then they see the same product for sale on the company's official site, or in a supermarket, or another store, for the normal price, and it seems overpriced, in comparison to the discount price. They'll be likely to think: "Wow, this store is price gouging." or "This tea is overpriced." and not buy it.

Policing prices:

Pictured here is a rather old police car, a Ford Mustang to be precise; the concept of price policing really has nothing to do with the actual police, and tends to be enforced through contracts between wholesalers and distributors, rather than criminal law. This picture is included strictly for amusement.

Some companies actively police their pricing, enforcing minimum retail prices, because they worry that if their products are too widely available for low prices, they will lose money because people will become less interested in buying the products at a higher price. For example, there is a shoe store that I like very much, called The Natural Shoe Store, on 40th street in Philadelphia. The staff of this store have told me that one company threatened to stop selling them shoes because they had priced them too low, even though they were still selling the shoes at a comfortable profit over the wholesale price.

I don't like the idea of price policing like I described here. I think it goes against the idea of the free market economy, and even if it benefits one business, I think it tends to harm the economy as a whole. But I do think that it is good for businesses to think critically about who is going to see what prices where, and what conclusions they will draw from them. Offering discounts and deals can be a great way to jump-start a new line of teas, or a new brand of tea like Paisley here. In some cases, though, it may be better not to discount.

Rather than policing prices, I think a better approach is to be cautious about where, when, and how much you discount your products.

What do you think?

Do you ever shop around for deals on tea online, that is, deals that go beyond the price listed on the company's main website? How about when buying other sorts of products? For companies: when do you think the best time is to discount? And what do you think of the idea of price policing. Tea companies: would you ever do it? And tea drinkers, do you think it's acceptable for a company to do, or does it undermine the ideals of a market economy?

Thursday, July 26, 2012

Confession About The Type of Tea Kettle I Use

Today I want to share a confession that may be astonishing to some of you.

I recently read a post on Uniquely tea, about tea kettles, in which Denise asks the question of what type of tea kettle people use. I originally posted my comment on that blog, but then I realized that it was interesting enough to share here as a post of its own:

My confession...I do not even own a tea kettle! I exclusively heat water for tea using a regular pot on the stove, usually, a copper bottom revere ware pot, to be precise. When the water is sufficiently hot, I pour it into a mug, teapot, or gaiwan, depending on what mood I'm in.

Why no tea kettle?

My apartment has a very small kitchen, with limited storage space. As I love food and love to cook, I have a variety of large implements, including a blender, toaster oven, and lots of food supplies. I also have a lot of cupboard space taken up by loose-leaf tea. I don't need a tea kettle to heat water, and as such, a tea kettle takes up unnecessary space. A pot, on the other hand, can be kept perpetually on the stove, because I can use it for a wide variety of purposes, including both heating water for tea, and cooking. Sometimes, especially when cooking for others in the winter, I cook using all four burners, so any implement that goes on the stove that cannot be used to cook food is taking away from my valuable kitchen space.

In the past, I've lived with people who had tea kettles, including an electronic water boiler from Zojirushi. As nifty as this device was, I did not really miss it. Electric kettles also take up a lot of space, and are less efficient from an energy usage standpoint, when compared to a gas stove, although they tend to be more efficient than electric stoves. (Gas is more efficient for heating than electricity, because over 3 times as much fuel needs to be burned to capture the free energy to produce a given unit of electricity, whereas when burning fuel directly, all available energy is converted to heat). And there's something I love about the old-fashioned process of heating water up in a pot on the stove.

I've been living without a tea kettle for well over three years now. I'm quite adept at pouring water from a large pot, into a small brewing vessel, and I rarely spill hot water, but in case I do, I usually pour over the sink anyway. And it works for me just fine!

What do you think?

Do you think I'm crazy for being such a die-hard tea enthusiast, and not owning a tea kettle? Do any of you also go without a tea kettle for heating water?

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Nitrogen Fixing Plants to Fertilize Tea Organically

Recently, Brett of Black Dragon Tea Bar shared a post, titled Organic Tea in Mucha, sharing details of his visit in January of 2010 to a region, Mucha(木柵), in northern Taiwan. If you scroll down through the photos, you will see something that I found very interesting, a photo of a nitrogen fixing cover crop planted in between rows of tea plants. In this post, I want to explain why this practice is used, and how it can be beneficial in terms of reducing the environmental impact of tea production.

Most of us are familiar with a number of nitrogen-fixing plants. Most Americans are familiar with clover, which grows in lawns throughout much of North America:

The above photo shows red clover (center, with the larger, more oblong leaves), and white clover (the smaller leaves around the edge, with a rounder shape). Both of these two species are native to Europe, and not to North America, but have become widely naturalized in North America, especially white clover in grassy lawns.

Here is another nitrogen fixing plant, beans:

These are fava beans. Clover, beans, and the nitrogen fixing plants planted in between the rows of tea plants in Brett's original post, are all legumes. Legumes are a plant family that have the remarkable ability to "fix" atmospheric nitrogen into a form able to be utilized by plants. A few other plants, such as Alders and Bayberries, can also do this, but legumes are the most commercially important and also the most widespread in most ecosystems.

Why is nitrogen fixation such a big deal?

Nitrogen is one of the major chemical elements used in life; proteins, the basic building blocks of life forms, including both plants an animals, are rich in nitrogen. Nitrogen is a very common element; nitrogen gas makes up about 80% of the Earth's atmosphere. Yet in many ecosystems, and in much commercial agriculture (including much tea cultivation), plant growth is limited by available nitrogen. Why?

The answer lies in the electron structure of nitrogen atoms, and the corresponding molecular structure of nitrogen gas, depicted here in this molecular diagram:

Nitrogen has an electron structure which is three electrons away from a stable state, unlike Oxygen, which only is two electrons away. Nitrogen atoms thus achieve a more stable state by pairing up, and "sharing" electrons. This setup forms what can be viewed as a "triple bond", pictured by the triple line between the two atoms in the diagram above. This bond is very hard to break, and the state of nitrogen gas is very stable. The oxygen molecule only has a double bond, which is easier to break. Oxygen gas is thus much less stable, which is why things burn--combustion is just a chemical reaction with the oxygen in air.

Getting nitrogen into a form that can be used by living things like plants and animals, to build complex organic molecules, is somewhat of a big deal. Most life forms cannot do this. Legumes do not even do it on their own; they do so by having special nodules on their roots, which contain anaerobic bacteria (bacteria that function in an oxygen-free environment), which do the work for them.

If you want to learn more about this, I recommend looking at Wikipedia's pages on the Nitrogen cycle, and Nitrogen fixation.

Nitrogen and tea:

The tea plant, like most plants, cannot fix its own nitrogen. Thus, when tea leaves are continuously harvested, nitrogen is continually removed from the system consisting of the tea plants and soil in which the tea is growing. This nitrogen must be replaced, or else the tea plant will eventually start exhibiting stunted growth and stop being productive.

There are several different ways of achieving this:

  • Application of organic fertilizer, such as soil or mulch derived from compost, manure, mulched wood, or other organic sources.
  • Synthetic or mineral-based fertilizers, such as ammonia fertilizers (in which atmospheric nitrogen is converted in an industrial process into a form that can be absorbed by plants), or nitrate-based fertilizers (which can be synthetic or naturally-occurring minerals).
  • Growing the tea plant together with nitrogen-fixing plants, such as the example given in the Black Dragon Tea Bar blog post Organic Tea in Mucha.
  • Rotating crops from year to year, such as growing beans and corn in alternate years, or growing other nitrogen-fixing annual crops alternately with crops with a higher nitrogen requirement. This approach does not work with tea cultivation because the tea plant is a perennial plant and requires multiple years to reach commercially viable production.

Nitrogen-fixing plants can be highly effective at adding nitrogen to agricultural ecosystems. Because these plants have access to an effectively infinite amount of nitrogen (far more than they themselves need), these plants tend to "bleed nitrogen" out into the surrounding ecosystem, through their roots. The plants also have leaves and stems that are extremely high in nitrogen. Nitrogen-rich leaves tend to be more delicate in texture and break down more rapidly than carbon-rich leaves (the leaves of the tea plant, by contrast, tend to contain much less nitrogen than most legumes), so the nitrogen used by these plants tends not to stay tied up in the plant itself very long.

Photo by Sebastianjude, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

Nitrogen-fixing plants do not solve all a plant's nutrient needs. Plants, including tea, also require phosphorus and numerous trace minerals for healthy growth, so nitrogen-fixing plants cannot completely eliminate the need for the application of fertilizers. But they can greatly reduce it.

Another benefit of nitrogen fixing plants over synthetic fertilizers is that the way that the nitrogen enters the system, when provided by nitrogen-fixing plants, tends to be more beneficial to the overall ecosystem. When applying synthetic fertilizers, like ammonium nitrate based fertilizers, a lot of the nitrogen simply runs off into the water, which can create nutrient pollution downstream. Nitrogen fixing plants put the nitrogen directly into the soil and the leaf litter, gradually over time, so they can provide the same benefits to the crops being grown while greatly reducing nutrient pollution downstream.

What is your experience with nitrogen-fixing plants?

Have you ever gardened or been involved in agriculture where you benefited from nitrogen fixing plants, such as beans or other legumes (including both legume crops, and trees planted strictly for their fertilizing properties)? Did you know about nitrogen fixation before reading this post, or is this a new concept for you?

Monday, July 23, 2012

"Herbal Water"? A Skeptical Review

This past thursday, July 19th, I had the pleasure of attending the Baltimore Ave Dollar Stroll, a fun and lively event that happens three times a year in West Philadelphia, twice in summer and once in early fall. This event features $1 items from a variety of restaurants and cafes. It falls on a thursday, so that it coincides with the smaller of the two days of the Clark Park Farmer's Market. This is the sort of event that I'd recommend going to if you know a lot of people who live in the neighborhood, and not otherwise. There are long lines, and the fun is mainly in the community and the opportunity to see and chat with your friends and neighbors while waiting and wandering. I loved it!

There wasn't much tea happening at this event, but I did notice a product which I found very intriguing, and which is tangentially related to the topic of herbal teas, and this was Ayala's Herbal Water:

This bucket of "herbal water" bottles, incidentally, was being sold by Mariposa Co-op, which I wrote about recently in my post about the tea bag selection in the co-op. I picked out a Lavender Mint "herbal water", pictured here:

I also had the opportunity to sample the Lemongrass Mint Vanilla flavor, which one of my friends bought.

What exactly is this "herbal water"?

These herbal waters are very simple: they are seltzer water or carbonated water, flavored with organic-certified herbal extracts and natural flavor.

How do I feel about these products?

I have mixed feelings about these products. On one level, I love that they offer a flavorful carbonated beverage that is not sweetened. As an alternative to typical soda / soft drinks, I think these are a great alternative, and given the choice of these herbal waters vs. conventional soda, I'd take these products any day.

But these products still seem like a bit of a waste to me; for a company emphasizing organics, they don't seem like the most sustainable choice. They involve a lot of energy-intensive activities, with the packaging, glass bottle, and marketing, merely for a small bottle of flavored water. Why not just fill your own bottle with tap water? They are also rather expensive, not particularly original, and have a much cheaper substitute good.

For years, supermarkets have been stocking flavored seltzer waters, which are just carbonated water with added natural flavorings. I have been buying these for a long time as an alternative to sweet sodas when I want a carbonated drink. These flavored seltzer waters are very cheap; most supermarkets sell them for under $1 a liter. The difference with Ayala's products are that they contain actual herbal extracts rather than being flavored exclusively with the vague "natural flavorings", which in the US, can refer to extracts and essential oils, but can also refer to highly-processed flavorings such as distillates, protein hydrolysates, and products of roasting, heating, or enzymolysis. Here's a link to the official definition of natural flavor in the US, in case anyone is interested.

For the record, Ayala's herbal waters still do contain natural flavorings. If you want a product flavored exclusively with extracts or essential oils, you'll need to locate your own water-soluble extracts and flavor your own seltzer water.

My review of the two "herbal waters" I tried:

To give Ayala credit, I did find each of these products considerably more nuanced tasting than the flavored seltzer waters available in the supermarket.

I preferred the lavender mint to the lemongrass mint vanilla, although I liked both. The lavender mint was crisp, clean, and refreshing. The flavoring struck me as relatively light. Overall, both bottles tasted more like seltzer water than they did like iced herbal tea. I would have preferred a significantly stronger flavoring.

My friend remarked that the lavender mint water tasted like soap to her. I can see this, but it did not bother me. I think a lot of people associate lavender with "soap" smells and less with "food" or "drink" smells. The lemongrass mint vanilla, I found slightly less refreshing, because the vanilla led to a creamy finish, rather than a crisp finish present in the other soda. As it was hot and I was drinking this drink to quench my thirst, I found the lavender mint more refreshing.

What do you think?

Have you tried these? Do you think you would try them? Would you ever buy them? Do you think these sorts of products are a good idea? Do you share my sentiment that it would be a great thing if people would switch away from sodas to these sorts of drinks, but that in the big picture, these are not the most sustainable option?

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Top 5 Most-Viewed Tea Photos on Cazort.net

A website that I also run, but do not publicize very much, is Cazort.net. Cazort.net is a rather old site, pre-dating Facebook. Before I founded RateTea, I used to post some tea reviews on that site. More recently, I started uploading photos there. A few of these photos relate to tea.

This post highlights the top 5 most often-viewed tea-related photos hosted on Cazort.net. These are not necessarily the best or prettiest photos, just the ones that get the most views. If anything, I think these tend not to be the best photos, with perhaps one exception of a photo that I like. For dramatic value, this count will proceed in reverse:

#5. Loose Leaf Tea Sample Bags:

This picture was featured in my blog post Ideal Tea Sample Sizes: How Small, How Large? I personally think the post is much more interesting than the photo, and have no clue why the photo is getting so many views.

#4. Iced Green Tea:

I do think this is a rather pretty photo, probably the only photo on the list that I think has good composition.

#3. Back of Tea Bag Wrapper, Dong Suh Brown Rice Green Tea:

Huh? Yeah, your guess is as good as mine. Not sure why people would want to look at this.

#2. Starway Loose Green Tea Tins:

This is the photo of one of the teas that I featured in my post Cheap Tea: Loose-leaf Teas Offering Outstanding Value.

#1. Dong Suh Tea Bag Wrapper:

Yes, this is the number one most-viewed tea-related photo on my site. The photos of loose-leaf tea all get considerably fewer views.

Some things about the web really don't make much sense to me. What do you think? Do you have a theory as to why the photos of the Dong Suh tea wrappers are getting so many views?

Friday, July 20, 2012

Tea Brick Identification Help: 2008 Sheng Pu-erh?

One of my friends was moving and giving away a bunch of stuff, and gave me a brick of compressed tea. Can anyone help me with identifying it? I see the characters for Sheng Pu-erh tea (生普洱茶), and I see 2008, so I assume this is some 2008 Sheng Pu-erh. If anyone could verify this and provide me with any other interesting or useful info, I'd be very grateful:

The front of the brick:

And the back:

Thanks in advance!

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Frontier Co-op - A Leader In Sustainability

Today's post is the second post inspired by my visit to Mariposa Food Co-op in West Philadelphia. In the first post, I wrote about the tea bag selection in the co-op. This post focuses the company that provides the loose-leaf teas and bulk herbs in the same store: Frontier Co-op:

This station doubles as a showcase or display for the herbs and tea, and a self-serve station where people can fill their own bags of herbs. Although the jars are glass jars, which are not ideal because they allow for some break-down of the herbs with light, the display was located in a dark back corner of the store, minimizing the negative effects of the light.

Pictured here are the implements for filling bags, which include scoops and funnels:

Self-serve setups like this are relatively common in natural food stores and co-ops across the country. There is a lot that I like about these sort of self-serve displays. In particular:

  • These displays can offer a large selection of herbs and/or tea while taking up minimal space. The space taken up by the display is smaller than that taken up by many supermarkets' packaged tea bag selections.
  • The small size of the jars allows for high turnover of the jars' contents, ensuring freshness.
  • The self-service station keeps costs down, enabling customers to purchase tea and herbs for a reasonable price, while the store can still make a comfortable profit, without needing to expend employee time for measuring and serving herbs.
  • Allowing people to measure out their own herbs and tea enables people to buy the exact quantity they want. This is convenient both for very small sizes (such as for sampling loose-leaf tea, or buying infrequently-used spices) or very large sizes (such as for someone like me, who goes through ground coriander faster than most households use salt or sugar). Most supermarkets offer only fixed sizes of herbs and spices, which are often either too small or too large for people's needs.

What I like about Frontier Co-Op:

First, before I go into depth about what I like about Co-op, I want to point out that the company not only sells loose-leaf tea and bulk herbs in stores, but also through their website:

Some of the things I like most about Frontier Co-op:

  • Frontier is organized as a cooperative, wholly owned by its wholesale customers, many of which are in turn cooperatives, like Mariposa co-op, owned by individual people. The co-op model has a number of compelling advantages over other models of ownership; the National Cooperative Business Association (NCBA) has a website that explains this model of business ownership in depth.
  • Through its displays in retail stores, Frontier makes a wide selection of herbs available that are not widely available in stores in the U.S., and it also sells loose-leaf orthodox teas of decent quality, which, unfortunately do not tend to be widely available in the U.S. either.
  • Frontier Co-op is strongly committed to sustainability, and is a definitive leader in this area, going above and beyond even what many of the more environmentally- and ethically-conscious tea companies are doing. There is so much that this organization is doing to promote sustainability that it is not possible to cover it all here; if you want to read more, I'd invite you to read the sustainability section on Frontier's site. Frontier publishes an annual sustainability report, and has a tangible pathway towards achieving certain goals, with measurable milestones. They also have a great deal more transparency than is the norm in the tea industry. Perhaps some other tea companies can get some good ideas and inspiration in here!
  • The quality of the bulk herbs is top-notch, and the teas are not bad. Although Frontier unfortunately does not sell what I would consider to be true artisan tea (single-harvest, single-estate teas), they sell a number of single-region orthodox teas of reasonable quality. And their prices are much lower than the prices on similar teas. The low prices, including on products that are both organic and fair trade certified, sold from a company that has gone above and beyond in the area of sustainability, provide proof that tea companies can deliver sustainably-sourced products at low cost. I have tried a few of Frontier's teas, and while they did not wow me as being otherworldly, they were solidly good. You can find reviews of the few teas I've sampled on RateTea's page on Frontier.

I hope that individuals reading this post can have the opportunity to try out Frontier Co-op's herbs, spices, and teas, if they have not already done so. And I hope that people working within the tea industry can look into the various things Frontier is doing to promote sustainability, and can get some good ideas and inspiration. I am hopeful that relatively soon, many of the practices that Frontier is spearheading will become the norm.

What do you think?

Have you tried the teas from Frontier Co-op? How about their herbs and spices? And what do you think about what they are doing to promote sustainability? What do you think of the co-operative model in general? And, for those who work within the tea industry, do you have any plans to implement any of the practices that Frontier has been engaging in in terms of sustainable sourcing, operations, or transparency?

Monday, July 16, 2012

Tea Trade: A Tea Blogging Platform, Online Tea Marketplace, And Forums

Today's post features a website that I have been a big fan of for some time, Tea Trade. Tea Trade, founded by Jackie and Peter Davenport (who also are behind Leafbox Tea), is an extensive online community centering around tea, which offers a very different array of tools from any other online tea community.

I think Tea Trade is of particular interest to individuals, tea bloggers, and people who run very small tea businesses, although people involved in larger tea businesses could also benefit from being aware of and perhaps participating in the community there as well.

The domain name, Teatra.de, is a classic example of a domain hack, using the top-level domain for Germany, .de, to spell out the name.

What does Tea Trade offer?

Tea Trade has several different features, which are all quite well integrated. The simplest to participate in are the forums, which are moderately active, and I find consistently have intelligent and interesting conversation. The site also offers blog hosting, making it the only blogging platform which is custom-tailored to the needs of tea bloggers. And of course, there is the marketplace, the centerpiece of the site, a place that allows individuals to set up mini tea stores.

What do I like about the site?

I find Tea Trade easy to use and navigate, and clean and professional looking. The site is extensive, owing towards the rich contributions made by the members of the site, and I feel that the community and discussion on the site tends towards the more thoughtful and deeper side among online communities. I suspect that this has something to do with the site's emphasis on blogging, which attracts people who are interested in reading, writing, and critical thinking.

The marketplace also offers a unique option for people interested in selling tea, or tea-related merchandise on a small scale. In my post Create The Conditions For Your Business To Thrive: Che Guevara Offers Business Advice, I talk about how people can create businesses out of thin air, avoiding the need for extensive start-up costs, and growing a business organically. Tea Trade offers unique and powerful tools for people looking to start or grow very small businesses, and it also allows people who may not be interested in starting a full-fledged business to dabble with buying or selling tea on a small scale.

Suggestions for improving Tea Trade:

My one major lament about Tea Trade is the site's slow speed and lack of responsiveness. Pages on the site load considerably slower than I am used to (or comfortable with). My experience timing page loads on the site is that the page load times tend to average around 3-6 seconds for the page to display, with many pages taking 4 or so more seconds to load additional content. As I explained in my post on website speed and responsiveness, I think that this is slow enough that it is a point of concern, the "weakest link" in what Tea Trade has to offer.

I would really like to see Tea Trade address the issue of speed. I think improving the speed (ideally to under 1 second page load times, although averaging around 2 seconds across the board would be a really great improvement over the current speed) would be a major improvement to me, and would lead me to want to participate much more in the community there, possibly even hosting a blog there.

Another issue which is worth mentioning is downtime. Nearly all websites experience some downtime; last month, RateTea was down for a few hours, and a few years ago, it was down for around 12 hours. I even encounter major sites like Blogger and Wordpress giving errors or going down from time to time. But I think Tea Trade has experienced enough downtime that I'd recommend for Jackie and Peter to make it a priority to address this issue as well.

In terms of the site itself, I think it is wonderful, and a great resource.

What do you think?

Are you familiar with Tea Trade? Have you bought or sold products through their marketplace? Have any of you had experience with their tea blog hosting? How do you feel about the site's speed and responsiveness? Have you ever experienced the site being down when trying to access it? Do you have anything else to say about the site?

Sunday, July 15, 2012

British Oppression: Top 5 Google Searches

When Americans think of tea, many of us think of the British. Nowadays, Americans are more likely to picture the British as pleasant, tea-drinking people, less so in the role of heinous oppressors, imperialists and colonialists. The attitude has shifted quite a ways from the days of the American revolutionary war, in which the United States achieved independence from Great Britain. In contrast to the pre-revolutionary colonies, where the British were seen largely as extracting wealth from the colonies without giving back proportionate value or influence (taxation without representation), the British have more recently been seen as equals and allies.

The history of oppression, imperialism, and colonialism by the British, however, is more recent in some other countries.

Look at the following Google search, which shows Google's top five auto-complete suggestions when typing in British Oppression In:

These suggestions reflect the terms that are most likely typed into the search box.

I find it interesting that the top two results are both major tea-producing countries. This is no coincidence. The British were responsible for introducing large-scale tea production to both India and Kenya. Kenya only achieved independence from Britain in 1963, and India in 1947. It is also no coincidence that the third country, Ireland, is a major tea-drinking country, as the British introduced tea to the Irish.

The legacy of British Colonialism in the tea industry:

The large-scale production of tea in India primarily served British interests, specifically, that of the East India Company. In most cases, freedom from oppression does not come in one step, but rather, is a continuous process. Recall how when slavery was abolished in the U.S., the system of sharecropping and Jim Crow laws still left southern blacks in a position of little power and autonomy relative to whites. Unfortunately, there are economic analogues to this process, not only in the tea industry, but in the economic relationship in general between wealthy Western countries and the countries which had been colonized by them.

It is easy to forget that our society has come a long way, even in relatively recent years. This photo was taken in 1940.

One topic that I have been increasingly thinking and writing about lately is the way, in the tea industry, profits tend to be greatest in the wealthy Western countries, and the share of the final price of a product that reaches the original producers (in countries like Kenya and India) is very small relative to the share that is taken by blenders, packers, and tea marketers in wealthy countries. A report that explores this in more depth is Sustainability Issues in the Tea Sector. This is one reason I both support the goals behind fair trade tea, and think it is important to criticize the fair trade movement to ensure that it is actually achieving what it sets out to do.

Let us be mindful of these issues:

I would like to call people to be aware of these issues, both when buying tea and when selling tea. Thankfully, we are past the days of overt forms of discrimination like Jim Crow laws or colonialism and imperialism, but subtle forms of exploitation persist. The global economic system extracts wealth from poorer regions and keeps the wealth concentrated in already wealthy regions, and, what is perhaps most heinous, it does so in such a way that is largely hidden from the view of not only the typical tea drinker, but many businesses and industry insiders as well.

I think awareness of these issues, and a push for greater transparency in the tea industry, and the economic system in general, is a good first step to take. In the end, I would like us to imagine and bring into being a way of living and doing business which is based on the idea that all people are valuable, and which rewards people equally for equal work, and does not give the people in any one country a disproportionate amount of power or influence in the global economic system.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Green Tea Soap from Trader Joe's

Back in January, I wrote about the tea selection in Trader Joe's. Today, I want to highlight a completely different tea-related product from this company. This is the green tea soap sold in Trader Joe's:

I do not know the exact composition of this soap, but the label claims it is 100% vegetable based (a matter of concern for vegans), and contains shea butter, one of my favorite plant-based oils, and a great moisturizer in its own right.

I'm normally not a huge fan of most packaged bar soaps widely available in supermarkets and drug stores. Many of them smell a bit too much like synthetic chemicals to me, and some of them I find to be harsh on my skin. I rarely find bar soap sold in one of these stores that I like and become a fan of, and this particular one is one exception. This is the only widely available commercial soap (as opposed to artisan soaps created and/or sold by small, local businesses) that I've tried that I would recommend.

What do I like about this soap?

There is a lot about this soap that I like. It smells wonderful, pleasantly aromatic but mild and suggesting sweetness. Its aroma reminds me of some of the higher quality Chinese green teas, ever-so-slightly suggesting floral aromas. It is also quite inexpensive, at $3.29 for a 200mg bar. And, I find it mild on my skin. The soap is soft enough to cut easily when slightly warmer than room temperature, which I like because it is quite a large bar, and I find that cutting it into 3 or 4 smaller bars makes it more convenient and helps one bar to go a little farther.

Interestingly, Trader Joe's also sells a similar soap with a lemon verbena fragrance, and another that is lavender-scented. I find it notable that both of these herbs are frequent ingredients in herbal teas. Interestingly, although I love lemon verbena as an herbal tea, I found their lemon verbena soap a bit harsh; not only did I not like the smell as much, but I found it was not quite as easy on my skin as the green tea soap.

What do you think?

Have you tried this particular soap? Have you tried other soaps or personal care products which are scented with green tea? Have you ever tried the trick of cutting large bars of soap into smaller bars, in order to conserve resources?

Thursday, July 12, 2012

Elevation and Climate: Visiting Boreal Forest on a Mountain

One of the things that I have become fascinated in in recent years is weather and climate. This interest is evident in the level of detail about weather which the articles go into on RateTea's pages on the various tea-producing regions. One of the key factors in tea production, which is explained in more depth on the page about climate, geography, and tea production, is elevation. A quick summary of the influence of elevation on climate is that temperatures get colder and precipitation (rain and snow) gets greater as elevation increases. And, as hikers at very high elevations are aware of, the air gets noticeably thinner.

Recently, I had the opportunity to visit Massachussets, where I went to the top of Mount Greylock. Mount Greylock is quite remarkable from an ecological perspective. From a distance, it looks a lot like any of the other surrounding hills, but when you actually climb to the top, you will find an ecosystem quite remarkable for a point so far south:

Pictured above is a meadow on the edge of Boreal forest, or Taiga. Boreal forest is common in Canada, Alaska, and the extreme northernmost parts of the continental U.S. But Massachusetts is far enough south that only a small amount of this ecosystem exists, only at the top of this one mountain. Boreal forest reflects the adaptation of plants and animals to cold temperatures, long winters, and short summers. Some of these adaptations include:

  • Trees have a conical shape. This helps to shunt off the heavy loads of snow falling in the winter, so that the trees do not lose limbs. Evergreen trees (like pine and cedar) growing in southerly climates tend to have a rounded shape, because there is little to no snow in the winter; round shapes capture more sunlight, but increase the risk of limbs breaking during a snowfall.
  • Most plants are evergreen. This is because the temperatures are so cold that there is not enough time for the nutrients in the soil to break down and become available to plants; because nutrients are scarce, plants cannot afford to drop their leaves each year. Incidentally, the tea plant's evergreen status is also an adaptation to low nutrient levels, which is why it is able to survive on rocky outcroppings like those in the Wuyi mountains.
  • Deciduous trees have light-colored bark. Think aspen and paper birch (white birch). The temperatures are so cold in winter, and the sun is at a low angle, so that if a deciduous tree (which drops its leaves in winter) were to have dark-colored bark, the sun shining on it horizontally would heat the bark so much that it would crack. This is the same phenomenon of thermal shock that I explained in my earlier post about why teaware can shatter when pouring boiling water in it. The light color of the bark reflects the sun and prevents the heating and cracking of the bark.

These ecosystems extend even farther south, at even higher elevations. For example, one can find a similar ecosystem in the mountains of New Mexico, although there, the ecosystem only shifts to boreal forest somewhere around 8,000 feet. Mount greylock, pictured above, is under 3,500 feet.

Birds galore:

As a birdwatcher, I was excited to explore this ecosystem to find birds that normally only winter or migrate through the areas where I live. It was July, a time when migration has stopped and usually only breeding resident songbirds are found. And I found quite a few birds that I normally only see during winter or migration, including white-throated sparrow, dark-eyed junco, purple finch, winter wren, Blackpoll warbler, yellow-rumped warbler, Blackburnian warbler, black-throated blue warbler, and black-throated green warbler, among others. The Blackpoll warbler in particular is a species that breeds only in boreal forests.

Above is a photo I took of a singing white-throated sparrow, near the summit of Mount Greylock. In Southeastern Pennsylvania and Delaware, these birds are normally only winter residents.

Try looking for the changes in ecosystem with elevation:

If you have the opportunity to hike or drive to the top of a tall mountain in any region of the world, I would recommend doing so. It will not only help you to learn more about ecology, but it will also help you to see firsthand some of the aspects of how geography influences climate which are most important in the production of tea. If you live in an arid climate, such as the southwestern U.S., you will be even more able to see the phenomenon of how precipitation increases with altitude.

These same factors control where the tea plant is able to be grown. In drier countries like Kenya, tea is only able to be grown at higher elevations, where rainfall is higher. But as the elevation becomes too high, temperatures eventually become too cold. In humid climates, tea can be grown the whole way to sea level, and in colder regions, it can only be grown at low elevations.

What do you think?

Do you think much about elevation, and its influence on climate and ecosystems? Have you ever noticed these sorts of changes, when driving or hiking? Do you live in an area with easy access to mountains or changes in elevation? Do you live in or have you ever visited an area that is dry or cold enough that you can see major changes in an ecosystem as elevation changes?

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Honesty and Dishonesty in American Business

Min River Tea recently left a comment on my recent blog post More Is Not Better: How To Balance Freshness and Turnover for Small Tea Companies, highlighting something that I had overlooked in that post. This is the fact that companies with a business model like Min River Tea keep their catalogue small in large part because they want to be able to actually visit the farms producing their teas, both for quality and ethical reasons.

The comment also raises the question of whether or not it is ethical to make claims about tea being "direct from the farm" or practicing "ethical sourcing" without having ever visited the areas in which a tea is produced.

The above photo, by vera46, shows tea pickers in Minamiyamashiro, Kyoto. Photo licensed under CC BY 2.0 license. Like many people who work within the tea industry in the U.S. and other Western countries, I have never visited a region in which tea is produced.

No consensus on what constitutes "ethical" sourcing:

Ethics can be a tricky subject, because different people have different fundamental beliefs or assumptions both about the basis of their moral systems, and about how the world works. An example is the issue of abortion, where people reach vastly different conclusions on the basis of certain beliefs or assumptions, including whether or not they believe human life begins at conception.

In economic matters, things become even muddier, as not only do people have different fundamental values surrounding money, business, and ownership of property, but people also have vastly different ideas about cause-and-effect, and about which sorts of outcomes in society are "good" or "bad". Some people may care primarily about increasing GDP or business activity, others may care more about reducing pollution or carbon emissions, others may care more about reducing human suffering and promoting human rights. This disagreement exists among academic economists, political figures, business leaders, and everyday people.

Disagreement on ethical issues is not necessarily bad, but casual labels of "ethical sourcing" are usually problematic:

I do not necessarily think that it is problematic that there is no consensus about what constitutes "ethical" sourcing. Quite to the contrary, I think that vigorous debate about ethics is healthy and perhaps even essential to address social and economic problems related to the tea industry (or any ethical problems in the world, for that matter). But what I think is more problematic or harmful is that people throw around words like "ethical" or phrases like "ethical sourcing" without explaining what they mean.

Whether one is dealing with the Ethical Tea Partnership, or fair trade certification for tea, there is still little transparency about where most tea comes from. When I buy fair trade tea, I know that there is a whole organization behind the fair trade logo. But I still do not know the exact portion of the price that I am paying that is reaching the individual producer. I do not know what percentage of revenue the company selling the tea to me is taking as profit, and what percentage is spent on business expenses. I do not know what portion of the price goes towards packing and shipping costs, or what portion is spent on marketing. And, in spite of all the bureaucracy and energy expended on the certification process, I still do not know where exactly the tea came from.

True transparency, whether in naturally-occurring minerals, or businesses in American society, is quite rare. Just as a majority of quartz crystals are not as transparent as this one pictured above, a majority of businesses and organizations are quite opaque about key points of ethical relevance.

To me, transparency is a key part of ethics. Without transparency, one lacks even the basic facts of the situation, and without the basic facts, even if one has clear morals, one cannot reach truthful conclusions about the moral or ethical status of a given action or practice. This belief comes in part comes from my religious beliefs, which have been increasingly taking form as I've been working with Why This Way and hashing out my views on different issues in a group of people who share certain foundational values.

Deeper problems with honesty and transparency, not limited to the tea industry:

I think the problem that Min River Tea was getting at in the original comment runs deeper than just the tea industry. Most of consumer culture in America is dominated by claims of dubious honesty, that is, products which are marketed in an overtly dishonest spirit. Often these claims take the form of brief phrases or labels, a lot like the claim of being "ethically sourced".

One of the most glaring, recent examples of this is what I like to call the "0 grams trans fat" loophole. This loophole is the result of a policy or law that specifies that, in food labelling, amounts of trans fat less than 0.5 grams can be rounded down to 0. Another, broader problem is when products are marketed under the guise of being "healthy" when they are loaded with unhealthy ingredients. Two common examples are when "low fat" products are loaded with sugar, or when "whole grain" products are made primarily with refined flour, and contain only insignificant amounts of whole grain.

The above label shows 3 grams of trans fat. If the quantity were less than 1/6th as much, or if the serving size were smaller, it could legally be rounded down to 0 even though the product still contained trans fat.

These practices may satisfy the letter of the laws in the U.S., but I think a majority of Americans would agree that they are thoroughly dishonest in spirit.

I think that part of the problem is that the culture in the U.S. has been one that emphasizes a literalistic, legal-definition-based approach to product advertising. I think this is in large part because we have relied on legal regulation, rather than informed choice and moral integrity, to shape our marketplace.

Taking responsibility to solve these problems:

I believe that the only way to fully and sustainably address the issues of dishonesty in marketing is to take personal responsibility, that is, for all the choices we can make in our daily lives that can impact these issues.

Americans have been tolerating these sorts of practices for years. These products would not be on the shelf if people did not buy them. And marketing teams would not even consider making claims that were dishonest in spirit if they knew that the marketplace would swiftly and severely punish them with product boycotts in the case that they made dishonest claims. Moreover, marketers would not make these claims if they were strongly committed to integrity in marketing, and if their business decisions were driven by their own personal moral values.

It's for this reason that I don't tolerate these sorts of labelling practices. I don't buy these products, but it doesn't stop there. I often write letters to companies urging them to be more forthcoming in their labelling--in the case of trans fats, to remove all trans fats from their products, and in the case of "whole grain" products, to actually make products out of primarily (or exclusively) whole grain flours. But I also appeal to the individual moral conscience of the people who work within these industries. I do believe that most people want to be honest people. People are more likely to get sucked into dishonesty when they are simply not thinking about how much they value honesty. If everyone woke up every morning thinking about how much they valued honesty and integrity, and embraced this as an essential part of their identity, they would likely make different decisions in business settings.

Another way I try to address these issues is to talk and write about them with other people who might buy these products. I talk frequently not only to my friends, but to acquaintances, and to people who I see buying these products, and explain to them about things like the "0 grams trans fat" loophole, and I urge them to avoid products labelled as "low fat" but high in sugar, and to read labels on products labelled as "whole grain" to see that they actually are made primarily from whole grain flour rather than just including it as a minor ingredient.

Putting yourself on the line:

Sometimes I even go out on the line a little. It can be hard to point out concerns like the ones I discussed here, in casual social settings. One example of this is when someone brings a box of cookies to a party, a box that displays marketing that I find dishonest in spirit. It can seem a bit abrasive to comment on things like this, but I do believe it can be done respectfully. Sometimes all you need to say is: "Hey, I would really prefer if you did not buy this product, because I think their marketing is dishonest." and I explain a little bit about why. You can conclude by reassuring the person that it is okay that they brought it and telling them to not feel bad about it, worry about it, or think too much about it.

Some people may not care or may not want to hear it, but if they don't, or if they are offended, that is their issue, not mine or yours. And I do think that a large number of people actually do like to learn about these sorts of issues, and will act on the basis of them. They just never stopped to think about it.

What do you think?

What do you think about the comment that Min River Tea made? What do you think about the lack of transparency in the tea industry? How about the phenomenon of marketing claims that are dishonest in spirit? And of my recommendations of how to address these claims through choice and discussion, without resorting to legal battles?

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

When Everyone Agrees on a Tea - Or Not?

People have vastly different tastes in tea. This morning, a new review was posted to RateTea, which I happened to read, and this review was of Two Leaves and a Bud's Mountain High Chai. This tea now has five reviews on the site.

Interestingly, four of the five reviews seem to agree on one point: the tea has a strong spice aroma, but the base tea is on the weak side (or mellow/smooth, for people who prefer to phrase it positively). Some people seem to like this and others don't; one reviewer noted steeping the tea for 30 minutes!

I find this interesting, because it is rare that people seem to agree this much about a tea. In general, when I see four out of five reviewers agreeing about a certain characteristic of a tea, I'm likely to believe their reviews.

Checking Steepster, breaking the pattern:

Interestingly, I checked Steepster's records for the same tea and I'm not seeing the same pattern in reviews there. One of the reviewers noted bitter flavors dominating the cup if it is steeped too long.

No consensus on the aroma:

I also read Little Yellow Teacup's review of the same tea, and interestingly, I found that this review said that the aroma was dominated by cinnamon. I tend to strongly dislike masala chai blends that are dominated by cinnamon, and I've found that this one, in my perception, is dominated by clove (which I like more, although in this case I still thought it was a bit unbalanced). I've tried the tea many times over a long period of time too, so if the company changed their formulation, it produced only a subtle change that I did not notice.

I find this difference interesting, because it shows how people perceive aromas differently.

What do you think?

Have you tried this tea?

And do you have any idea why there seems to be clear agreement on RateTea's reviews whereas Steepster's don't seem to show the same pattern? Could the two sites perhaps be appealing to people with somewhat different tastes or different ways of perceiving tea? Or do you think it's just randomness? It is a small sample of reviews in both cases, after all.

And do you think that in general, people are more likely to perceive aromas differently and more likely to agree on flavor (i.e. bitterness, basic strength of a tea)? Or do you think that's just this specific case?

Monday, July 9, 2012

Tea Being Hip and the Dark Side of Trends

This post is inspired by a recent post on the English Tea Store's blog, written by William I. Lengeman III of Tea Guy speaks, titled How Tea Became Hip. I originally posted a rather detailed comment on that post, but I decided that the material in the comment was important enough to me to warrant a detailed post of its own.

In this post I want to write about the concept or phenomenon of something being "hip", "cool", "trendy", "in", or "the latest thing". And I will make a distinction between what I see as a healthy way of recognizing (and acting on) trends, and an unhealthy way of viewing or chasing them. This is what I describe as the "dark side of trends".

Pictured here is an image representation of a human hip bone; picture by Stephen Woods, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons, licensed under CC BY-SA 3.0.

The relationship between the body part and the slang expression is not clear. Wikpedia's article on Hip (slang) has some good discussion on this matter, if you are interested.

Trends are natural, and it is good to be aware of them:

Because this post risks coming across otherwise, I want to begin by acknowledging that trends are a natural part of human society, and that it is good to be aware of them and to work with them in positive ways. It is especially important to be aware of trends if you run a business.

For example, if you run a small tea shop, and some specific type of tea or herb suddenly explodes in popularity, it would be wise to stock the tea or herb in question, if it fits naturally within your offerings. If it does not fit naturally and you wish not to stock it, it would be benificial to have something in mind, such as a truthful and convincing sales pitch, that would help connect customers seeking that tea or herb with the products you sell.

Another example, which I hope to expound fully in a later post, is that Teavana is very popular, and is one of the most common entry points into loose-leaf tea for Americans. Teavana is a bit of a trend. It can thus be beneficial for people running a loose tea business to be familiar with Teavana's most popular products, and to have something compelling to say (and teas to recommend) to people who express that they like certain of the teas sold by Teavana.

The dark side of trends:

Just like in Star Wars, where there is a good and bad side of the force, I think there is a good and bad side to trends, or to the concept of something being "hip". So that you can get into the mood for understanding this dark side of trends, I would encourage you to meditate on this picture of Darth Vader. Darth Vader is one of the classic "bad guys", but, like all people, he is not wholly evil, and he exhibits good qualities when he saves Luke Skywalker's life at the end of the Star Wars Trilogy.

The above picture is included courtesy of Andres Rueda, Licensed under CC BY-2.0.

How does the concept of trends go wrong? How can the idea of something being "in" or "cool" or "the latest thing" be harmful in society?

  • Unhealthy ideas can become trendy - A good example of this is the negative ideas of body image, which can contribute to eating disorders like anorexia and bulimia. Yes, this is an issue that comes up in the tea industry; see my earlier post on tea and gender roles, in which I go into this issue in more depth.
  • Trends can be manipulated by money and power interests - Trends can be shaped (or even started) by money and power, such as when a corporation pumps money into a marketing campaign to create demand for a new product, or when an individual or business uses their social connections (a form of social power) to induce influential or high-profile individuals to support their trend.

    Because of the profit motive, these manipulations usually lead to trends that enrich the wealthy and powerful interests behind them, rather than trends that are actually most beneficial to society or beneficial to the people following them. This phenomenon is common in the fashion industry, where companies work hard to fuel trends of certain clothing being "in" and then "out", in order to encourage people to continuously spend more money on clothing, when it would be more beneficial to these people and to society to embrace practical clothing and timeless fashions.

    In the tea industry, these sorts of power interests and profit motives are less pronounced, but they do create an incentive for companies to create trends for the teas that generate the most profit for them, and these teas are not necessarily the highest quality teas, since the highest-quality pure teas often result in a greater share of profits reaching the producer, with less room for mark-up by retailers. I explore this issue in more depth on my recent guest post Fair Trade and the Tea Industry on the Journey for Fair Trade blog.
  • The concept of "trendiness" can become associated with an unhealthy way of thinking and acting - I explain this below, because I think it is the most sinister element of the culture of trends.

Trendiness and healthy thinking:

One belief that I embrace as a fundamental belief, is the idea that all people are valuable--innately valuable, not valuable because of their wealth, appearance, or even because of their intellect or character. One way that I think trends can become unhealthy are when they are used to negatively judge or dismiss other people (or groups of people, or businesses or organizations) as being somehow less worthwhile, because they are seen as less "trendy". Some examples of this are:

  • That dress is SO 90's (when said in a negative tone)
  • I can't believe he's still thinking like that (said with disgust)
  • This business doesn't sell X, they clearly don't know what they're doing.

These statements have in common that they express some sort of negative judgement on a person, business, or group, like disdain, disgust, disapproval, because of a failure to follow a certain trend. I find that this is overstepping a boundary for me, crossing the line from disapproval or dislike of the activity or action (which is okay by me) to complete dismissal of the person or group (which I do not think is healthy).

Think you don't do these things yourself? I'd be cautious about jumping to the conclusion that you don't. There's one particular example that I've struggled with recently, and that is racism.

This photo of the KKK was taken by a photographer only identified as "Image Editor"; the photo is Licensed under CC BY-2.0.

Racism, at least in its more overt forms, like those symbolized by the KKK (Ku Klux Klan), is "out". It is "uncool". A majority of people in the US not only dislike it, but, in its more extreme forms, find it disgusting, disturbing. The trend in American society is away from overtly racist statements. But when someone makes a remark that you perceive as racist, it is easy to jump on them, in your mind, or even out loud. But there is a difference between calling out a person on their remark, or believing that the remark is genuinely racist and disrespectful, and dismissing the person as a human being. This distinction took me quite some time to grasp; I do not think I had fully grasped it even at the age of 28. I find it hard to communicate this distinction, but here is my best attempt to sum it up:

  • The unhealthy approach is to think or say something like: you're a really rotten or worthless human being for thinking or saying that.
  • The healthy approach is to communicate something like: you're so much better than a rotten remark like that.

If you struggle with embracing the second way of thinking, remember Darth Vader; if Luke had killed him, he would have himself been killed. Luke, indeed, had tried to kill him repeatedly, and had solidly expressed the first way of thinking (disgust, hate) again and again. Yet Darth Vader still came through and saved Luke's life. If Darth Vader, one of the most famous bad-guys of all time, can come around, think of what a typical KKK member is capable of.

Hopefully, most of us are past (or were never into) the idea of judging another person by how "trendy" their clothing is, but I suspect that many of us still wrestle with the tougher issue of judging or dismissing people on the basis of things they do which we genuinely dislike or are genuinely disgusted by.

What do I do with this?

Because of the potential ugly side to the cultural construct of "trendiness", "coolness", or "hipness", I try to avoid promoting things as being "trendy" or "in", and I invite others to do the same. If you wish to promote something, whether it be a specific tea or type of tea, or a specific concept or idea, or even a certain fashion, I think that the most compelling way to do so is to share your own personal reason for liking it. The same goes for when you dislike something. Share your reasoning or just your feelings or intuition. But I would recommend to avoid making statements about something being "in" or "out", or any equivalent statements, because I think that this way of thinking can easily go in an unhealthy direction.

What do you think?

How do you feel about trends and trendiness? Do you think the advice I give tea companies in this post is sound? Do you believe that there is a relationship between a certain view of trendiness and the unhealthy ways of thinking that I described above? Does the racism example resonate with you? Can you think of other examples of these sorts of things in your life?

Tuesday, July 3, 2012

Tea Bag Selection in Mariposa Co-Op, and Tea Bags and Sustainability

This is the first of at least two posts on the topic of Mariposa Food Co-op. Mariposa has been in operation for quite some time, in West Philadelphia, but it recently moved into a large, new storefront on Baltimore Avenue, near 49th street. At the same time, the co-op opened up its store to the general public; in the past, they only allowed members to shop there.

I am interested in Mariposa for a variety of reasons. One of them is that, like many cooperatives, it is run by consensus. I am particularly interested in consensus as my friends and I have recently founded a new religious group, called Why This Way, which is run by consensus. But in this post, I want to write not about the co-op itself, but about its selection of tea bags:

This photo looks remarkably similar to a photo I took recently in a Whole Foods supermarket, and have yet to post, but hope to post in the near future.

The brands represented here include brands specializing in organic tea bags, such as Eden Organic, Choice Organic Teas, and Organic India, as well as mainstream tea bag brands, such as Twinings and Celestial Seasonings. Another brand, Traditional Medicinals, focusing on medicinal herbs, I find is a frequently-stocked product in co-ops and health food stores. Yogi Teas also has a good presence, and Good Earth's flagship tea also makes an appearance.

This store also sells bulk loose-leaf tea, something I'm quite excited about, and which I will cover in a future post. The bottom shelf, not pictured, did include two loose-leaf items: Ajiri Tea, a Kenyan black tea that I would highly recommend and that has favorable reviews on RateTea, and loose-leaf Yerba Mate from EcoTeas.

How do I feel about this tea bag selection?

To be honest, I am not excited by the selection here. The prices seem high to me, running from about $3.50 to $5.00 for a box of about 20 tea bags, with most brands centering around the 4.70-4.80 price range. That seems a lot to pay for a box of tea bags, especially when the same store sells bulk herbs and loose-leaf teas, which are, in my opinion, considerably higher in quality, and which are much cheaper per cup.

I also feel a bit ambivalent about the "eco-friendly" brands of tea bags, like Eden Organics and Choice Organic Teas. I care a lot about sustainability. I think organic agriculture is a good idea, and, all other things being equal, I would not only prefer organic certified tea but may even pay a slight premium for it. But I also think that there are other issues to consider when considering environment impact.

These products are all highly packaged...boxed, most shrink-wrapped, and containing individually-packaged tea bags. Not all the packaging is biodegradable. A few of the products are fair-trade certified, but, as I explored in my recent guest post on Journey for Fair Trade about fair trade and the tea industry, the "value-added" processes like tea bag packaging results in profit that tends to be taken by Western countries, not a higher price paid to the original producers. And, also relating to the portion of profits going to producers vs. blenders and packers, few, if any, of these boxed products contain high-grade, whole-leaf tea.

It seems a little misguided to me that people are paying such a premium ($4.80 seems like a lot of money to me) for a box of tea bags with the idea that it is "eco-friendly" because it is organic certified, when the whole act of buying tea bags rather than loose-leaf tea has environmental and economic impacts that most of the people who value organic tea would consider negative. I almost wish the Co-op could just put a giant sign in front of all these products with an arrow pointing over to their bulk herbs and loose-leaf teas, saying: "BUY AND DRINK LOOSE-LEAF TEA, IT IS WAY BETTER FOR THE ENVIRONMENT!", and of course, selling some convenient tea infusers to make the loose tea easily accessible to newcomers.

How about you? What do you think?

Do you think I'm coming down a bit too hard here on the practice of buying and drinking tea bags? Or do you agree with my points here, that it would be warranted to have a more aggressive push towards drinking loose-leaf tea, among an audience of shoppers concerned about the environment?