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?


  1. To be honest, I'm with you on the tea bags, but for somewhat different reasons. I was drinking loose-leaf tea well before I began to work with it (as a matter of fact, my first cup of tea was some horrid amalgamation of jasmine and kemun that was well past its shelf life, but had interesting qualities on its own at the age of 6), and for me, the bags/loose argument has always been about the quality of the resulting tea or tisane.

    Don't get me wrong. I like my twinings earl grey as much as the next and very often tea bags are the "last line of defence" as one tea writer put it.

    I think we have to get careful about getting on an environmental high-horse with tea. With very few exceptions, tea predominantly comes from Asia.

    Having said that, I happen to be sitting on a hunch that tea would grow just fine in British Columbia... but the benefits of organic tea (even in, say, hemp fiber bags) hardly outweigh the MASSIVE carbon footprint of my beverage of choice.

    1. I agree that it is not constructive to "get on a high horse" as one might say, about environmental issues.

      The issue that I see here is that this store (like Whole Foods and many other eco-friendly stores) seems to have gone above and beyond to carry organic-certified and fair-trade-certified products, and they are ones for which customers must pay a pretty steep premium...yet, the way I see it, they're not addressing the issues that matter most.

      To me, sustainability is in large part about wise use of resources, and I wonder if this is really the best way to use resources. The issue with tea bags is not so much about production of the tea itself, it is about all the unnecessary packaging and energy used, which is in the end wasted and usually ends up in the landfill. So it is about the environment, and it is about the portion of the price that gets eaten up in this process, rather than reaching the producer, so it is about the economic issues that fair trade supposedly sets out to address.

      I think it is also not possible to fully separate the quality issue from the environmental and ethical issues. Most of the environmental issues associated with tea production are the result of economic pressure associated with the low price of tea as a bulk commodity. High-quality tea may have some environmental issues associated with its production, but I think the issues are less. I also think that high-quality tea is more likely to provide a greater portion of profits reaching producers. So, you can't really separate out the issues of ethics and environmental issues from quality, in the question of tea bags vs. loose tea, at least, the way I understand things. They go hand-in-hand.

  2. I totally agree about promoting loose-leaf over bagged tea, and I kind of see the more expensive boxes functioning like a sign pointing to the bulk teas.

    1. Haha...well, that's one way of seeing it, but I don't think that's how they're usually intended nor would I think it intuitive that most people would perceive it that way.

      I really wish more people would make the association between loose-leaf tea and sustainability. It seems a no-brainer to me, which is why these high-priced organic tea bag boxes seem a big case of "penny wise, pound foolish".