Friday, January 6, 2012

Flavored Teas, Tea Bags, Boycotts, and Bullshit

I recently read a post on Tony Gebely's World of Tea, titled No Bullshit Tea Companies. I found this post very interesting on several levels. I like certain aspects of it but there are other aspects on which my perspective differs and I wish to respond to. I responded to the post in the comments, but I wanted to further respond, because I just had to write more about private prisons, Islamic terrorism, and the tea party movement, in a post that is really more about tea companies than anything else.

The gist of the post is that Tony has compiled a list of companies that (a) sell tea in loose-leaf form only, and (b) sell only unflavored teas. I am a huge proponent of loose-leaf tea; I drink almost exclusively loose-leaf tea myself, and I am constantly encouraging people to go over to it, as it is superior in terms of quality, value, flexibility, and sustainability. I also love pure teas and traditionally-processed teas, and tend to be less of a fan of teas flavored with extracts or flavorings. And I am saddened when companies discontinue their loose-leaf tea offerings to focus on tea bags, as happened recently with Admari Tea.

And I think it's useful to compile lists of companies that focus on pure teas. But I question the usefulness of identifying tea companies solely by whether or not they focus exclusively on pure, loose-leaf teas, and disqualifying or refraining from including ones just because they sell teas in tea bags, or sell some flavored teas.

I don't dismiss companies selling a high-quality product just because they sell other products that I am not interested in:

I want to highlight one of my favorite tea companies as an example: Upton Tea Imports. Upton is my favorite tea company. It sells only loose-leaf tea, and it has a clear focus on unflavored teas. As of writing this post, their catalogue includes 160 teas in their category of blends, flavored teas, decaf teas, and herbals. Yet they have 261 pure black teas, 107 pure green teas, and 42 oolongs.

Upton occasionally does things that I don't like. One thing that I've always found strange about Upton is that they sell numerous flavored teas that have artificial flavoring. I can't see ordering any of these teas, personally. Yet I don't think this detracts at all from the quality of their pure teas. This morning I tried a tea from a new tea garden in Nepal, Singalila Estate. Upton not only has some outstanding teas, it has some unique and novel offerings, including some herbs that I buy regularly that are hard to obtain elsewhere, like lemon myrtle.

I also think Upton is consistently fair in their pricing, and consistently accurate in their writing of commercial descriptions of tea. And Upton is just one example; I can think of other companies whose loose tea I really like, but which also sell flavored teas or tea bags that I would not be interested in, including Rishi Tea, Arbor Teas, Harney & Sons, Foojoy, Adagio Teas, Hampstead, and Ten Ren Tea.

Boycotts: where to draw the line?

In my comment on Tony's post, I brought up the topic of boycotts. I don't think that the exclusion of companies from a list necessarily is the same thing as a boycott, but I do think that such inclusion or exclusion makes an implicit statement about what companies you wish to support buying or not buying from. And I think that it is generally more useful to compile lists of companies based on what they sell, rather than what they don't sell. I brought up boycotts because I think they are the sole exception, at least in my value system, from this principle.

There are certain times when I think it is appropriate and constructive to refrain from supporting a company because of a certain product they sell or a certain practice they are engaging in. For example, if I learned that a company was knowingly profiting from something grossly unethical, or directly engaging in unethical business practices, I would remove them from listings of tea companies, and recommend against buying from them.

Some examples of behaviors that would get me to do this would be using black-hat techniques to manipulating search rankings (see boutique spam for an example), deliberately misrepresenting a product, publishing bogus health claims to promote a product.

And in terms of boycotting a company because of a service or product that a company could provide that I would have ethical problems with, I would like to point to something that happened when I was at Oberlin college, 1999-2002. Oberlin ousted Sodexo-Marriott as the company running their dining halls, and disqualified them from bidding on future food service contracts, because the company had investments in privately-owned, for-profit prisons, both owning its own prison in England, and owning a portion of Corrections Corporation of America. The school decided, and I would say rightfully, that there are serious ethical problems with supporting a company that derives profit from the incarceration of people. When I learned of this, I decided to personally boycott Marriott hotels as well.

And now to the second point I wish to respond to.

Bullshit: what is it and what is it not?

I'm often reluctant to use the word bullshit with people, especially when I'm being conscious about offending people who have differing views. But I do think the word is a useful one, often capturing a meaning and connotation that no other word captures exactly.

That said, I do not like Tony Gebely's use of the term bullshit to refer to flavored teas or tea bags. I'll be the first to admit that some things in life are just straight bullshit. I see a lot of comments in political rhetoric that I think could be accurately labelled with this term. Examples include when politicians or candidates make claims of subjective interpretations as fact. "The policies of Clinton / Reagan / (Insert favorite president here) resulted in economic growth / recovery / (Insert positive result here.)" Really? When people call bullshit on these statements, they're standing on solid ground: cause and effect is complex, correlation does not imply causation, and the political and economic systems are not fully understood by anyone.

Another example are gross generalizations about groups of people or cultures: "Rap music is so anti-intellectual" (Really, have you ever listened to Black Thought or Talib Kweli)? "Muslims are terrorists and hate America." (Really? The Pew Research Center poll below suggests a hefty majority of American Muslims believe terrorism is never justified.) Or a common one among my liberal friends: "Members of the tea party movement are racist and xenophobic." (Really? Have you ever had a serious conversation with anyone who is a member of the tea party movement? And which of the numerous tea party organizations are you talking about, since there are so many different groups with this name?) These generalizations can be accurately described as bullshit.

And then there are the times when someone is talking, in a presentation, job interview, or just a casual conversation, or perhaps writing in an article, or writing an essay on an exam, and you know that they're just totally making stuff up. I see stuff like this on tea company websites or on the less reputable tea blogs sometimes, in tea descriptions, or pages talking about the health benefits of tea. And I also think it's accurate to call out this stuff bullshit.

But I would not apply this label to something that just doesn't fit your tastes!

What do you think?

Are there any tea companies whose loose-leaf tea you really like, that also sell tea in tea bags, or flavored tea, which you are less interested in? What types of unethical products or services would a company need to provide before you'd consider boycotting them? And do you use the word bullshit in public speech? Where do you draw the line between bullshit, and things you just don't like or don't think are correct?

P.S. Tony, I still think you are awesome, I just felt like giving you a hard time in this post.


  1. Thanks for your thoughtful comments, Alex. I have some friends who run tea businesses - and each prefers unadultered (flavored) teas. However, to stay in business and make a living, they need to carry a diverse range of teas. Such is the life of a small biz person, sometimes one has to meet customers half way with product. However, they do so with the highest quality product possible, and so they keep their integrity (imho). Cheers!

  2. Alex, I thought Tony's list was pretty interesting because(!) it focused on those that sell pure teas. There already are a ton of general lists and recommendations of "good tea companies", so this to me was simply a new perspective. Quite fascinating to see who's decided to only concentrate on such teas. Would love to know more about each company's motivation.
    I probably wouldn't use the BS word, but I don't mind if others do. It draws attention to his post, especially coming from a nice guy. I won't boycott any companies not on this list, I buy from those who have what I want at a fair price.