TeaGuide: Reviews and Ramblings

February 2, 2011

Ramblings: Fair Trade and organic — does anyone care?

Filed under: earth-friendly,Tea sites — by JanisB @ 4:14 pm
Tags: , , , , ,

Seems like every tea (and coffee) merchant these days is pushing “green:” Fair Trade and organic. Sustainable sources. Recyclable (or recycled) packaging.

These are business people who, one presumes, want to make a living selling their products. So one must also presume that they are offering these “earth-friendly” items because that’s what their customers want to buy.

But is this what consumers really want? Is it a purely emotional issue, or is there hard evidence to back it up?

Recently a member of my Teamail group asked for my help polling members on this very subject. The member wanted some reliable statistics for an in-the-works book. It’s a timely and important topic, so I posted a poll with questions about “eco-friendly” tea, and invited members to respond. 89 of them did, and added to the 64 who responded to the aforementioned member via another venue, approximately 150 tea and coffee consumers expressed their opinions on the subject. Granted that this is not a huge sampling, but the participants represent a very targeted group. Here is a breakdown of the questions (each starts with an arrow –>), which represent a wide spectrum of perspective, and the responses, in percentages (%):

–> I am careful to buy Fair Trade and organic teas, and only in eco-friendly packaging or take-out cups, preferably in an environment created with green or recycled materials. These issues are very important to me and I’m happy that tea sellers finally “get it” — I’m even willing to pay extra for these amenities: 2%

–> I much prefer to buy Fair Trade and organic teas from an eco-friendly vendor. While these issues are important to me, they are not the sole criterion for my purchasing decisions: 21%

–> If I have a choice I prefer Fair Trade and organic tea from an eco-friendly seller, but these criteria are not as important to me as taste, quality, price, and good customer service: 21%

–> I buy tea based on taste, quality, price, and customer service. If the tea happens to be Fair Trade and organic, the packaging or environment are eco-friendly and made of sustainable materials, that’s a bonus: 38%

–> I buy tea based on taste, quality, price, and customer service. I don’t really care if the tea is Fair Trade and organic, or if the packaging or take-out cups are made from sustainable materials: 3%

–> I buy tea based on taste, quality, price, and customer service. Period. The rest of it really doesn’t matter to me: 11%

–> I have no idea (so I guess I really don’t care) what Fair Trade, organic, eco-friendly, and sustainable have to do with tea. I just buy what I like!: 2%

–> I buy tea based on taste, quality, price, and customer service. I avoid “eco-friendly” and “sustainable” stuff because they really add nothing to the tea except for increasing the price: 1%

–> I specifically do not buy Fair Trade, organic, green, eco-friendly, or “sustainable” tea or anything else. I think it’s all a scam, and that the people who “certify” these products need to get real jobs in the real world: 1%

So after eliminating the 2% with strong opinions on either end of the discussion, we have 80% of consumers expressing various levels of interest in “green” products — but who are not willing to go out of their way, or pay extra, for it. And another 16% for whom the topic is barely on the radar.

What does this mean for the tea industry — to owners of tea businesses, and to prospective owners? Is “eco” just a fad, part and parcel to the discredited “global warming” scares? Based on these numbers, it seems to me that a business’ capital would be better spent on teas that taste good and are competitively priced, and top-notch customer service, than on spoons made from corn or other “eco” hype.

From growers, wholesalers, and retailers, to packaging manufacturers, to marketers, the tea and coffee industries seem to have a lot invested in “eco,” and I imagine there will be plenty of readers with opinions about the information presented here. Obviously my conclusions and views are not the last words on the subject. You’re welcome to leave your comments — please keep them civil and non-commercial.

And to put any rumours to the contrary to rest, my family and I live in a house devoid of cathedral ceilings and hot tubs, use energy-saving appliances and thermal draperies, and always turn out the lights when we leave a room. We recycle everything our local recycling centre accepts. Additionally, we grow a large garden and orchard which we enrich with cow manure and kitchen wastes (especially eggshells and spent tea leaves); all uncultivated land is left to natural woods and native plant growth. And we feed and house birds, too. So there!

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  1. Interesting poll and great post.
    I’m not so sure that the problem is so much eco-“hype” as it is that the average consumer just doesn’t know why organic is priced higher. No one wants to spend more. But organic and fair trade requires more labor and in some cases time to get to the finished product and keep it good quality. If the eco-brands would educate about that difference, there might not be so much consumer ambivalence. If you did a second poll and asked if people truly tasted a quality difference between mass products and organic/fair trade, I think you’d find most people don’t really see it.
    I’d rather pay an extra 10 cents for a true organic apple than to buy a cheaper wax-and-pesticide mass market version that never goes bad on the shelf. Same with tea. I’d spend an extra dime or two if I knew that the people who crafted it and grew it were getting paid a fair wage for their work rather than being seen as cogs in a larger machine.
    As they say, food tastes better in the outdoors. I believe that the same holds true when you know you’re consuming a healthy, fairly-made product.

    Comment by latteteadah — February 2, 2011 @ 7:10 pm |Reply

    • Thank you for your thoughtful comments. But I’m going to have to disagree with your conclusions. A+B does not necessarily equal C; in other words, knowing why an organically-grown product is priced higher does not necessarily mean that a consumer is willing to pay the higher price. Ten cents for one apple may not be much, but if you buy ten apples a week it starts to add up. From another perspective, tea is already perceived (and rightly so) as a healthful product; many people seem to view “organic tea” as redundant. Organic and fair trade are, of course, two separate issues; a product can be one and not the other. On that second issue, if providing good treatment for workers in third-world countries were a priority for consumers, Wal-mart would go out of business. In point of fact, the Wal-mart shoppers, and the tea drinkers, with whom I’ve discussed this seem fully aware of how people are treated in third-world factories — but even the few in each group who claim concern still generally prefer to pay less for their purchases. There also seems to be some skepticism (which I share) about the fairness and reliability of the organic and fair-trade gate-keepers themselves, especially when they charge several thousand dollars for certification (which is hardly “fair” to a small third-world farmer). I therefore stand by my original conclusion that neither label — organic nor fair trade — has anywhere near as much influence on the average tea consumer’s buying choices as product quality, overall price, and the service provided by the seller — and that this is something that tea sellers might want to keep in mind.

      Comment by teaguide — February 9, 2011 @ 2:55 pm |Reply

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