A cuppa caring? Hackney shops brew a surprise

Tea in a Dalston London E8 garden July 2013 © david.altheer@gmail.com

A TEA and coffee importer claims to have exposed a crisis facing the British cuppa. Cafédirect, an Edinburgh operation, says that though the cost of growing tea has increased by almost 100% in the last five years, prices paid to smallholder growers have risen by only 25%.

The price of tea on UK shop shelves has, says Cafédirect in its report, gone up by “a measly 3.8% over the last 3 years”. And, in an industry said to be worth £629 million a year in the UK, the small African farmer is an economic victim.

John Steel, a Cafédirect chief, said: “Tea has long been considered a cheap commodity in the UK, a telling sign of a lingering colonial mindset that distances consumers from the real value of tea.

“Businesses are driving down the cost of goods to meet consumer expectation of low prices, rather than meeting their demand for quality and value.

“It is a downward spiral, stripping out moral and ethical standards and undermining quality. Ultimately we all lose out.”

Cafédirect said that the traditional, artisan skill of hand-plucking the tender top two leaves and a bud – widely considered the only part of the plant suitable for making tea – is being replaced by less accurate machine-cutting. This is the standard for mass-market, low-grade tea, which results in twigs and the tougher lower leaves in tea bags.

According to the Fairtrade Foundation, 85% of tea production is controlled by seven multinational companies. Harriet Muhebwa Katiti, of Kampala, Uganda-based Igara, said: “If you buy direct from smallholders, you know the money is going back into the local economy.”

Loving Dalston asked two local tea vendors, one small, one huge, to comment on Cafédirect’s claims. The answers are surprising.

Haggerston Tearoom, a non-profit social enterprise, said it promoted whole-leaf tea rather than tea bags.

The group’s Sayara Beg said: “The Haggerston Tearoom Community is all about local small suppliers, because we feel through small operations, there is more opportunity to give back.

“We discourage small, ground-up tea leaves in a bag because of the mechanical needs to produce tea bags. We the consumers should resist the fast-brewing ground-up tea leaves in a bag because that just encourages mass-produced tea to be supplied at considerable speed, forcing small tea plantations to look at more mechanical ways of speeding up the process.” Haggerston Tearoom is supplied by the Kent and Sussex Tea and Coffee Company.

Sainsbury’s told Loving Dalston: “Sainsbury’s is the world’s biggest retailer of Fairtrade products and all our own-brand tea is Fairtrade… produced and traded with respect and fairness so that the producer makes a fair profit and workers earn a sustainable income.

“In 2011 sales of our own brand tea contributed £1.6 million in Fairtrade premiums to tea producers in developing countries to invest back into their communities.

The retailer added that it was working with producers in Malawi to support tea-growers disadvantaged by old tea-bush stock and lack of training and to help to develop two tea-plant nurseries.

Hamish Scott

* Haggerston Tearoom, 224 Haggerston Road, Hackney E8 4HT (020 7249 2213)

* Sainsbury has branches throughout Europe: see store locator 

* Cafédirect is asking British tea-drinkers to make a pledge before they drink. The aim is to improve the lot of tea-growers and to benefit tea-lovers. 

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