I’ve been fostering my appreciation for tea for nearly ten years, having first started tasting and collecting flavors and blends as a freshman in college. I still use my trusty green mug with a chip on the rim for my daily afternoon teas. Over the years, drinking tea has become a ritual I can count on to calm me down, warm me up, and make me feel like things will be okay after a long day at work.
And I’m not the only one who feels this way. According to the Tea Association of the USA, over 158 million Americans are daily tea drinkers and, globally, tea is the second most popular beverage after water. And yet, for tea’s popularity, there’s startlingly little public conversation about its origins and production process. Like so many things at the grocery store, we think the tea fairies stock the shelves when we’re not looking. In reality, the tea industry at large is rife with exploitation and health concerns.
I’ve come to the realization that I can’t accurately call myself a conscious consumer if I don’t start considering the potential pitfalls of the items I use and consume every day. When you think about it, it’s the everyday items that have the most impact anyway, so discovering the stories behind my face wash, yogurt, soap, and tea is absolutely essential to understanding how I can advocate best for ethics in the industry at large.
Curious to know how this staple product is cultivated and processed, I sat down for a virtual chat with the people at Numi who know best: Reem Rahim Hassani, Co-Founder and Chief Brand Officer; Brian Durkee, Chief Operating Officer; and Jane Franch, Director of Quality, Sourcing and Sustainability.
Exploitation in the Industry
According to Brian Durkee, the high amount of exploitation in the tea industry is due largely to its designation as a staple product:
For the mass market consumer, purchase decisions historically have been based on price—the cheaper the better.
The good news is that in the years since Numi has been in business (nearly 17 years), there has been a substantial shift in consumer expectations and tea culture, and now, according to Brian, the average tea consumer is more likely to “[understand] and [appreciate] the nuances of premium tea.”
An expectation of a higher price point is good for the fair trade industry, as well, as suppliers are able to pay better wages when profit margins are higher. Numi works with premium tea producers who believe in the fair trade model’s aims of human rights and sustainability and, because the Numi team visits suppliers regularly, they are able to form relationships that build trust and connection, an essential to long term, mutually beneficial partnership:
We’re seeing–and driving–a lot of positive changes in the tea industry, from India to China, Egypt and S. Africa. We’re happy to align with companies and individuals who are intent on solving these problems. If we visit suppliers and see conditions that don’t meet our standards, we talk to them. We make suggestions and let them know our terms for partnering. In some cases, we don’t work with them because we’re not aligned, whether it be organic production methods or the treatment of workers.
Planting, Growing, and Cultivation
Tea tradition is rooted in ancient Chinese history, with the first known green tea process perfected and widely known earlier than 200 CE. Today, the quality and flavor of the final product is determined by a number of factors, from the type of tea plant to the quality of the plucked leaf to the drying process. Classic green tea is plucked fresh, then steamed and dried quickly, but other types of teas are fermented, allowed to whither or oxidize before drying, rolled, and cured.
Brian notes that:
Tea leaves are generally not washed before they’re air-dried (oxidized). This means any pesticide residues on the tea leaf can steep directly into your cup. This is one of the reasons we believe consumers should always choose organic teas and herbal teasans.
Building an Ethical Supply Chain
Numi takes certifications seriously, but they’re more interested in forming authentic relationships that ensure that they can really understand the needs and challenges of tea cultivation. According to Jane Franch:
For some companies, a certification becomes the scaffolding upon which you hang sustainability claims…Our first filter is always the direct relationship with suppliers who share our values.
Our hands-on model also gives us the ability to expand markets and work with suppliers who may not initially have the certifications we require, but through careful assessment we determine they’re a supplier worthy of investment to help them get to where they need to be. In this way, we’re creating a mutually beneficial partnership that positions us both for sustainable, positive growth.
(Side note: As someone involved in community organizing, I find this people-first mentality compelling. We reform best when we work together, and really getting to know people in order to build a unified community is the key to incremental, lasting change.)
Brian explains that being hands-on does more than allow for a clean auditing process, it makes a better, more innovative product:
1. Because we use only whole ingredients from nature – none of the flavorings used by many tea companies – we have to be hands-on in our supply chain. We don’t rely on blenders or flavoring labs to deliver our flavor profile, we rely on the farmers.
2. We also have a history of innovation, being the first to the U.S. market with products like rooibos, honeybush, pu-erh, flowering tea, etc. That requires us to create a supply chain that didn’t previously exist, and in the process to assure those suppliers are meeting organic and ethical standards.
3. Many of our most successful products are sourced from a single estate so nurturing and growing those relationships is key.
Sustainability is the new buzzword in conscious consumerism as advocates for ethical consumption begin to understand the complexity of the global manufacturing system. I tend to define it in a broad sense as a business at its best. Put another way, how does a business make sure that it can maintain and sustain a happy, healthy work force; consistent profitability; and continued use of natural resources? For Numi, the goal of sustainability is a practice in patience and constant recalibration. Reem explains it best:
Sustainability is not an absolute, it’s a process. As a company, we’re putting a lot of product into the world. I come from the mindset that we have too much “stuff” so putting more product into the world is not a right, it’s a process that requires consciousness every step of the way. Some of the steps we take and questions we’re always asking ourselves:
- Planet: What we can do that creates the least impact? For us, this spans everything from using recycled materials and soy inks, not using shrink wrap, packaging that can be recycled and non-GMO certified tea bags that can be home composted. We’re even taking it “one step closer” in partnership with OSC2, we’ve joined forces with like-minded organizations to create a compostable non-GMO overwrap for tea bags, and are now working to bring more brands on board to scale production.
- People: How do we sustain or improve livelihood of all the people we work with – people throughout the supply chain as well as employees, and even our customers? Our impact comes from a range of activities: Choosing to only work with organic farms so workers – and our customers – are not exposed to pesticides; Supporting Fair Trade (80% of the ingredients we use are Fair Trade Certified) to assure workers receive a fair wage and are empowered to choose how they want to invest incremental funds in community development; and last but not least, the Numi Foundation H2OPE fund, our mission to bring clean drinking water to farming communities where this basic necessity is lacking.
I think the biggest misconception is around quality and flavorings. One misconception is that tea tastes bitter, requiring milk and sugar to make it palatable. Tea is actually very smooth and nuanced, like wine. Bitter tea often means you’re drinking tea dust and fannings. Teas that use low quality ingredients often try to disguise the poor taste with flavorings and perfumes. We focus on using premium organic tea leaves and herbs and blending with only real fruits, flowers and spices. We believe the best flavors come from nature’s whole ingredients, not from “natural” flavorings created in a lab.
How do you take your tea?
Like me, Reem has her tea ritual down pat: Earl Grey mid-morning followed by Green Tea in the afternoon. In the evenings, she serves her family a classic Moroccan Mint Tea using Gunpowder Green as a base and mixing in fresh mint from her garden. A woman after my own heart, she takes most of her tea without milk and sugar, except for special occasions with family.
How do I take my tea? I often lean toward Earl Grey tea in the afternoon and Rooibos or Chamomile with a spoonful of honey after dinner. When I’m sick, I go for strong Ginger tea mixed with lots of honey.
Our work is always a process of making conscious choices along the way, and constantly reassessing vision, mission and values to avoid complacency. I hope this glimpse into our approach affirms and ignites your passion.