Moving Beyond Transparency
I talk about transparency in the tea industry a lot. Lately, however, I’ve realized that the term is so vague and used in so many different contexts that it’s not particularly useful. I do think being transparent about the complete supply chain of tea is important, but I also recognize that “transparency” is (very ironically) an easy term to hide behind.
Transparency = Information
Transparency is just another term for information passed along to the consumer. In my experience, people buying tea will judge how transparent a retailer is based on how much information they share about the tea.
But the question remains: what kind of information are we even talking about? Is the origin, cultivar, and processing enough? Should we also know who is picking our tea and how much they are being paid? What about whether or not pesticides and fertilizers are used?
Every retailer and every consumer will have their own priorities about which information is relevant and which isn’t. Generally, I find that most information can be grouped into one of three main categories:
Education-Oriented Transparency aims to educate consumers about the factual details of the tea. Retailers will focus on answering questions like:
Where is the tea grown?
What is the terroir of the gardens?
When was the tea harvested?
What is the species/cultivar used?
How was the tea processed?
Human-Oriented Transparency aims to share the story of the people who make the tea. Retailers will focus on answering questions like:
Who picked and processed the tea?
What is the history of the tea gardens?
What are the working conditions like?
How long have these people been making tea?
How much are they being paid?
Environment-Oriented Transparency aims to document the environmental footprint of the tea. Retailers will focus on answering questions like:
How do these tea gardens affect the soil?
What pesticides or fertilizers are used?
What is the greater environmental context?
What kind of packaging is used?
How is the tea transported?
All of these are related, of course. One example: if a tea is grown in abandoned gardens, that may have implications about the harvest date (education-oriented), about how it was picked (human-oriented), and about the effect on the local habitat (environment-oriented).
Of these three, if a retailer provides any information at all, they will almost always lean heavily towards the first category: education-oriented transparency. That’s certainly better than nothing, but it’s not enough.
Why Information Matters
Education-Oriented Transparency is important. Sharing factual information about tea benefits consumers in many ways. First and foremost, it helps consumers learn about the relationships between tea cultivation, tea processing, and the resulting qualities of the tea. It also benefits the consumer by regulating the market and encouraging product comparisons between retailers.
However, I think the most important motivation for transparency is not educational, but ethical. As humans with moral agency, we have a moral responsibility to minimize the suffering we cause to other living beings and to minimize the damage we cause to the environment. Consumers, therefore, have a moral responsibility to purchase products that satisfy these requirements.
With this in mind, it’s not hard to make some conclusions.
It is usually more ethical to purchase tea that is grown sustainably than to purchase tea that is not.
It is usually more ethical to purchase tea shipped in environmentally-friendly packaging than tea that is not.
It is usually more ethical to purchase tea that is grown by people who are treated fairly than tea that is grown by people who are not.
It’s not black and white of course, but by taking these ethical factors into consideration, we can make better decisions about who we buy tea from. This is where Human-Oriented Transparency and Environment-Oriented Transparency come into play. This is why we need to know more than just the facts about tea.
If we know enough information about the supply chain, if we know how the tea was grown and who made it, we are better equipped to make purchases that align with our ethical responsibility.
Many tea retailers don’t think it’s important to provide information about the supply chain of their products. And many tea consumers don’t care whether or not they do. So if neither of them care, what’s the problem? Why not just let people buy and drink tea in peace?
The problem is that there are real consequences to our actions. Supporting agricultural methods that harm the environment has real consequences. Supporting tea producers that don’t pay farmers fair wages has real consequences. This is why transparency matters - because there are real consequences to where we choose to buy our tea.
You are not “off the hook” simply because you don’t care or it makes your life a little less convenient. You and I both have a responsibility not to cause undue harm to other living beings or to the environment.
I am certainly not perfect about this, and I’m not asking you to be.
I am asking you to try.