Zen Tara Tea selects organic, fair trade and kosher certified teas whenever we can. These certifications alone; however, do not substitute for having a closer relationship with a tea estate and their growing practices and in the end, the quality of the taste of the tea.
There are a few complications; allow us to explain -
Organic & Fair Trade Teas are increasingly popular choices and for good reason. The messages behind both programs are fairly simple and they are ones with which most consumers would find it hard to disagree with - don't use chemicals and pesticides on our food whose residue may damage our health and by not using these chemicals create a more sustainable ecosystem while providing respectful, safe working conditions and wages for those involved in the labor of planting, harvesting and preparing our food for market.
Unfortunately, where organic and fair trade programs sometimes fall into controversy is in their implementation (certification), enforcement or lack thereof, and the variety of organic and fair trade programs internationally by different countries which do not recognize the certifications of each others programs. Major organic certification programs in the USA, Europe and Japan are all separate and would require a tea grower to pass and pay three separate certification fees to export certified organic teas to these major tea consuming countries.
Both organic and fair trade were initially oriented towards helping improve conditions at smaller growers and agricultural businesses, since at the time organic and fair trade foods was a very small niche business. However, as consumers smartly responded to these programs, larger industrial agricultural companies alternately tried to sabotage the programs to minimize them or tried to get large numbers of exceptions to the rules of organic and fair trade practices and certification so as to quickly be able to convert their industrial farms into certified organic and fair trade farms. In some countries these certification programs have become so cumbersome and expensive that they are now beyond the reach of the very same small farms the programs were initially set-up to support.
For instance: A small tea farmer in Taiwan in a remote area who has always farmed using organic methods and never had a need for chemical fertilizers has nurtured their tea fields patiently and is producing exceptional oolong teas. To improve the appeal, marketing awareness and price of their tea they would like to sell the tea as "certified organic" in nearby Japan, Europe and the United States, all of which have their own certification criteria and inspection processes. The tea farmer would have to go through and pay for 3 certifications to be able to sell their tea as "organic" even though their growing practices have been organic for decades. Conceivably, since the majority of their tea is sold in their home country of Taiwan and only a small amount of tea is available for export, the farmer may not be able to realize an acceptable return on the costs associated with all of the certification fees.
In cases such as this example, we evaluate the quality of the teas, the history and practices of the grower and may buy their teas as a standard tea not certified as organic or fair trade. We do not label them as such and try to tell the story of the tea and the tea grower as best we can to assure customers of the quality and sustainability of the tea.
Over time, we hope that many of the hurdles to a more universal application of organic growing and fair trade practices can be the norm rather than the exception. As a discerning consumer, you are playing a major role in moving organic and fair trade food practices in the right direction - thank you.