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Organic, Fair Trade, and the Ethical Tea Partnership

Ethical Tea Partnership header

Ten years ago, I had a pretty simplistic view of the word “organic.” I figured there was some set of guidelines you had to follow, and *presto* — you could put the word organic on your product. As it turns out, things are much more complicated than that.

When my wife and I had our ranch, we had a neighbor that produced organic pork. One day, they were forced to make an unpleasant choice. A disease was circulating among the hogs in our area. They could inoculate their hogs, but it would cost them their USDA organic rating. Or they could keep the organic rating, and potentially lose the animals — possibly even the farm. In another post on this blog, I told a story of an herb farm near us that gave up their USDA organic rating simply because they couldn’t keep up with the paperwork. There is a daunting amount of documentation required for a small family business to be certified organic.

I learned even more about organic products when I got into the tea business.

I learned that if you take some organic tea leaves and mix them with organic peppermint leaves, you cannot call the resulting mint tea “organic” unless you go through the process of having your facility certified and document everything you do.

I learned that some of my customers will only buy tea that is certified organic — and others will only buy tea if it is not certified organic.

I also learned that there are countries that won’t produce USDA organic tea simply because they don’t want a U.S. government agency telling them what to do. That’s when I found out that not all organic tea is USDA organic. Japan has their JAS (Japanese Agricultural Standard) program, the logo in the center bottom of the header image for this blog post. The European Union countries have their EU organic program. All of these programs were designed to encourage natural and sustainable farming techniques, but they all do so in different ways.

There’s also Fair Trade. In their own words, “Products that bear our logo come from farmers and workers who are justly compensated. We help farmers in developing countries build sustainable businesses that positively influence their communities.”


In 1997, a group of tea companies grouped together to create a program that was more specific to tea. At first, it was about tea companies working to monitor and certify their supply chains. Eventually, it became the Ethical Tea Partnership. Many of the members are names you’d recognize, like Bigelow, Tazo, and Twinings. Others are boutique brands. All work with the entire chain of people involved in tea production, from the farmers all the way to the distributors.

The ETP certification process is unlike organic and fair trade certifications, but it has elements of both. Provisions of their global standard include:

  • No bonded or forced labor. Employees can’t be forced to leave their identity papers with the employer, must be free to leave at any time, and may not be forced laborers from prisons
  • Freedom of association. Employees must be allowed to join trade unions and bargain collectively if they so choose.
  • A safe and healthy workplace. Tea businesses must provide clean, well-lit, and safe work areas. Workers in potentially hazardous areas must be provided with health and safety training and appropriate protective clothing.
  • Safe and hygienic wash stations and restrooms.
  • No child labor, and special treatment for workers under 18 years of age.
  • Fair minimum wages and on-time payment of workers.
  • Reasonable working hours, including a maximum of 48-hour regular weeks, paid overtime on a voluntary basis, maternity leave, and a minimum of one day off in every seven-day period.
  • Equal opportunity employment, including equal pay for men and women and a written policy forbidding discrimination on the basis of race, caste, nationality, religion, age, gender, sexual orientation, and other factors.
  • Environmental management systems, including policies for control and reduction of agrochemicals, and for prevention of soil erosion.
  • Water and ecosystem conservation.

The entire global standard document is available online as a 30-page PDF file.


So the next time you’re looking for tea, don’t just look for that USDA logo. Keep an eye out for these other logos as well!

organic logos

While writing this blog post, I was drinking Pi Lo Chun, a hand-processed Chinese green tea. I brewed this cup for 3:00 using 175 degree (F) water. If you’re squeamish, you may want to taste it before looking at the translation of its name (“green snail spring”) — but it contains no snails; it’s just straight green tea. It has a full body and an earthy flavor, but it’s not overpowering at all. In fact, I’d describe this tea as “soft.” It’s not like a hearty Japanese Sencha, which I almost feel I have to wrestle into submission.

I suppose I should be drinking something organic, or fairtrade, or at least ETP. Mea maxima culpa!

Lady Grey

Trademark SymbolToday was tea blending day at the tea bar, as I mixed up new batches of our house blends. As I was working on our Lady Grey, I got to thinking about how incredibly different Lady Grey teas are from one company to the next, and decided to do a bit of reading on the subject.

It didn’t take long to find a comment that “Lady Grey” is a registered trademark of R. Twining and Company in the U.S. and U.K. (here’s a link to the trademark search on Trademarkia that shows it renewed in March of 2006). This hasn’t stopped quite a few companies from producing their own variations, like Jasmine Pearl (theirs has orange zest and lemon myrtle, but no bergamot!), SereneTeaz (an Earl Grey with lavender),  American Tea Room (they don’t have a full ingredient list, but it includes cornflower petals), and Tea Embassy (another Earl Grey with lavender).

Should I follow their lead and continue calling my blend Lady Grey? Nah. I have better things to do with my time and money than fight legal battles. I’ll do the right thing and follow the example of Marks & Spencer (they call theirs Empress Grey) and Trader Joe’s (Duchess Grey).

Duchess Grey Tea Empress Grey Tea

Twinings originally named their Lady Grey tea for Mary Elizabeth Grey. Their Earl Grey tea (which they changed last year) was named for her husband, Charles, who was the second Earl Grey. Twinings uses less bergamot in their Lady Grey than they do in Earl Grey, but they add other citrus and some cornflower.

I’ve never understood the rationale of “clone blends.” My “Lady Grey” isn’t the same as anyone else’s. If it was, I’d just buy theirs. I want something different. Mine is an organic blend, using Chinese black tea, oil of bergamot, wild Tibetan lavender, a little bit of vanilla, and a touch of rooibos.

What to call it? The one consistent thing about all of our other Earl Grey teas is the word “Earl.” Earl Green (green tea + bergamot), Earl Red (rooibos + bergamot), and all of the blends that use the full “Earl Grey” moniker, like Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey and Cream Earl Grey. The name “Lady Grey” keeps the “Grey” instead of the “Earl,” but is still connected.

So I have done what I often do in such situations: turn the question over to my friends, colleagues, and acquaintances. I’ve asked Facebook and the Twitterverse for suggestions, and I’m starting a thread on my favorite message board (the Straight Dope). When we decide on a new name, you’ll read about it here first!

Twinings changes their Earl Grey. Stop the presses. Or don’t.

Twinings Earl GreyThe tea world is all a-twitter because British tea giant Twinings has changed the formulation of their Earl Grey tea after over a century and a half. This is being likened to the “New Coke” fiasco. It’s difficult to address a subject like this without puns, so let me get this out of the way and call it a tempest in a teapot.

When it comes to Earl Grey tea, we are swimming in a sea of alternatives. Every tea company has their own twist on the blend, and the only things they have in common are black tea and bergamot. In fact, even the black tea part is optional these days. You can get Earl Grey made from Chinese tea, Indian tea, Ceylon tea, or Kenya tea. You can even get white Earl Grey, green Earl Grey, red Earl Grey (which is made with rooibos rather than tea), or Mr. Excellent’s Post-Apocalyptic Earl Grey. The amount of bergamot can vary from just a hint to enough to knock your socks off. You can get your Earl Grey with lavender or dozens of other additives.

I am most amused by the Earl Grey variants that they call “citrus” Earl Grey. Hey, guys, all Earl Grey is citrus. That’s what bergamot is. It’s a variety of orange.

The bergamot orange.

We’ve done some experimentation in our tea bar. Since Earl Grey tea is hugely popular — one of my personal favorites, in fact — we started out with four Earl Greys: an Ancient Tree Earl Grey, Empire’s Earl Grey Supreme, a rooibos Earl Grey for the caffeine-free crowd, and our own lavender Earl Grey blend we call The Countess (here’s why we don’t call it Lady Grey). Yes, we know that’s not what’s in Twinings’ Lady Grey. We don’t care.

We knew those last two were going to be specialty drinks. The purists wouldn’t be interested in either one. The first two would be a horse race for popularity.

Rishi’s offering is my personal favorite. It’s a very straightforward Earl Grey made from organic fair-trade Yunnan Dian Hong. The Earl Grey Supreme from Empire Tea includes quite a bit more bergamot and some other citrus as well. The horse race became a runaway. Rishi’s Ancient Tree Earl Grey is the most popular tea at the tea bar (judging by ounces sold), outselling the high-bergamot Supreme by a four-to-one margin. If I were the type to draw conclusions based on a single data point, I’d say that adding more bergamot to Earl Grey isn’t a good thing.

That, however, is exactly what Twinings just did (and a touch of lemon, too).

This isn’t really going to affect me. They may have been first out of the gate with Earl Grey, but theirs has never been my favorite formulation. I think it will be a good thing for the tea business, though, as it will drive the old-line Twinings Earl Grey purists to get out and experiment a bit. We’ll see where it goes.

Update: 7 September 2011

That didn’t take long. Andrew Brown at the Telegraph blogged (actually before my post came out, so I suppose my research was inadequate) that Twinings has released “Earl Grey: The Classic Edition” to satisfy discontented fans. It’s an interesting post. The thing I find most interesting is the biography line at the top, which says, “Andrew M Brown is a writer with an interest in mental health and the influence of addiction on culture.” Good qualifications for someone writing about tea, eh?

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