Getting ingredients and products from ethical sources can seem a surprisingly difficult task. Stories of everyday items being sourced from overseas companies with atrocious human rights records or dubious environmental credentials are not difficult to come across.
And it is a dilemma constantly faced by tea manufacturers, the largest producer of which is China. For companies looking to start new conversations about tea, the first step has to be where your leaves are coming from.
"It was really important to us that we were giving our growers, our farmers a fair price and everyone automatically says why didn't you go fairtrade," says Daren Spence, founder of We Are Tea. "Well, actually fairtrade very much deals at the lower end of the tea market, we were at the premium end of the tea market where fairtrade is not really relevant."
The Ethical Tea Partnership
We Are Tea is a premium, innovative tea brand, working with global, ethical partnerships and local charities. It also wants to bring tea into a new age to keep up with foodie trends and new flavour infusions.
"We were looking around for guidance and we came across a great organisation called The Ethical Tea Partnership - so all of the teas that we buy, all of the gardens that we buy from are audited by The Ethical Tea Partnership."
The Ethical Tea Partnership are a not-for-profit organisation funded through membership subscriptions, project fees and public grants. In their own words, they are aiming to create "a thriving tea industry that is socially just and environmentally sustainable". They work with farmers and brands in four main areas; raising standards - e.g. working conditions and wages; helping to end discrimination among workers and within the wider community; helping smallholders to improve their yields and meet requirements for export markets; and helping producers mitigate their environmental impact and making sure surrounding ecosystems are protected.
"Every year I have to submit a list of everywhere I'm buying tea from or have bought tea from and if it's not somewhere that they already audit, they will go out on our behalf and audit it," says Spence, "That gives me a lot of comfort that we're doing as much as we can at this stage without having to visit every garden ourselves to make sure that we are as ethical as possible."
We Are Tea started out as a tea cafe in 2007 near St. Paul's Cathedral in London. "We had a very loyal customer base for five years at St Paul's, selling 2,000 cups of tea a week." This all changed when Occupy London [anti-capitalist protest movement] turned up on their doorstep, Spence says that within the space of three days the café had been "trashed", "so I handed the keys back to the Landlord, that was back in 2012".
As hard a decision as closing the shop was, Spence had come to realise that most of their revenue was coming from the retail and wholesale side anyway, rather than the café. "The way for us to build the brand and to grow it was not to open a chain of tea shops, it was to get the product on the shelves of multiple retailers, to get it into delis, farmshops, restaurants, hotels." The firm's fortunes has since shot upwards with compound annual growth up to 64% in the last three years.
"Someone needed to take tea by the scruff of the neck"
Spence puts this partly down to the proliferation of coffee on UK high streets - no one was focusing on tea at all. He watched his friends order coffees at new, exciting chains. "They were cool, they were funky, they had their whipped cream and their various syrups. I would go in there and ask for either an English breakfast or a green tea and I would get a pretty poor quality teabag, some tepid water in a paper cup and get charged around about the same price.
"Tea needed a bit of a kick up the backside, someone needed to take tea by the scruff of the neck because it's been around for over 300 years in the UK and it was getting a little bit lazy."
When the company's focus became more about selling the product wholesale to larger entities, rather than foraging away at the cafe, Spence saw that they were the only ones focusing any attention on the drink. "They'd just had someone come in from Twinings and say here's a thousand teabags for a couple of pounds, whereas we were going and focusing on training and support, recipe ideas, getting the staff enthused about it – we created our own little universitea.
"It quickly became apparent that this was a massive need within the industry, certainly the food service industry, was how to bring tea to life, how to make tea sing and shine in an environment like a restaurant or a deli or a local café because a lot of them have spent the last 3-4 years focussing on coffee."
Rum, pineapple and... tea
This enthusiasm and innovation went as far as sending samples for bartenders to use in creating new tea cocktails, including the rum and pineapple-based Boston Tea Party. Operations manager at The Diner, Chris Todd, told IBTimes UK that partnering with We Are Tea on the 'Hard Tea' cocktails made sense to them. "Like The Diner, We Are Tea are an independent, London-based company with a hunger for authenticity and we're proud to support them."
Alongside the innovative side of things, We Are Tea has partnered Contact the Elderly, a charity that tackles social isolation amongst older people by holding regular tea parties. We Are Tea provides tea for tea parties and also produces a special blend - created by older members of the Contact the Elderly tea - from which all profits go to supporting the charity. "We've come up with this beautiful afternoon blend which is quite light, quite refreshing, doesn't mind a bit of milk, can also take a bit of a biscuit," says Spence. "The buyers have been very receptive, very supportive of it, everyone has or had a grandparent or an elderly relative even so it just strikes a chord with most people we talk to because it's just easy to see the benefits of what we're doing."
With an interest in their local community, a focus on the international outlook and tea cocktails for the rest of us, it is no wonder We Are Tea looks set to hit the nation's supermarkets in the near future. "Tea is on the crest of a wave," Spence beams with some pride.