The price of a cup of tea…

Yesterday we had our lovely Aoradh Sunday- we gather for worship, then we eat together.

The first thing we do (this being the UK) is share a cup of tea. For people in our culture, drinking tea together is more than just refreshment; it is a symbol of friendship, a symbol of simple community and hospitality. As a friend of mine recently said ‘there are not many problems that can not be sorted out over a cup of tea’.

Yesterday we were drinking a brand of tea that has a long history- a company called Tetley who are the second largest manufacturer and distributor of tea (after Unilever.) We normally try to buy fair trade tea, but someone else had recently given us a large bag of the Tetley stuff, which tastes good.

Or it did until we watched this;

It is a simple thing to do.

Buy tea with a Fair Trade label.

Drink with a wider community in mind.

Tea, sugar and slavery…

If you were to think of things that define us as a nation, most of us would include our addiction to tea.

Then there is our huge sugar consumption- in tea of course, but also lacing almost all of our other processed foods.

This morning I listened to the wonderful radio programme ‘A History of the World in 100 Objects‘ on Radio 4. It is nearing it’s end, but today’s programme described an early Victorian Wedgwood tea set.

And it brought to be again the need to understand history from the perspective of the small people- not the law makers and war mongers. Because the history of ‘Great’ Britain has often been one of militaristic expansionism, and economic oppression.

Slavery brought us sugar, via the terrible triangle of trade that saw African people stolen from their homelands and shipped like expendable cattle to work in the West Indies.

And tea- this was a much later economic obsession. Stolen from the Chinese, with much double dealing and opium peddling along the way, and increasingly adopted as the drink of high society in Victorian Britain.

But because it was expensive, there was a need to find ways to control the production, distribution and sales of tea on a massive scale. For this, we needed new plantations in a suitable climate.

And of course, we also needed a huge cheap workforce that we could control and dominate.

And so we manipulated, shanghaied and cajoled the poorest of another one of our conquests to move to a country far from their birth and work our new plantations in Ceylon.

To make this seem OK, we had to believe that we were doing them a favour. We had to be able to see these people as less than us, weaker, less human.

So we called them a name that befitted their status- a pejorative name. Coolies.

In the British Empire, coolies were indentured labourers who lived under conditions often resembling slavery. The system, inaugurated in 1834 in Mauritius, involved the use of licensed agents after slavery had been abolished in the British Empire. Thus, indenture followed closely on the heels of slavery in order to replace the slaves. The labourers were however only slightly better off than the slaves had been. They were supposed to receive either minimal wages or some small form of payout (such as a small parcel of land, or the money for their return passage) upon completion of their indentures. Unlike slaves, these imported servants could not be bought or sold. (From here.)

These mass movements of population leave their mark on human politics to this day, as does much of our colonial system. The Tamils who were imported into Ceylon (now Sri Lanka) were fighting a bloody civil war until only last year.

All of which makes my tea taste a bit sour.

And it does not get much better for the tea producing nations today. They are slaves to the free market, with commodity prices rising and falling, and plantations mostly tied to multinational corporations.

All the more reason then to drink tea (and coffee) as well as using sugar that has the fair trade mark– yes I know all about the tokenism thing- but my tea just goes down with more satisfaction.

And given my inherited history, it seems the very least that I should do.

Fair trade and recession…


Michaela and I have been interested in fair and ethical trade practices for some time. As a student, my final year thesis dug into this area. For some time we were Traidcraft representatives also.

In earlier times, fairtrade production was low scale and marginal. Who can remember the early instant coffees that tasted slightly like a mixture of sludge and gravy?

Fairtrade produce has become much more mainstream in the last few years. The supermarkets use Fairtrade as a niche selling strategy, and large companies like Cadbury’s, later followed by Galaxy have bowed to pressure and started to use fairtrade materials in their produce. Whilst the edges of what constitute ‘fair trade’ seems to be as fuzzy as ever, these larger scale moves towards breaking down the power of the multi-nationals and giving producers in the South a fair wage are great.

And then came recession.

Logic would suggest that during periods of recession people look to make savings on household bills. They are less willing to pay premiums for quality, and more likely to buy budget products. We might expect too that people will give less to charity, and buy less fair trade produce.

It is encouraging then to read this report from the Ethical Corporation Institute, which suggests that interest in ethical and fairtrade products is soaring.

I wonder why?

Is it possible that the aftermath of the consumer driven credit crisis has led to people examining again the lack of sustainability of our lifestyle? And the inequalities we depend on to maintain it?

This is cool- Kiva microfinance website

Check this out.

It is a site that allows you to make small loans directly to small businesses in parts of the world where, credit crunch or not, people would not get the money elsewhere.

My friend Pauline suggested that our group get involved.

This is a message that I was asked to send on to others- I would not send this via e-mail, but will post it here


I just made a loan to someone in the developing world using a revolutionary new website called Kiva (

You can go to Kiva’s website and lend to someone in the developing world who needs a loan for their business – like raising goats, selling vegetables at market or making bricks. Each loan has a picture of the entrepreneur, a description of their business and how they plan to use the loan so you know exactly how your money is being spent – and you get updates letting you know how the entrepreneur is going.

The best part is, when the entrepreneur pays back their loan you get your money back – and Kiva’s loans are managed by microfinance institutions on the ground who have a lot of experience doing this, so you can trust that your money is being handled responsibly.

I just made a loan to an entrepreneur named Leonia Benitez in Dominican Republic. They still need another $400.00 to complete their loan request of $3,150.00 (you can loan as little as $25.00!). Help me get this entrepreneur off the ground by clicking on the link below to make a loan to Leonia Benitez too:

It’s finally easy to actually do something about poverty – using Kiva I know exactly who my money is loaned to and what they’re using it for. And most of all, I know that I’m helping them build a
sustainable business that will provide income to feed, clothe, house and educate their family long after my loan is paid back.

Join me in changing the world – one loan at a time.


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