Phil America asks Nicholas Lozito about his mission to find fair trade in the tea business.
Nicholas Lozito- Misty Peak Teas was really a product of my desire to share things that I love with others. I believe we all have this in us; that desire to hand someone a book we enjoyed or take a friend to our favorite restaurant. When I first went to China, I was merely a tourist looking for good tea to drink; never did I think I would get the chance to sit with a tea farmer. Long story short, I met a young farmer while lost in his village and he poured me his tea. That night ended up turning into years of living on his farm and learning all I could about Pu’er Tea—the world’s first tea that is picked from the oldest tea trees on Earth.
PA- So what made you want to start selling it? What made you think you could translate this ancient drink to American culture?
NL- Right before arriving in China, I finished a year of silent meditation and returned to America to try to teach friends about the value of sitting quietly, all with little results. The first evening the farmer and myself drank tea together, I knew this was something special, something I could share. With that desire to share and make silence, health, and understanding accessible through a cup instead of a meditation pillow, Misty Peak Teas was born.
PA- What is your take on the Fair Trade industry?
NL- The legal definition of Fair Trade and the moral definition of Fair Trade are most certainly different. There is far too much injustice in the labor world, especially involving how we treat those whom we are trading and working with. Through tea, I have been able to meet seasonal tea pickers(even small farmers often hire hundreds for the Spring pickings), and many are paid below average simply because the supply of those workers is so vast during these seasons. When it comes time for the company to get certified as “fair trade”, they jump through the hoops, or loopholes, of that Certification Company prior to being able to use their logo; once money and time is spent, a high resolution image of the logo is sent to the company. Fair Trade is basically a marketing organization. Of course, this stamp gives peace of mind to consumers, but “fair” is classified as a rate just-above what they are already being paid; instead of $10 per kilo it could be $11 per kilo. (see http://www.economist.com/blogs/baobab/2014/05/agriculture-ethiopia-and-uganda).
PA- That makes a lot of sense. So, how does that factor in to the tea business?
NL- Tea so often comes from developing countries that is home to farmers who only have one crop; so when the organizations come in with US Dollars, it hard for the farmer to turn down lump sums, even if he could get a higher value on the open market. Obviously, this stamp doesn’t ensure quality or taste of any kind either, yet it still catches a higher price tag. Fair Trade at Misty Peak Teas is not just about making sure the trade is fair, it is about empowering the farmer and showing the other villagers that they too can ask for more for their tea. We do everything in our power to be more than fair, paying 20% more than the local market’s value for crops of Pu’er to ensure the family is going to be well off and to ensure the quality of tea for the next season.
PA- How is your take on Fair Trade different?
NL- Victor Hugo once said, “Being good is easy, what is difficult is being just.” As we have been recognized as having one of the finest raw puers in The West, quality was the easy part for us. With any commodity, quality is not in the sellers’ hands, it is in the producers’.
If I had exchanged money with the farmer and parted ways, Misty Peak Teas would have never been. Fair Trade is about building relationships, with the company and the farmer, but also, in our case, with the consumer and the farmer. We publish pictures, interviews, videos, and the biography of the family of three–father, mother, and son– and know that we are being held accountable to treat this family fair and treat them as we would want to be treated if others came to us for a commodity we possessed. In tea, there are a few wholesalers at the top who supply the majority of all teashops and tea companies. These mega wholesalers go through the work to get the certifications, then the little guys simply buy that tea from the big guys and rebrand it as their own. With this, you have literally hundreds of tea companies, many of them selling the same tea.
Tea Companies are selling themselves short by eliminating the story of their teas; at Misty Peak Teas we share the story at every opportunity because the story of the tea and the family make the tea more enjoyable and it allows that connection that is not just fair, it is what tea is all about. I feel that others should be more transparent and be an advocate for the farmers they are working with. I have decided against the seal of approval from the big Fair Trade organizations for now because I am not a middleman between the farmer and the consumer; I am a representative for a family who, for generations, has dedicated their life to mastering Pu’er Tea, to enjoy and to share.