The Price of A Cup of Tea

Let us first acknowledge the irony of writing about the price of a cup of tea while drinking an overpriced chai latte. The markup in price buys me a right to mingle with a certain class of people much more than it buys me better tea; but that is a discussion for another day.

Today I want to talk about what it took to get to this cup of tea. You might be surprised by the amount of drugs that had to be sold, the number of people who had to go into slavery, and the number of children who had to be exploited just for this cup of tea.

Let’s start with the tea itself. During the mid-seventeenth century, the British started to develop a taste for Chinese tea, along with other Chinese products like silk and porcelain. British traders set sail across the globe to China to buy more and more of the precious tea leaves. The problem was that the Chinese were not interested in anything the British were selling, choosing instead to sell their goods for silver, a metal the British did not have in any significant quantity, resulting in a trade deficit for the British. By 1817 though, Britain discovered the solution, they could reduce the deficit by exporting opium, which they produced in the regions under their control in India, to China. The now addicted Chinese people were willing to part with their wares for the narcotic, to the point were silver started flowing in the opposite direction, from the hands of the Chinese to the pockets of the British. That is to say, the British traders got a nation hooked on drugs to buy tea and the porcelain cups to drink it in.

The sugar to sweeten the tea is not a much better story. During the 18th & 19th centuries, most of the sugar consumed in Western Europe was grown in the Caribbean. Sugar plantation owners made extensive use of slaves in growing their crops to keep their cost down, fueling the Atlantic slave trade. That is, there were people who had their freedom taken from them, shipped across the Atlantic in horrible conditions, and put to work until their death just so others can eat sweetened teas and cakes.

The final ingredient is the fuel to heat our cup of tea. Although coal was mainly used for industrial reasons, it is worth mentioning the conditions needed to extract it. In 1842, the British parliament passed the Mines and Collieries Act, prohibiting boys under the age of ten (and women) from working in coal mines. You can imagine what work conditions were like when exploiting a boy of eleven was an improvement on the system.

I might be selecting my examples a little too narrowly. The Opium Wars were caused by more than just the desire for tea, the Atlantic Slavery was fueled by more than just sugar plantations, and coal mines worked over time to support the industrial revolution, not just stoves; but it is worth mentioning all these to show how a seemingly benign product can cause havoc halfway across the globe. Just think, what sweatshop created your sneakers or what horrible working conditions created your smart phone. These conditions might not be as extreme those that made a cup of tea possible two hundred years ago, but does that make it okay? If we are are willing to pay a markup to large companies just for exclusivity, could we not pay a similar markup to ensure proper working condition for everyone across the production chain?

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