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  • Writer's picturejohn snell

Whose fault is it? Not mine! Why the Tea industry struggles for balance.

Updated: Apr 20, 2020

The tea community is very much like the investor community or the home owner community, they all believe it is their God given right to enjoy an endless boom market and, shock horror, when things turn sour. "How did that happen and why? "I did my part and others have mismanaged" or "Any other Teflon coated Pontius Pilate approach I can take!"

In the tea industry it is quite extraordinary how the fingers keep pointing while an obvious imbalance, in supply and demand OF THE RIGHT TYPES, continues unabated. Yes, that's right, there is a qualifier to the trade imbalance! You cannot just look at overall production and consumption figures as the whole picture. Have we not noticed the change in drinking habits, from products derived from Camellia Sinensis to other botanicals, or, for those that stay, moving from normal teabags to pyramids, loose leaf or, "Help!" to other things not called tea!

I can argue until I am blue in the face about the merits of all grades of tea and I can complain about the use of "Tea" in our lexicon to describe botanicals but that is an insignificant tantrum when faced with Consumers who have decided to leave tea out of their daily liquid intake.

There are many reasons for this "Exit" and just like our investors and home owners, you cannot point at any one factor in explanation but, other categories have become more aggressive and smarter in attracting supporters, while tea has jogged on, happy in the knowledge that it is infinitely preferable from a taste, terroir, natural, health and value standpoint from anything out there, other than tap water. The extraordinary fuel to the fire is that, despite the value that tea offers, investor shareholder value has ensured that large brands have dropped the cost and quality (they thought you'd never notice!) of the Tea Drinker's favourite brands thereby decimating the mainstream black tea sector in favour of, frankly, anything else.

So, is tea the problem? No, it is not; while large brands have tanked, more quality conscious brands have 'eaten their lunch" proving that the Consumer does have a palate, discerns and rewards quality.

This should not be a revelation, Consumers have not changed, they like good stuff so, what's the industry's problem? Just concentrate on quality, not yields, and start listening to Consumers and marketing, aggressively, those qualities of tea that no other beverage has a right to contest!!

It's simple but impossible to turn agreement to the logic into orchestrated action. The irony is that tea's enviable and storied past carries with it legacy responsibilities that are hard to undo. An industry with the livelihoods of millions of people at it's door that hardly breaks even, because of oversupply, production of the wrong types and adaptation costs to climate change (that alters qualities and access to certain markets ,due to compliancy issues on an annual basis). Of course there are pockets of success.

With the support of those discerning Consumers some Producers are doing very nicely thank you but not the majority and the costs, energy, political will and guts to steer this mass of dependents on a new path of diversification and/ or differentiated production, without a guarantee of success at the end, appears too much to expect or ask but the alternative is far more grim! The answer lies in taking responsibility and action throughout the supply chain, not leaving it to Production centres that cannot see or influence the end user state, alone. Demand has to be created to encourage Producers to take the right steps and that requires a response from all involved in tea sales to invest time and effort into orchestrated (here ye all tea Boards and Associations), non-partisan, marketing of the pertinent values of tea so that all leaf can rise on the same brewed tide!

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