A Clear Vision of Fair Trade Impact

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The lush tea gardens where we source our freshly brewed tea leaves are a sight to behold. And the men and women who pluck and process each leaf by hand have a keen eye for quality. But if their vision starts to deteriorate over time, a relatively simple solution—eyeglasses—isn’t always within reach.   In addition, sight-impaired villagers can also miss out on economic opportunities that require literacy or attention to detail.

As a company that seeks to have an honest and direct relationship to our ingredients, we strive to build the same connections with our supplier communities.  That’s why we purchase our tea (and some of our sugar) according to fair trade standards. Our fair trade “premiums” support better wages, better working conditions, and help our suppliers invest in their own economic self-sufficiency.

Yet even with fair trade standards in place, a community in a poor region can lack access to quality health services, including eye care. Optometry services are often prohibitively expensive and located hours away from the countryside.

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So Honest Tea and Fair Trade USA joined forces with VisionSpring to launch a special initiative for the 1,300 workers at The Tonganagaon Tea Estate in Assam India.  VisionSpring, is a nonprofit that specializes in bringing affordable glasses and eye care, and supporting entrepreneurs in impoverished countries. While VisionSpring has worked extensively in India, they were eager to launch their first project in Assam, a state in the northeastern part of the country besieged by rising poverty levels and violent political conflict.

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VisionSpring and a regional eye care partner sent a small team in a mobile unit to the estate, dodging clashes between Naxalite insurgents and the Indian Army along the way. Over the course of fifteen days, the specialists screened a total of 5,127 people from villages surrounding the estate. Of that number, 2,400 needed glasses. They were able to select a pair that suited their prescription and tastes on the spot, paid for by Honest Tea. Common eye infections were treated with medicine, while cataract cases were referred to the closest hospital for treatment.

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We were able to leverage the power of mobile technology to measure the impact directly with recipients. Another non-profit partner, Good World Solutions – operating locally on a grant from the U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) – deployed their Labor Link mobile survey platform to poll workers anonymously through their phones. Half of the respondents had never had an eye exam and for almost three-quarters of those who received glasses, it was their first pair. When asked how useful the glasses have been in their daily lives, 95% found them either “very” or “somewhat” useful, and roughly three quarters reported improved productivity at work and at home.

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“Honest Tea has always relied on a network of partners to help us carry out our mission as a company, said Jenny Burns, Honest Tea’s Director of Mission.  “Sometimes we work with other businesses, sometimes with non-profits, and occasionally with government agencies. But we don’t often get the chance to combine the efforts of all three to create meaningful impact for partner communities in need.”

As we evaluate the impact of this experiment, we will ask ourselves if it is worth continuing this type of model; based on the early results, the answer looks crystal clear.

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