Esha Chhabra, Special to The Chronicle
Friday, December 30, 2011
This originally appeared in the SF Chronicle.
A little more than a decade ago, two Iraqi American siblings were vacationing at the Grand Canyon when they decided to create a tea company that prized art and social justice.
Today, Numi Organic Tea in Oakland is the leading brand importer of fair-trade certified teas in the United States.
For co-founder Ahmed Rahim, the desire to build a people-focused company came out of his experience as a child growing up in Cleveland, the son of Iraqi immigrants.
For Reem Rahim, his sister and co-founder, a near-fatal car accident as a college student studying biomedical engineering led her to embrace what she really loved – art.
And so it was that the two came up with the idea to start a business named after the dried lime tea they had drunk as children, Numi.
“We’re not really businesspeople,” said Ahmed Rahim, 43, who at the time of that fateful vacation had just returned home from living in Europe, where he managed tea houses in Prague and studied film in Paris.
The tea company they crafted in 1999 was focused on offering organic, premium quality tea leaves without flavorings. There’s no Earl Grey in their selection, or fruity herbal drinks, which Ahmed Rahim said are largely produced by spraying on natural and artificial flavors.
Over the years, Numi has become known in the tea marketplace for its business practices, despite the emergence of other high-end tea brands.
“When we started, there wasn’t much talk of fair trade. The movement has grown as we’ve grown,” said Ahmed Rahim. “So, it’s been easier for us to incorporate these principles into our business because we did it starting with a smaller scale. Doing it the other way around, when you’re bigger, is much tougher.”
Recently, news of a breakup between Fair Trade USA and Fair Trade International has created controversy, with critics arguing it could result in a watering down of regulations. Fair Trade USA, however, said the move could enable greater impact, as they change guidelines to allow for fair trade with large-scale farms and estates.
Brian Durkee, vice president of operations at Numi, said it’s far too early to determine what the move will mean.
“People who are more involved in the details recognize that it’s not a watering down,” he said. “The bottom line is that it’s trying to increase the amount of suppliers who can get certified as opposed to decrease the requirements of the certification,” he said.
Tea is still a small component in the world of fair trade, Durkee said. Last year, the United States purchased more than 110 million pounds of fair-trade coffee and only 1.8 million pounds of fair-trade tea.
For Numi, fair trade has become a critical component of the business.
Time with workers
Durkee, who has been with the Rahims for eight years, said the company works with several fair-trade organizations to ensure they’re reaching as many people as possible. His job includes visiting remote parts of rural China, Africa and India, spending mornings hitching a ride in the back of a truck and randomly surveying 100 workers for hours in the field as they pluck tea leaves. Workers have seen their wages increase by 20 percent, he said, once their employers go organic and fair-trade.
“You can’t go to your suppliers with a stick and demand low cost and expect them to be socially or environmentally conscious. So, we don’t go just for the cheapest option. We’re looking for good quality, a fair price, along with social and environmental impact,” Durkee said. “My job as a supply chain expert is to take on that challenge.”
That knowledge of their suppliers is reflected in the packaging, which showcases the farmers they work with.
Reem Rahim, 45, who spent months testing patterns for the boxes, ultimately decided on spiritual designs, a sharp contrast to loud branding labels. The aim, she said, was to remind customers of the soothing effect of tea and the art of drinking tea.
Nearly all of Numi’s teas are fair trade, receiving certification in 2005 by TransFair USA. They are purchased from small family-run farms and larger cooperatives consisting of smaller farms. Though the company does buy from some large estates, Durkee said they abide by fair-trade standards, which require owners to meet minimum wages, provide safe, clean working conditions and minimize the use of synthetic fertilizers.
In the coming year, Numi wants to take the fair-trade commitment further by adopting a new, voluntary “fair labor” standard. Developed by Scientific Certification Systems in Emeryville, the Fair Labor Practices and Community Benefits certification emphasizes the entire supply chain, looking at wage standards through each phase of the manufacturing, production and distribution process. Numi will be the first company to take part in this new certification.
Durkee said that in addition to higher wages, the money channeled through fair-trade products results in community projects. For instance, Fair Trade Premiums, as they’re referred to, finance a variety of development projects including mosquito nets, on-site health care, regular worm treatment, street lamps, HIV/AIDS training and school supplies.
Durkee has seen firsthand the economic impact of fair trade while working with local producers. Numi’s packaging is free of shrink wrapping, printed with soy inks and made largely with recycled, postconsumer waste.
Bamboo, in particular, has become a Numi favorite, appearing in their merchandising, marketing and packaging. The company has been working with the same bamboo supplier in China for the past 11 years. Durkee remembers meeting the man years ago and asking him what he would like to do with the increased income, given that Numi was beginning to purchase his bamboo in large quantities. The man said he’d like to see his daughter go to a school in the big city.
“That big city was a tiny city in China but big for him,” Durkee said. “By 2007, we were employing the village, practically, and had given $10,000 in community development there. The business kept growing and just last year, his daughter entered Indiana University as a freshman.”
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This article appeared on page C – 1 of the San Francisco Chronicle