About

SUSTEIN is a collaborative, interdisciplinary research project spanning multiple sites. The three research lines described below fit together to provide a more complete picture of the certified tea supply chain than traditional methods in management and organizations research, political ecology, or anthropology alone would allow.

Research line A (Dr. Hannah Elliott)

This research line explores agrarian questions, enquiring into the ways contemporary drives towards sustainability shape and are shaped by modes of tea production in Kenya. The research focuses on the institution of the tea plantation and its associated factories and outgrower farms, all key components of the infrastructure of sustainable tea. The tea plantation has been described as having a “dual character” (Besky 2008: 1); it has its roots in British colonialism while being contemporarily positioned in international markets for certified sustainable commodities. This research line enquires into what ‘sustainability’ comes to mean and materialise within this apparently contradictory setting. How do contemporary measures seeking to ensure sustainable tea production, such as certified standards, affect the way tea is produced in the context of the plantation? And to what extent do longer-standing modes of plantation production endure through the present, in turn shaping contemporary sustainability ideologies and practices? The research line addresses these questions through ethnographic inquiry. The researcher will spend time with the people working on tea plantations and in factories certified by different certification bodies and on the farms of outgrowers contracted to supply the companies owning plantations with supplementary sustainable tea. Through interviews and participant observation, the ethnographer will enquire into the social, political and ethical worlds surrounding sustainable tea production in contemporary Kenya.

Research line B (Dr. Martin Skrydstrup)

This research line will follow through on the plantation and factory sites to the auction sites in Mombasa and Dubai. Ethnographic fieldwork will be conducted in the Jebel Ali Free Zone in Dubai with no tax regulations, no strict labor laws nor import/export duties, making it the perfect infrastructural hub to blend and pack tea according to corporate logic. Likely as an outcome of this, the Dubai Tea Trading Centre has since its establishment in 2005 risen to re-export 60% of the world’s tea production. These volumes are predominantly traded on virtual platforms.
In contrast, the Mombasa Tea Auction holds two weekly auctions under the auspices of the East African Tea Trade Association (EATTA), which conforms to national regulations (Tea Act of Kenya & Tea Board of Kenya). Recently, this auction site voted “against the mouse and for the hammer,” maintaining the tradition of the Dutch auction style vs. virtual trading. The ethnography for this research line will move between these two sites, following tea blenders who purchase in Mombasa vs. Dubai and investigating tea expertise and technologies as it pertains to the valuation of certified tea.

Research line C (Dr. Matthew Archer)

This research line builds on these ethnographies of production and exchange to try and understand the relationship between corporations and standards/certification regimes. There is a tension between these groups of actors whereby standards organizations such as the Rainforest Alliance and Fairtrade International need to appear independent in order for their certifications to remain credible while at the same time remaining sensitive to the financial obligations of for-profit corporations in order to promote “buy-in.” Publications generated by this research line will draw on interviews with people working in these organizations and participant observation at sites where they interact, including industry conferences and trade fairs. These are the sites where sustainability is negotiated as both a concept and as a set of practices. With that in mind, interview questions will focus on, among other things, the extent to which specific agricultural and trading practices are integrated into broader definitions of sustainability and their manifestation in different certification regimes, the challenges of maintaining a critical distance between certifiers and corporations, and the way standards govern markets and, crucially, vice versa.