The True Value of Tea – A Holistic or ‘Qi’ Approach
Part 1: The Process Dimension
What I want to do in this article is to outline a rather uncommon approach to the value of tea that is neither based on the commercial nor on the typical Western consumer approach to the value of a product, any product, for that matter, but rather on what I’d call a holistic, or – in terms of ancient Chinese philosophy – ‘Qi’ approach to value. In fact, this largely reflects the approach I use with my sourcing of teas for Siam Tea Shop. Also, it is an approach that can help to open one’s eyes for a much deeper, more sustainable and much more rewarding approach to consumption in general, being not only applicable to our consumption of tea, but to our entire consumption concept. However, before I will get to this, let us first have a look at the above-mentioned “conventional” ways of establishing the value of a product.
In commercial terms, a product’s value – here: tea – is a mix of simple math and certain laws of (human) nature applied to a trade situation. The former consists of the calculation of the actual costs involved in the production, transport, taxation, etc. of a product. With tea, this starts with the cost of the land, on which the tea is cultivated via seed material, fertilizer, salaries, facilities and equipment costs, costs for administration, transport, customs, import taxes, VAT, handling, more administration, and many more, but I think you get the picture. The said laws of human nature adding to this in economic theory are referred to as the laws of “supply and demand” (remember, these are what makes a simple glass of water cost a fortune in the desert, and what would make you die from dehydration in that situation if you couldn’t afford it). At the end of the calculation stands a number, and a retailer, adding their own margin – again: costs – to that number in order to establish the final retailing price of that tea, the price at which you as a tea drinker can buy this particular tea from that retailer. Common economic theory considers each step, where costs arise, as a “value-add”, effectively equaling cost with value. But: how do you perceive these cost-defined value-adds, do you perceive them at all, and do they add any value for you to your tea? As easy as this: as long as you don’t know what’s behind those numbers, they’ll be nothing but numbers, and then your perceived value of that tea is limited to the mere number of the price you have paid for it.
You say, it is not? You say that many of those “cost positions” are indeed true and perceivable value adds, as they will contribute to and/or create entirely perceivable individual properties of that product, in our case: a tea’s particular taste. You are absolutely right, and here we have arrived at second concept of product value, the consumer approach. Of course, the consumer doesn’t just buy a number! Why would he buy anything that would come with no perceivable value at all, except for the perception of a missing amount of money in their wallet? The customer, here: the tea drinker, buys perceivable value, which can either be simply a particular tea’s taste (‘I like that tea’) or individual properties (‘I like Long Jing Green Tea’) or sets of properties (‘I like spring harvest Long Jing Green Tea from Hangzhou original site’). With a tea that has these properties, the corresponding value-adds (Long Jing green tea, spring harvest, Hangzhou original site) will equal costs which in turn will add to the price of that tea. Though this “consumer” concept of value is not only a lot more complex, but also a lot more humane than the initially described commercial value approach, it still means benefiting from your product’s value, if any, only rather superficially and in this case limited to your tea’s obvious taste characteristics along with some singled-out properties (e.g. Long Jing tea, green tea, spring harvest, Hangzhou original site).
As opposed to these two approaches, one of them simply quantifying properties that can be equaled with costs, and the other one allegedly focused on perceivable benefits, but with these benefits limited to singled-out properties or small sets of properties that are by no means able to represent and/or reflect a tea’s true value – or the lack of such, for that matter – I’d like to suggest a much more holistic approach to the value of tea that is based on the ancient Chinese philosophic concept of ‘Qi’.
Other than the described common consumer approach, and just like the purely commercial approach to capturing a tea’s value, our suggested holistic or ‘Qi’ approach starts at the very roots of our tea’s “becoming” and runs through all stages of processing, warehousing, transport and shipping to the final wholesale and retail on the destination market, recording each and any value-adds – or value deductions – along the way. However, unlike the latter, our approach doesn’t equal value-add with financial cost. In a holistic or ‘Qi’ approach, value-adds are qualities that cannot or not clearly be measured in numbers and for which even potentially assignable numbers are either irrelevant or relevant only on a secondary level. In fact, even the number of qualities contributing to the whole entity of a tea itself is inherently indefinite and thereby not really a number at all. This also rules out any form of calculation, i. e. the adding up of numbers, as how would we do that with a potentially indefinite number of numbers?
‘Qi’ means the (non-mathematical) sum of all things and events contributing to an entity’s becoming, development and destiny (also refer to my blog article “Sourcing Tea in China – The ‘Qi’ of Tea”). If we’d extend the scope of this wide enough, this would virtually be everything and every event at all times, as logically all things at all times and in all places are interconnected in a way that is obviously way to complex for human minds to capture. So, in order to make this approach make sense, we need to limit this scope to the most relevant identifiable and documentable factors of influence, i. e. the immediate environment of our tea in consideration. However, obviously, we’d cover a much broader spectrum of properties and consequently would achieve a much more complex and realistic “whole picture” of our tea doing so.
The basic idea of this approach is that everything that happens to a tea will influence its quality in either a negative or positive way, thereby constituting either a value-add or a value deduction. Seen from the above described consumer approach to tea value, every element on this list will affect the final tea’s taste, making it – in theory – perceivable for a tea drinker, while the commercial value concept will identify every element in terms of financial costs, whether it really adds value from a quality point of view or not. My suggested holistic or ‘Qi’ approach aims at identifying as many such elements, or properties, of a tea as possible, record them in the form of informational contents and pass them on through the value chain, where they will keep accumulating before finally being delivered to the end consumer along with the tea they pertain to. From my own tea drinking experience, I know that the value added to a tea by each property that is available for a tea drinker in the form of such information, is indeed perceived as an identifiable value, while the same property will be present in the tea without such information being available, but will hardly be perceived by the tea drinker, having nothing at hand but the final taste of that tea, which essentially is the result of all these properties being united in one pool and way too complex to be perceived as individual properties and thereby as value. I believe that we all can make more of our tea, get much more value from our tea, if we have more information about it at hand, as this information will be “digested” or processed by our brain, which in turn will fundamentally change, i. e. enrich, our perception and our actual experience with drinking this tea. Of course, there is an indefinite number of influential factors and events with a tea, and we can most probably never know everything about a tea, but the more information we have about a tea, the richer our experience with it will be, with richer experience being assumed as equal to greater value. As opposed to the commercial concept of value, however, the ‘Qi’ approach will not only record positive value-adds, but also negative ones, value deductions, so that plenty of information about a tea being available will not only have the potential to qualify that tea and giving it value, but also to disqualify it and deduct value from it.
Let us now look at some examples… which factors and/or properties create qualities in a tea, whether positive or negative ones. Let’s name just a few, to give you an idea. On tea garden level, this would for example be properties such as geographic location, soil, altitude, use of pesticides, climate (sun, precipitation, temperature), seed quality, tea cultivar, and so on. As a geographic location, Yunnan might be perceived more positively than Kenya for a Pu Erh tea, naturally fertile soils appear more desirable as fertilized ones, “high mountain” is generally considered as preferable over lowland areas, organic quality over high pesticide use, etc. Next level: harvesting. Factors are such as picking standard, harvesting season, manual or machine harvest, salary and/or exploitation levels and working conditions. Obviously, rich in buds picking standards are on the positive side of scale, lower leaf pickings on the negative one, spring season is perceived as positive, late summer rather as negative, manual harvest will usually be preferred over machine harvest, and fair trade is perceived a lot more positive than the exploitation of workers. Then the processing level: manual processing vs. machine processing, applied skill level, roasted or steamed, whole leaf processing vs. CTC, artisan processing vs. mass processing, once again working conditions… this list can be extended for each level up the value chain via wholesalers and other intermediates (such as tea consultants and brokers), transits and warehousing up to the final retailing level.
Again, establishing a complete list of such properties in practice would most probably already hit the limits of feasibility, and factually recording all such information on each level and passing it on to the next one virtually impossible. However, even the mere attempt, every bit working towards doing one’s best to provide as much information about a tea as possible will take that tea’s value for the tea drinker way beyond that of a mere taste experience, while actually not adding any financial cost to that tea! There is knowledge of such properties existing on each level of the value-chain, only in practice this knowledge and/or information gets lost from one level to the next, because it is simply not passed on, mainly due to the common idea that the end customer won’t care. Looking at real world examples, whether in brick-and-mortar or online tea shops, detailed information about a tea is the exception much rather than the rule, with an enormous potential for improvement.
At SiamTeas and Siam Tea Shop, we spare no effort trying to gather as much information about our teas as we can possibly get hold of, and this approach is reflected both here in Siam Tea Blog and on the individual product pages of Siam Tea Shop. For our Thai Teas, I believe that – being based on site most of the time and working directly with basically one selected producer partner in Doi Mae Salong – we are getting quite close to that self-imposed ideal of keeping each tea and its pertaining information as traceable as possible, recording all relevant information and passing it on right to the tea drinker through our websites. When starting to develop our line of Chinese teas, ‘Great Teas of China’, however, we soon hit the limits of that approach, as often enough we will have to source teas from wholesalers, who either don’t care about the desired information or are reluctant to share it, whether due to fears revealing too much information about their own sources or simply because of shying the effort of recording it and passing it on. So, we have soon started selecting Chinese suppliers and wholesalers according to their ability to provide information about each of their teas other than simply a price number, a region of origin and a more or less subjective grading (“premium”, “imperial”, “nonpareil”, etc…).
Concluding these thoughts on a holistic or ‘Qi’ approach to the value of tea, I would like to put the same in a broader context and apply this approach to product consumption in general. My thesis, based on experience, observation and logical deduction is “Value replaces Mass, Mass replaces Value”. The ruling economic theory makes quantity growth (“mass”, “numbers”) imperative for the functioning of the economy and the well-being of individuals within the economic society. This might have worked – more or less – for the past 50-150 years, but now, very obviously, it doesn’t work anymore. Actually, the past 50-150 years of pursuing that quantitative growth approach, while representing only a very short period in human history, have managed to bring our natural environment and our social and political systems to the brink of collapse, and in some cases already beyond this point. While the world climate is changing for good, but not for the better, poles are melting, coastal areas flooding, deserts expanding, the frequency of natural disasters constantly increasing, we are still adding to the world population, consuming more products, producing more waste, irreplenishably exploiting our habitat earth’s natural resources and irreparably destroying its natural environmental balance on a daily basis. Wars are being started and fought not over conflicts of interest anymore, but increasingly only to drive the demand for weapons and thereby the production of such, simply to produce growth in that industry. Cynical enough, isn’t it? Significant percentages of humans on earth do not have enough to eat, no clean drinking water and no access to even the most basic means of living, such as accommodation, medical care, etc. And even in the rich parts of the world, where consumption levels are hitting new peaks with every measurement taken, we have reached a point, where hardly anybody would still consider this a place worth living in a very near future, as close as being applicable even for their own, already born children. In other words, we have reached a point where this (quantitative) growth imperative is about to kill both the planet and its inhabitants.
Suggesting a holistic or ‘Qi’ approach to value, may it be that of tea or that of any other product, effectively means promoting a qualitative growth approach, while ignoring (or even expressively rejecting) the call for increasing mass. Judging products by their true value rather than by numbers or superficial indicators on the consumer side would send a feedback through the whole value chain, effecting higher awareness to detail on all stages and levels of production and eventually lead to lesser amounts (especially of low quality products and waste) producing more value. In my opinion, such approach would be an essential part of a possible way out of the crisis.