For the last week of December, we’re re-posting some of our favorite posts from 2011. Originally cross-posted at Scientopia.
I came across this fascinating poster advertising tea at The Coffee Bean in Irvine, CA. The ad features tea leaves balled up into small tea “pearls” and spilled into a person’s palm (text and analysis below):
Three minutes to fragrant perfection.
It takes a full day to hand-roll 17 ounces of our Jasmine Dragon Pearl Green Tea. But in just three minutes you can watch these aromatic pearls unfurl gracefully into one of the world’s most soothing and delicious teas.
This ad suggests that others’ toil should enhance one’s experience of pleasure. The fact that it takes a significant amount of human labor to “hand-roll” tea leaves into balls — an action that is in no way asserted to change the taste of the tea — is supposed to make the tea more appealing and not less. We are supposed to enjoy not just the visual, but the fact that others worked hard to produce it for us. A whole day of their labor for just three minutes of curly goodness.
This is a rather stunning value pervading U.S. culture. Luxury may be defined not only as pleasure, or as the consumption of the scarce, but as the “unfurling” of others’ hard work. What could be more luxurious than the casual-and-fleeting enjoyment of the hard-and-long labor of others?Lisa Wade, PhD is an Associate Professor at Tulane University. She is the author of American Hookup, a book about college sexual culture; a textbook about gender; and a forthcoming introductory text: Terrible Magnificent Sociology. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.
Niki — January 5, 2011
You know, I think this can be read two ways.
The first is the way you read it, which is entirely valid. But the second is the emphasis on human labour over machine-produced goods; it brings to mind the images associated with purchasing a "hand-sewn" shirt or something like that. It's not to reiterate to the consumer that the product was produced under laborious conditions, but rather that it has the heart and soul of a time long past, when things were produced carefully and meaningfully one at a time instead of on the assembly line of big smog-producing factories. That could very well be the way many people will read this advertisement; they won't think "wow, this company worked so hard for me!" but rather "wow, this company has an old soul!"
Ben — January 5, 2011
I would argue that this is a good thing. One of the best way to combat terrible working conditions is to make consumers aware of them. The protests over the production of Nike shoes worked because consumers didn't want the guilt associated with helping perpetuate poor working conditions and child labor. Free trade and fair trade products have their problems, but they do explicitly draw attention to the labor conditions that they were made in. Heck, when I'm thinking of buying some stupid, cheep product, I do end up thinking "Man, those Chinese or Bangladeshi factory workers must think that I'm a total tool for actually paying money of this"
That being said, as long as the labor and pay are fair and equitable, I don't see any problem in enjoying a product because you know that human labor went into it. That's why esty.com and other craft stores and DIY are so popular today: people like knowing that a human being took pride in the product that they made. A Ferrari is a prized car not just because of its technical specifications, but because that every bolt, screw and cylinder is made by hand by someone who (hopefully) takes pride in what they do and what they produce.
Laughingrat — January 5, 2011
The highest quality tea production has been done by hand for centuries, because the delicate nature of the work and the need for constant attention to the leaves during processing requires human hands and human oversight. In other words, the fact that a particular tea is hand-processed is, in fact, shorthand for saying that it is high quality.
Terrie — January 5, 2011
What's interesting is how they give the amounts. 17 ounces of dried tea? Is a LOT. But the way the ad is phrased implies that you've got a full days work in a single cup.
TheBear — January 5, 2011
Of course having something done for us over and above what's necessary enhances its value, that's normal. This isn't restricted to tea, nor to the USA (as a non-American I can say that with personal conviction); when we have something done for us rather than doing it ourselves, we attach additional value if that something has been done well and/or beyond the basic expectations of that job. Fancy bits of furniture will be valued more highly than plain furniture, even if they're made from identical materials, because the fancy things have had more effort put into them. It's value-added effort and being attracted to things of value is perfectly normal human behaviour.
This tea isn't normal however; it's "special" tea for being rolled up into balls instead of remaining unrolled. Furthermore, it's not mass-produced by some uncaring automated process, it's been hand-rolled by someone who has taken the personal effort to do so. And they did it for you, whom they don't even know, so you can get some entertainment from watching your tea leaves do something amusing as they brew up instead of languishing forlornly in boiling water like they normally do.
By underlining the human effort that goes into its creation, the ad is adding intrinsic value to the product, over and above its actual qualities. It's the "specialness" of the tea that distinguishes it from other jasmine teas on the market, as opposed to flavour, aroma or convenience, since the line "one of the world’s most soothing and delicious teas" can be considered a blanket statement of jasmine teas in general and not a specific endorsement of the brand.
So when you enjoy your next pot of hand rolled dragon pearl jasmine tea, you can think about how nice it was for that person you'll never know to roll those leaves for you when all you wanted was a nice cup of liquid comfort and how much you're going to enjoy the extra bit of effort they put into giving it to you. Delicious.
bbonnn — January 5, 2011
If I had seen this ad in a shop, it would have made me not want to buy the tea, because I would feel unable to appreciate the hard work that went into hand-rolling it. It's just tea, a tasty way to quench thirst. I do prefer high-quality tea, and I'm willing to pay for it, but honestly I had no idea the amount of labor that goes into making tea pearls. Knowing this, I would just prefer to "make do" with a less labor-intensive tea. It wouldn't make me feel special to drink it; I'd feel like their efforts would be wasted on me, unless it was being consumed on a VERY special occasion and every drop appreciated to the max; I would feel almost obligated to savor it. Did anybody else have that reaction to the ad?
BTW, tins of tea are 4oz. So at $7.25 minimum wage and an 8-hour workday, one tin of tea would be $13.64 in labor plus materials, transportation, margin, etc. The Coffee Bean website prices it at $20.20 (http://coffeebean.com/Jasmine-Dragon-Phoenix-Pearl-P160C63.aspx). Note the other, non-pearl teas aren't nearly that expensive, so maybe they actually are paying workers what it's worth. Hard to tell.
T — January 5, 2011
For everyone above (AND Lisa)... STOP conflating manual human labor with bad working conditions. People working, doing manual labor does not automatically mean a sweatshop/forced labor concentration camp with people dropping dead and children bleeding!!
Manual labor is honest (not inappropriate) work. It comes in all varieties. From low-skill to high-skill. And guess what, jobs like picking lettuce in California... actually requires quite a bit of skill to do it well/quickly. Wait? Could that be a source of pride in your work?!
Are there many many situations where working conditions are terrible, unfair, violations of human rights. IS THIS THE CASE WITH THIS TEA COMPANY!? I don't know... is there a statement about working conditions in this ad? Or are we just jumping to conclusions that manual labor = post-apocalyptic hellscape?
Andrew — January 5, 2011
This is a tricky one. I can completely understand Lisa's squeamishness about the ad's seeming to extract value from what appears to be the exploitation of labor.
However, it also opens up the bigger question of: how should we assess the value of luxuries?
While we regard hand-rolling tea as a dreadfully tedious task, it can also be seen as a very particular and skilled local craft in China's Fujian province. If Western consumers can be persuaded of the tea's value (it costs much more than Lipton's but isn't among the most expensive teas), the craft can be sustained by the export market. But it's only worth as much as people are willing to pay for it, and if that figure declines enough, the craft is no longer sustainable as an enterprise and the workers' skill is subsequently devalued.
Now, a less provocative ad would simply aim to persuade us that the Pearl tea tastes twice as good as tea half its price. But Jasmine tea is relatively esoteric in the West, so many potential consumers would likely need some explanation of why the product is a luxury at all. For better or worse, here we have one. Whether we construe it to increase our sense of the relationship between producers and consumers or merely to enhance our sense of entitlement in the globalized economy is really quite personal.
Some perspective, though - 17 oz of the tea ("a full day's work") retails in the US for upwards of $60. The average daily wage in China is 112 yuan ($17.00). It seems plausible that there isn't exploitation involved.
laxsoppa — January 5, 2011
Interesting thought - should I avoid attaching the handmade label to my products, as a professional jeweller? Would it make my customers feel uneasy to learn that I have personally fabricated the piece, using a bare minimum of factory-produced findings in my work, and actually put in some of my personal energy to create the stuff I sell?
As it happens, I do give a shit about the people who buy my stuff even though I may never get to meet all of them personally, much less become friends or otherwise get involved with them on a personal level. But still they pay my salary, my rent, my car, my insurance, my afternoon smoke and the occasional pizza. I daresay I care a whole lot more about my customers than the average bank or shop clerk.
And yes, a lot of the work I do to deliver to customers IS boring and repetitive. Drawing wire and rolling jump rings, for instance, isn't the most exciting task in the world. The reality is that a lot of work, especially in the actual production of goods, done ANYWHERE in the world IS boring and repetitive by definition.
In itself I see absolutely no problem in favouring labour-intensive products that are actually made by humans, but as other commenters have already pointed out, there is a difference if it's only possible because labour is so much cheaper (and the work conditions poorer) in the country of origin that it is in the country of consumption. If there is the element of taking advantage of others' disadvantaged position in the global economy, as opposed to a fairer give-and-take, then I'm worried that my favourite hand-rolled ginger-oil-spiced white tea pearls will have to go.
laxsoppa — January 5, 2011
And as an addendum to the "tastes better" argument - it really does. And it doesn't really take that much dedication to the different tea qualities to notice that. For example, if you have ever actually cooked anything, meaning that you get the raw ingredients and start by cutting, mincing etc. them yourself, you will have noticed that unless you do something wrong, like put in too much or too little salt/spices, overcook the meat or fry the vegetables until they get singed, it really does taste better. Simple things like whether the garlic is crushed or cut can make the most profound difference.
Human effort counts. Skills count. It's sad that so many people live so far away from the places where their food is grown and clothes are made, and work highly specialised, highly removed-from-the-basics jobs, that they never learn to fully appreciate those things. It creates an atmosphere where production of goods is perceived as inherently inferior to the more abstract professions, which really doesn't help to create better work conditions for third-world factory or farm workers.
Kunoichi — January 5, 2011
I find it fascinating the so many commentors seem to be assuming that this labour intensive process involves taking advantage of the labourers - that we, by drinking this tea, are somehow exploiting or allowing to be exploited, these people. Why?
I greatly value hand made products over machine made, but I especially appreciate hand made items from third world and developing nations. Here's an example of why.
A friend knit a scarf for me using a yarn made of recycled sari silk. It's ridiculously expensive yarn. This yarn is made by women in India who first undo the weaving of old saris, then twist the strands of silk into yarn. They do this all by hand, while sitting in the dirt. In fact, I've pulled bits of leaves and twigs out of the yarn that got caught in the strands. The yarn is then shipped to other countries and sold in specialty shops.
Now, I could pay through the nose for the yarn because of the beautiful jewel tone colours, or the wonderfully soft silk. I could also pay somewhat less for beautiful machined silk yarn (including recycled yarn) that doesn't have bits of leaves stuck in it. Why would I choose to pay more for the sari silk hand twisted by women sitting in the dirt? Because this work is the only work many of these women can get. It's their only source of income. They live in a culture that devalues women, especially widows, in general, and has a caste system. While the amount of money they earn is a pittance compared to what we in First World nations pay, the value of that money and what it can buy is very different. It's also a stepping stone to escape poverty, starvation and death. There's also the element of personal pride and dignity in one's skill to produce a beautiful and valuable product.
I don't know much about tea rollers in whatever country this particular brand of tea comes from, but it's entirely possible these labourers are in similar circumstances as the sari recycling women. Hand rolling leaves may seem like monotonous and unrewarding work to us. It may even seem to be exploitative to us. In truth, we don't actually know. Until we have actual data on hand, we're all just making assumptions based on our preconcieved notions. Personally, I'd rather buy a tea where I know my money goes to pay individuals doing skilled work (and yes, tea leaf rolling is skilled work) rather than to some mass produced product that doesn't taste as good, anyhow.
whatever — January 5, 2011
this thread made me think; and probably what is also playing there is the devaluation of housework ws more "manly" work, creating objects instead of meals etc... I'm not saying that housework is dehumanizing; I'm only attacking those jobs which are neither part of social relatonships, as making simple things for someone we care about, neither complicated enoug that someone can have at least some kind of abstract fun doing it. (and, just for organizing things accureately, someone surely can do complicated things in social relationships, too).
Syd — January 5, 2011
I think a lot of people in the comments are making assumptions about the tea based on information that isn't there, namely that these MUST be overworked, oppressed, poorly-treated 3rd-world citizens making next to no money for a thankless task they perform in a sweatshop. Some of those things may be true. ALL of them may be true. NONE of them may be true. The fact that everyone jumps to 'child-laborers in Taiwanese sweatshops' when informed about Americans consuming a luxury item that took some amount of labor to make is worth examining in its own right.
Lucas — January 5, 2011
It's worth pointing out that the ad deliberately overemphasizes the amount of labor involved in your cup of tea. It says it takes all day to roll 17 ounces of tea. That's really quite a lot of tea: you might buy an ounce of tea for $5-$30, and that would make maybe 10-20 cups of tea. So your cup of tea is maybe 3 minutes of a person's time (assuming 10 cups/oz, 10 hour working day with no breaks).
Basiorana — January 5, 2011
My job is repetitive and boring. I slice deli meats and make sandwiches. This is not my career choice (biology); it's a job. I am, however, exceeding good at accuracy and quality with speed-- this is earning me some small rewards at work, but is also a source of pride for me. MY labor is menial, repetitive, and requires only that I be fast, accurate, have a good memory and have learned the skills required to safely operate dangerous machinery.
These workers may also have a repetitive and boring job with only small rewards. However, their skill is clear (it takes great skill to roll tea without damaging the leaves), required a lot of work to acquire, and is something that many cultures, ours included, will value. No one especially values my ability to make sandwiches fast and accurately except my boss. Yet American consumers, and people all around the world, value the ability to produce high-quality tea that unfurls prettily and has excellent flavor. So if I can feel pride for a job no one values but I know I do exceptionally well, why would they NOT feel pride for work that is generally valued and requires significant skill?
This is not masochism. It's not something I'm trying to do. I can't help feeling proud when I can slice out 2 turkey breasts in less than 30 minutes when it takes my coworkers, who have been there longer than me, twice as long. This despite knowing I'm being exploited to some degree as my salary is ridiculously low for the cost of living here and I am expected to exert a lot of physical energy to earn it.
Give these workers credit. Maybe they are exploited and poor, but they know they're doing good work and getting paid for it, and they know that not everyone could do what they do well. That does NOT mean they couldn't possibly feel pride.
ari — January 5, 2011
Rolling the tea leaf does affect the flavor.
Brian — January 5, 2011
This reminds me of David Cross' bit about the gold-covered dessert: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=tVMcAO5TYzk
It starts around 3:37 but the whole thing is pretty funny/relevant.
Trinker — January 5, 2011
I am normally a big fan of Sociological Images, but I think this entry is off the usual mark.
Why is there outrage here? Tea leaves are traditionally rolled for certain varieties of Chinese tea, in several different styles. Rolling keeps tea leaves from becoming damaged. High quality teas *especially* are rolled, in the Chinese styles.
Is the suggestion here that one should not value hand-labor, and instead seek out machine labor?
Or is the problem a misconception about the amount of tea one puts into a serving? 17 ounces of tea - over a *pound*, should last a very long time for anyone but the most diehard tea drinker. One buys premium tea in one ounce (or fractions of an ounce!) measurements. A quick search suggests 3 grams per cup - 1/10 of an ounce - and a cup-portion of premium tea should brew at least three changes of water.
One day of labor = 17 ounces,
At 1/10 ounce per cup = 170 portions
170 x 3 infusions = 510 cups of tea
How is this a problem?
Altagracia — January 5, 2011
Syd is right about the assumptions, but I do think that the issues Lisa raises are worthy of discussion and research, and not just about this product/company.
Encouraged by Syd's post, I took a look at the company's website and found a different presentation:
Noanodyne — January 6, 2011
Lost in the comments ruckus over manual labor is the fact that these little tea balls are being rolled for a multinational corporation with 750 stores in 22 countries with over 1,000,000 customers weekly.
What's really going on with this is that the company is trying to appear to be upscale, with artisanal products, instead of the chain with mediocre offerings that it is. The stores have been around for decades and the company is simply trying to upgrade it's image.
It's doing this by conflating the idea of "hand-made" with the idea of "artisan" (those people who typically do their work slowly and carefully), which in turn is conflated with quality. Being a multinational corporation that wants to sell scads of tea to the masses, we can be sure that what they have actually done is cut down on production costs by either 1) finding a way to roll many, many tea balls really, really fast and/or 2) paying very little for that work and 3) using a very inferior quality of tea (as Lisa says - the ad makes no mention of this aspect). Anyone who has ever had their products can tell you that the last one is a definite - they ain't exactly tea snobs at the good 'ol Tea Leaf.
(Their coffee is reminiscent of old brine, used at some point to soak shoe leather - that marketing campaign might be a little harder to pull off.)
Altagracia — January 6, 2011
Pesticide-related illness among migrant farm workers in the United States.
Rose workers in Ecuador:
"As with many of the products Americans buy and consume, the story behind the production of the roses we buy is most often unknown by the average American consumer. When holidays, such as Valentine's Day, Mother's Day, and Secretary's Day, arrive, we frantically run to the nearest florist and buy our loved ones a bouquet of flowers as a symbol of affection, not ever stopping to think about where they came from or whether they were grown organically or not. What most don't realize is that an increasing amount of the roses and other cut flowers we buy have been imported from developing countries, where they were grown under unsafe conditions, both for the environment and for those who work in the greenhouses. American pesticide producers are exporting pesticides everyday that fail to meet regulation standards set by American agencies. For the rose industry in Ecuador, America's blindness as the consumer and lack of responsibility as a "leader" in the world, has been taking its toll.
According to the World Resource Institute, a study of 80 women working on flower plantations in Ecuador revealed heavy exposure to organophosphates and carbamates, two classes of pesticides well known for their toxicity. The women were expected to continue their tasks while pesticides were being applied. The majority of the women who participated in this study received little or no training or information on the proper pesticide use and the need for safety equipment. Some 40% of the workers had received no protective equipment, and the rest only occasionally received gloves, boots, and glasses. The few times when they were given equipment, it was inadequate or poorly maintained.
The effects of the pesticides are felt even further, extending to the livestock in the surrounding fields. Pesticides and fungicides are chemicals designed to kill life forms that have been proven to prevent agriculture products from reaching a certain level of perfection that the market requires. Environmental problems arise when run off from fumigation of flowers with these chemicals is not properly treated. Not only endangers the lives of the people who live in these hills by simple inhalation of the fumes and ingestion through their contaminated water sources, but also through their food sources. The entire eco-system of the region is affected by the use of these chemicals and the careless disposing of them. In the hills surrounding the greenhouses where flowers are grown, cattle belonging to the local peasants roam freely. These animals are a source of income as well as a source of food for many of the peasants and when the cattle are becoming ill from the poisonous toxins they are consuming, the same is likely to occur for the peasants who depend on these cattle for their food supply. In addition, the same water is used in the vegetable gardens of which the peasants depend on for food also. For a region that was once dominated by agriculture and cattle ranching, this is a very heavy burden.
yamiblue — January 6, 2011
the tea is truly great quality since the rolling makes it last longer. and some companies make sure that their workers get paid more. i don't know about the particular company that you mentioned but seven cups makes sure to pay the workers more. i don't mean to be off topic but 20 for an ounce is quite on the low side if the workers are being paid well. that variety tends to go for $25-30 for a bag of 50 grams. however when it's quality tea as is being discussed you can go and re-infuse a good 6-10 cups more before needing fresh tea leaves. i think i'll leave the url for them at the end of the post since they are very good tea and are quite educational for their website. though the reasoning i have for enjoying their tea is its relatively easy to visit their tea house in tucson and pick tea up.
Lila — December 26, 2011
All this talk of workers being exploited is beside the point. Let's imagine for a moment that the workers have great working conditions and excellent pay. It's still a kind of weird thing about humans that's being pointed out here! And it's not just in a particular culture; it's fairly universal. Knowing that someone put effort into something makes you like it more.
Someone pointed out that rolling the tea leaves does affect the taste/quality of the tea, but the ad does not actually tell us that. I bet a lot of the consumers of this product, and viewers of the ad, don't know that the rolling has this effect. All they know is that the ad drew attention to the work that people do, individually, with their hands. And that makes the tea more attractive to buy and drink. If there was a machine that did the work faster and better, people would still have to put in the effort to make it and maintain it, but that would be indirect effort, not direct, and it wouldn't have the sense of connection, of receiving the energy of someone else, that we get when we're told that something is done by hand and costs significant *personal* effort.
jcherfas — June 13, 2012
Interesting notion, given current thoughts swirling around about workers' rights, particularly along the entire food chain. At the high end of the market, you advertise how much labour, at the low, you keep the low value of that labour quiet.
The willingness to pay a fair amount for labour seems to be at the heart of the modern food movement.
Bill R — December 15, 2013
I believe the perceived value lies in the a traditional hand-made approach to producing the product and the exotic processes that must go into production vs. automated production line output. The neurotic may appreciate being "served" by so much human effort, but suggesting that as the norm impunes the motivations of a majority and I find no evidence for such condemnation.
That said, I'm calling bullshit on the tea maker. No one rolled that stuff for 17 hours in their hands; they're inventing a product differentiator to justify a higher price for a commodity.
Environmental Sociology and Sociological Images | John Girdwood — January 9, 2015
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