Abstract: Reading Tea Leaves: the International Tea Committee and the Global "Greening" of Emerging Markets, 1933-1977

Carolyn N. Biltoft


This paper is not about tea per se, but rather uses the tea industry to track the interdependence of three "shifts" that occurred between 1930 and roughly 1975. The first shift, and the lens through which I will view the implications of the other two, involves the transition of an organization called the International Tea Committee (ITC) from a government-supported regulatory and marketing body to an international corporation whose profits came to depend on providing strategic information for the tea industry at large. The fate of that organization and its involvement with British interests in the global tea economy offer further insights into the nature of the transition in British policy away from one of imperial preference and tolerance for cartels to that of "free trade." The third and final shift, as seen through the evolution of the other two, is the process by which the British colonies of India and Ceylon (or Sri Lanka) gained independence and thus attempted to seize the profits of their tea sectors for the purposes of national development. In holding these story lines together, this paper explores the ways in which the complicated decision-making processes that occurred in the tea industry all along the global commodity chain offer important correctives to long-held assumptions. It seeks thus to question the clear historical opposition of regulation and laissez-faire policies, to dislodge the conflation of the terms globalization and liberalization, and finally to reconsider the apparent failure of post-colonial societies to gain meaningful economic autonomy.