Teagate shows the weird collision of brands and #BlackLivesMatter

Bettys & Taylors of Harrogate Ltd / WIRED

At about 11.30pm on Sunday night, right-wing influencer Laura Towler took a break from sharing hateful comments on Twitter (wild night in) to praise Yorkshire Tea for remaining silent on Black Lives Matter, and the anti-racism protests that have been sweeping the world since the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis.
Two days later – presumably after some in-depth Zoom meetings about company values and the intersection between structural inequality and hot drinks – the brand shot back with a response that catapulted it into the headlines. “Please don’t buy our tea again,” it wrote. “We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism. #BlackLives Matter”. It was, on paper, a classic Twitter slapdown. Tea 1, Racists 0.


Other brands were quickly dragged into the debate. PG Tips took several other haters – or “anti-racism critics” as the BBC would have it – to task as they desperately tried to find a new platform on which to build their hot drinks. “If you are boycotting teas that stand against racism, you’re going to have to find two new brands now #blacklivesmatter #solidaritea,” it wrote. Even specialist brand teapigs got involved, barring those who spew hate from experiencing the nutty, caramel taste of its Rooibos Créme Caramel. Tea 2, Racists 0.

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Please don’t buy our tea again.We’re taking some time to educate ourselves and plan proper action before we post. We stand against racism.#BlackLivesMatter
— Yorkshire Tea (@YorkshireTea) June 8, 2020

For a while, it seemed like this could be a decisive blow in the centuries-long battle for equality – the combined might of brands and organised protests would soon have the racists backed into a corner, forced to fill their Golden Jubilee commemorative mugs with plain hot water. Maybe the joint power of tea and dumping stuff in the harbour could strike another decisive blow against oppression. (Although come to think of it, that whole affair was awfully violent – did they try signing a petition first?)
Of course, it doesn’t quite work like that. There are layers of irony in tea – the most colonial beverage, with the possible exception of Um Bongo – becoming the latest seemingly innocuous thing to get dragged into the culture wars. Tea is, like all things quintessentially British, actually built on our nation’s proud years of ransacking the globe for resources and labour. The first Indian tea estates, established in Assam in the 1830s, were staffed with indentured labourers whose living conditions differed little from those endured under slavery (which was outlawed in the British Empire in 1833, sparking huge compensation payments to slave owners, the borrowing for which was only fully paid off in 2015).


Even today, the tea industry is built on those slightly dodgy foundations. In 2015, a BBC investigation found that on tea estates in India serving British tea brands including Tetleys, Twinings, and, yes, kings of social media PG Tips, the situation had barely changed. “Living and working conditions are so bad, and wages so low, that tea workers and their families are left malnourished and vulnerable to fatal illnesses,” the authors write. “There was also a disregard for health and safety, with workers spraying chemicals without protection, and on some estates, child labour being used.”
In 2019, Britain’s biggest tea brands began publishing details of their suppliers in efforts to increase transparency, but Oxfam research from the same year found that more than 50 per cent of families on the plantations were living below the poverty line, and that they received just four per cent of the price paid for tea in UK supermarkets.
Brands aren’t people. They don’t have values. Yes, it’s good that Yorkshire Tea, PG Tips and the hundreds of companies that posted black squares on their Instagram pages last week are standing in support of Black Lives Matter, but don’t confuse that with real change (and look at a photo of their board).
There’s a reason brands haven’t taken a stand before now – there’s probably a spreadsheet somewhere that weighs up the economic benefits and costs associated with supporting equal rights or not. The strength of the current movement has changed that equation for a lot of organisations – look at the NFL, which a few years ago condemned Colin Kaepernick for taking a knee during the national anthem, and is now a vocal supporter of Black Lives Matter.


Teagate, as it has obviously become known, doesn’t mean anything in itself, but it is a promising sign that the majority of the public – not just the people on the streets, but everyone – is clamouring for real change. But it’s also a stark reminder that not everyone agrees – and that it’s easy for decades of progress to be rolled back in years. Scrolling up through Towler’s Twitter feed reveals that she’s revelling in the attention that’s been bestowed on her as a result of Yorkshire Tea’s sass.
In one post, she claims that the resulting media coverage has led to thousands of sign-ups for a right-wing, nationalist organisation that she supports (“Manifesto: Coming Soon”) which I won’t name here. “We’ve had record-breaking clicks and registrations, taking us into the tens of thousands, she writes. “Thank you, Guardian, Sky, Daily Mail, Metro, Mirror, Owen Jones, etc.” Tea 2, Racists 1 – but there’s still a long way to go.
Amit Katwala is WIRED’s culture editor. He tweets from @amitkatwala
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