It was a fortuitous sharing of vision and willingness to take risks that drove Equal Exchange founders Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Michael Rozyne in 1986 to move forward with their vision of Fair Trade and a better world. The three were managers at a food cooperative in New England who dreamed of a large and inclusive economy that lifted up the prosperity of growers in the Third World — growers whose poorly paid labor had long kept the wealthy in comfort and the growers in poverty.
Meeting once a week for three years to discuss how best to change the way food is grown, bought, and sold around the world, they hatched a plan for a new organization to be called Equal Exchange that would be:
- A social change organization that would help farmers and their families gain more control over their economic futures.
- A group that would educate consumers about trade issues affecting farmers.
- A provider of high-quality foods that would nourish the body and the soul.
- A company that would be controlled by the people who did the actual work.
- A community of dedicated individuals who believed that honesty, respect, and mutual benefit are integral to any worthwhile endeavor.
They launched an alternative trade model that utilized direct trade, established long term contracts, and offered higher-than-market prices to small coffee farmers. In the traditional trade model, buyers go through a series of middlemen to purchase coffee beans from plantation farmers. Prices are determined by these middlemen.
They left their jobs. They invested their own money, and they turned to their families and friends for start-up funds and let them know there was a good chance they would never see that money again.
The idea of Fair Trade, as practiced by Equal Exchange, was to establish direct relationships between growers and buyers, betting that consumers would support the cooperatives by paying a little extra for higher quality coffee. The profits were shared equally.
Today, while they are a much larger organization with more than 100 worker-owners and a significant national and international scale, they are still breaking conventions when they buy from their trade partners in organic, gourmet coffee, tea, sugar, bananas, avocados, cocoa, and chocolate bars and olive oils produced by farmer cooperatives in Latin America, Africa, and Asia.
Encouraged by Equal Exchange’s Fair Trade success, other producers have succeeded on a similar scale. Fair Trade foods that were once limited to local markets and expensive groceries are now distributed in Walmart, Kroger and Publix, among many other retailers. For many years consumers perceived the fair trade movement as existing primarily for middle or upper-class consumers in large cities, but that image is changing.
This change has not come without obstacles from the beginning. In 1988, for example, the White House objected to Equal Exchange (or anyone else) dealing with the Nicaragua’s Daniel Ortega government. President Reagan’s Office of Foreign Assets Control attempted to place a trade embargo on Nicaraguan coffee, which effectively/blocked their primary distribution. This embargo could have ended their experiment in fairness right away, but the young company found a loop-hole: if the coffee was roasted in another country it became a product of that country, and therefore a legal commodity that could be traded between the U.S. and Nicaragua, via Mexico.
The founders were already in close contact with representatives from a village movement in Sri Lanka, and in 1987, Equal Exchange brought in its first high-quality black tea, bolstered by the knowledge that tea drinkers numbered a close second to coffee consumption on the planet.
In 1991 Equal Exchange became a part of the European Fair Trade network, aligning with groups that were far ahead of U.S. Fair Trade markets. This led to additional contacts in India, and Central and South America. By the end of 1994, what had once been the “pipe dream” of reaching $1 million in sales had become a reality. Equal Exchange was a worker-owned cooperative with 20 members—with departments, managers, and a growing number of outside investors.
In 2004 Equal Exchange could not ignore the excesses of the chocolate trade. Most of the world’s chocolate comes from West Africa, where child labor is a part of the process, tantamount to slavery. Children who had never tasted chocolate were sent up trees to retrieve the cacao used in our chocolate bars.
In 2001 a partnership between cocoa, sugar, and dairy cooperatives led to Fair Trade hot cocao mix; the success of cocao led, in 2004, to the introduction of three chocolate bars, which today number 11 choices on their website.
Equal Exchange products are available online, in stores, and in many churches and Saturday markets. Covenant Community United Methodist in Spokane WA for example, raises candy-sale profits to help village children attend school in a small church in El Paisnal, El Salvador. It appears that church attendance may spike a bit on those Sundays.
Help Support Authentic Fair Trade
To support authentic Fair Trade, purchase fairly-traded products from small farmers. Your shopping choices support or discourage actions by businesses. By supporting Equal Exchange, you help reclaim the food system – to make it better for farmers, consumers, and the planet. Equal Exchange suggests:
- Ask for Equal Exchange products at markets, food co-ops or cafés.
- Serve Equal Exchange coffee, tea or hot cocoa at your place of worship.
- Raise money for your organization by fund raising with Equal Exchange products.
Equal Exchange hopes consumers will join with them to deepen their understanding of these issues and take actions. They cannot transform the food system without the active, deep and committed participation of citizen-consumers. An authentic Fair Trade system, according to Equal Exchange, requires democratic organizing of producers in the South, worker democracy for businesses in the North, and active citizen involvement in the North.
The future is clear for Equal Exchange, stating, “Our vision includes breaking new ground by bringing Fair Trade home—by fostering direct relationships with family farmers here in the United States. Our collective achievements of the past 30 years prove that we can create change beyond our wildest dreams.”
Article by Ted Ketcham Since the early days of the GreenMoney Journal, writer and now retired teacher, Ted Ketcham, has worked with publisher Cliff Feigenbaum as copy-editor and sometimes writer, happy to help in the cause of social and environmental justice.
Equal Exchange products are a special calling for Ted, and he has written about them and other Fair Trade causes in past issues. He has visited Central America, and participated in scholarship drives in El Salvador. Ted serves on the Board of Shalom Ministries, an organization that feeds the homeless and hungry in Spokane, WA.