Equal Exchange

A taste of what will be in the next BriarPatch Vine Newsletter:

Cooperative and Fair Trade are integrally mixed in the philosophy of Equal Exchange.

A worker-owned co-op, Equal Exchange is on the forefront of fighting to keep Fair Trade Certification dedicated to the living-wage of small farmers, not the boon of plantations. The company feels that Fair Trade USA has diluted the original intent of the certification to extend to large scale plantations.

“In the developing world, co-op production is focused on the 99 percent. Plantations are the one percent,” said Rodney North, worker-owner, former board director, and The Answer Man at Equal Exchange.

“Fair Trade and farmer co-ops are an opportunity to shift the economic power back to the community,” he said.

While their current battle is to keep Fair Trade for small farmers, it has always been a founding principle. Equal Exchange helped introduce Fair Trade coffees to grocery stores in the United States and was the first U.S. company to use Fair Trade Certified sugar as an ingredient as well as to offer it as a stand-alone product.

They also have a direct relationship with the farmer co-ops from whom they buy their coffee, tea, cocoa, chocolate, olive oil, California almonds, and bananas. In fact, everyone that is employed by Equal Exchange gets to visit a farmer co-op.

“It’s very powerful,” said Kevin Hollender, retail representative from Equal Exchange.

“It brings what we’re doing home.”

Kevin also said that the direct relationship helps when times are tough, when things need to be addressed, like the threat from Fair Trade USA. Then, not only can the worker co-op organize, so too can the farmer co-ops.

The value of fairness to farmers and dedication to that practice, as well as building a closer connection with them, was the motivating vision of Equal Exchange’s founders.

Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Michael Rozyne met while working in management at a food co-op in New England. They wanted to transform the relationship between food producers and the public, change the food world.

Twenty years later, Equal Exchange is the world’s largest worker-owned coffee roaster, a $50 million enterprise. They employ 120 full-time people, 103 of whom are members. Employees must work one year before they become eligible to join. They’ve won WorldBlu’s World’s Most Democratic Workplace a few times and won “Best Support of the Fair Trade Movement” this year.

“From an unlikely beginning, we’ve now grown into a sizable organization,” said Rodney.

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