Carrboro, N.C. — If you’ve been shopping at local co-ops like Weaver Street Market lately, chances are you’ve seen products with a red and white "Fairly Traded” label in the tea, coffee, or chocolate aisle.
In the past few years, “Fair Trade” has become a popular concept. People like knowing where their food comes from, so source labeling is welcome to consumers. However, as some companies evolve, things like ingredients and sourcing values may eventually take a backseat to other company ideals. The opposite has been true for Equal Exchange, a company that is bringing its fairly traded products to local co-ops. Due to the popularity of Fair Trade, they have had to fight harder to educate and maintain authenticity.
Equal Exchange was grown out of the idea - What if food could be traded in a way that is honest and fair, a way that empowers both farmers and consumers? The company launched in 1986 with fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua and has since expanded into one of the world's largest providers of "Fair Trade" food and beverages in the country.
Equal Exchange representative Cali Reed was on-hand at Weaver Street Market recently, so we asked her to help break-down the company's mission and what makes its goods different from others.
O&A: How does Equal Exchange benefit small farms by dealing with grower cooperatives as opposed to dealing with more single producers (i.e., plantations, etc.)?
Equal Exchange: “When we partner with small farmer cooperatives, we’re creating access to the market for tens, hundreds, sometimes thousands of co-op members that might not have had the capacity to reach the same markets operating independently. Our farmer partners benefit from things like pre-harvest financing, pay at or above fair trade prices, and long term trade partnerships. Democratically organized groups of small farmers generally have a stronger sense of empowerment than their plantation counterparts because even though they’re economically marginalized, they maintain ownership over their land and businesses. Plantations are typically operating with one individual at the top who is dictating the business plan and maintaining control over profits, including the additional fair trade premiums if the plantation is certified.”
This was an eye-opener. Some plantations are fair-trade certified. Nevertheless, there is a difference between fair-trade plantations and small grower co-operatives.
O&A: What is important for buyers such as roasters, stores, or distributors to keep in mind regarding the difference in Fair Trade products?
Equal Exchange: Not all fair trade labels are created equal. Ask yourself; “What about fair trade is important to me?” As a consumer, don’t be afraid to ask the hard questions about sourcing practices. Marketing is a powerful tool that has unfortunately transformed fair trade into a buzz word or another box for companies to check off when developing or selling a product. It’s important to educate ourselves and continue to be better consumers – if the demand for more transparency in the supply chain is there, we can start to make real changes.
O&A: "Direct Trade" has been creeping in as a self-touted alternative to Fair Trade, however does it really contribute to the overall health of a small-producer community?
Equal Exchange: “It’s complicated; sometimes it does, but a lot of times it doesn’t. At the end of the day, it depends on the buyer and how far they’re willing to go to build a real relationship with the farmers. If they’re only in it for that one micro-crop of single origin super-high quality organic Colombian coffee, then the farmer can probably only expect the buyer to purchase this one crop and nothing else in the future, which isn’t sustainable for the small farmer’s business. Direct trade can weaken the sense of community for a co-op when a single farmer is isolated one particular season for their high quality ‘micro lot’. It’s fun to get excited about quality in the short term, but on a ‘macro’ level the collective bargaining of the co-op is at risk when you start piecing out the ‘best’ growers.
That’s not what fair trading is about. Fair trade is a movement; it’s not just a label. Environmental stewardship, respecting cultural identities, ensuring against child exploitation – these are just a few of the broader community efforts fair trade addresses. Directly trading with farmers is great because you’re allowing the farmer to have more of a say in the exchange, but if you’re not willing to take it a step further to invest in the health of the community surrounding the farmer, you’re creating a culture that’s only focusing on the qualitative piece rather than viewing the trade partnership in a more macro, holistic approach.”
In 1986 Equal Exchange partnered with PRODECOOP, a second-level co-operative organization that brings together 38 village-level co-operatives comprised of about 1,000 small farmers, 30 percent of whom are women. They purchase coffee from each of the village-level co-ops, process the coffee, and sell 100 percent of it on the Fair Trade market. The effect of this economic autonomy for villagers is far-reaching, especially for women and children in a country where women do not traditionally own the land.
One grower states: “One of the advantages of Fair Trade is that you can use the extra money for your children’s education. When you’re partners with PROODECOOP, you have access to different benefits.”
O&A: Consumers are thought of as shoppers themselves, but those making the decisions are often the ones who introduce Fair Trade products to local markets. When store buyers or cafe owners are seeking to build a supplier relationship with Equal Exchange, what are the things they should keep in mind regarding expectations, as well as the consequence of the relationship at grower level?
Equal Exchange: “The products we source are agricultural, (seasonal) and that there is never a 100 percent guarantee that the products we sign contracts for will make it to us when we want them to. Climate change has negatively affected a majority of our small farmer partners in one way or another (or will at some point) and that’s a reality we’ll have to face. In regards to expectations, being more understanding is necessary for most of us so when our favorite products are out of stock we can empathize with the farmers growing them, who are the ones facing the real challenges.”
One such issue has been la roya or coffee leaf rust, which has been a direct effect of climate change on some regions like Nicaragua in recent years. The area received heavy, early rains, which cut some crops in half. Dealing with this is expensive and time-consuming. Were it not for the ingenuity of many cooperatives, they may have had to shut down. Some had to diversify into honey production as a response, so as to ensure their livelihood. If we want great coffee and other products sustainably produced, we need to acknowledge the impact our local, everyday habits and industrial practices have on our planet globally.
O&A: What is important to you about working with Equal Exchange?
Equal Exchange: “Being a worker-owner at Equal Exchange is important to me because I am clearly able to see what my role is within the unique supply chains that we’ve built over the past 30 years. We’re organized as a worker-owned cooperative, which is empowering since we’re truly walking the walk. We expect equality and democratic organization for ourselves just as we expect of our small farmer partners. An everyday challenge and source of excitement for me is painting a clear enough picture for our customers and prospective customers about who we are and why we’re doing what we’re doing. We’re a small company making big waves and inspiring alternative trade. We’re not afraid to go against the grain and stand up for what we believe in, which isn’t something most can say about their jobs, so I can’t help but feel lucky!”