The Path Forward

Equal Exchange
February 7, 2017
Categories: 
By Rob Everts & Rink Dickinson, Presidents 
 

Over the course of our first 30 years, Equal Exchange has set out to do essentially three things:

  • Build supply chains that work for small-scale farmers and their democratic organizations. The manifestation of this work in the U.S. market is high quality products at prices that can compete with the corporate-controlled food system. But to arrive at that point, countless hours and dollars have been expended, and many failures have been experienced along the way. In the specialty coffee industry, we have succeeded beyond all reasonable expectations. In all the other commodities we engage in, we have not come close. 
  • Create a participatory and democratic workplace. Here, too, we have invested significant time in our first three decades to build an organization whose ownership, governance and capital structure are far outside the traditional business model in the United States. To grow and nurture a worker-controlled, democratic cooperative requires investment at some level every single day. And here, too, we have probably failed more often than we have succeeded. But where we stand today, we do in fact have a living, breathing worker cooperative where each worker-owner has an equal share of the business, votes for (and can run for) the board of directors, shares equally in surplus profits generated, and has a voice in a number of other high-level decision areas of the organization. 
  • Educate and engage our customers and the general public about both of these areas above. From Day One, it has been a key driver of our mission to educate, as honestly and authentically as possible, the living and market conditions experienced by our farmer partners around the world. Ninety nine percent of the time this must be secondhand observation and communication. Occasionally we bring farmers to the U.S., or take customers to farms to make that experience first hand. We are proud of this aspect of our work, but for at least two reasons we must do much better. 

First, the very language we use to describe the farmer reality and Equal Exchange’s role in attempting to improve things has been adopted by mainstream brands in the market, including the Fair Trade market. It has become almost impossible to distinguish what we do—and the dramatic change we seek to make in the world—from the practices of any number of other natural foods companies. 

Second, in our drive to educate consumers we have focused almost exclusively on the small farmer side in the “Global South.” We have shared successes, occasional failures, crop and weather challenges, price and market issues and the like. What we have rarely discussed is the market structure in which we work here in the United States. We praise (and, in fact, demand) that farmers form democratic cooperatives but give a pass to the practices and structures of food industry business here in the “Global North.”
Beginning this month and for the foreseeable future, we are committing to engage our base in a deeper and more consistent way. 

Every week on this blog, we will share in detail an issue of great importance to our organization that we hope will be of interest to you as well. Topics will range from supply chain challenges of farmers to challenges of cooperative governance to who controls what in the American food system. From time to time we will write about our role or position on such issues as climate change or immigration, or other public policy issues that are compelling and relevant. In this process we hope to deepen our connection with the tens of thousands of you who we count on and value so much as we enter our next decade. We look forward to creating a dialogue here, and encourage you to comment and engage with us on these topics.

Happy reading.