Building the Third Leg of the Stool | Equal Exchange
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Building the Third Leg of the Stool

Rink Dickinson
June 5, 2017

In a future blog post, I want to get back to the question of what types of reforms, or strategies for reform on the macro level, are most likely to have success if we are going to create a more just food system. There is a direct link between the questions we have been exploring on this blog and what we are actively building with the Action Forum.

Over the last year we have had the chance to organize and meet some of our strongest supporters at Action Forum events. In person, from the West Coast to the East Coast, and in virtual forums, we have tried to articulate what we know needs to be built and why we need your participation to succeed. It has been interesting and a challenge. A bunch of you have jumped in with us, and we thank you, while others have expressed confusion around what exactly the Action Forum is and does.

I think this moment is not unlike the starting of Equal Exchange. What we are building with the Action Forum has not really been done before. It seems odd, or not needed, or not understandable. Our sense is if that we asked folks for one or two simple, concrete actions it would have been easier. Instead, we are asking for citizen-consumers to really join us in discussing the Equal Exchange model, understanding how it differs from sustainable business models, and investing energy in working with us and our farmer partners collaboratively.

One way to imagine this is that we are kind of morphing a high participation consumer co-op model onto our existing national brand. We are inviting folks all the way into what we do because we want to do that, and because we believe our model cannot succeed at the next level without that involvement.

Because co-ops are not profit-maximizing entities, but rather community-owned organizations, they create space for involvement, even deep involvement in their organizations. This difference can become their greatest advantage. Likewise, Equal Exchange is not here to simply market to consumers who want greater democracy and fairness with coffee, tea and cocoa farmers. We are not just a profit-maximizing entity; we want to foster deep involvement with our base of citizen-consumers.

It is fair to say Equal Exchange has always had this need for citizen-consumer participation, and perhaps could have structured ourselves this way from the onset. At times we have had this type of engagement, particularly through Central American solidarity in the early stages, and co-ops and churches in the ‘90s to the mid-2000s. It is also true that we remained focused on increasing sales of our brand because we knew without reasonable scale we could not succeed either for farmers or consumers. So today we have the scale, but need much more participation and engagement on the consumer side.

From the sessions we have already had with Action Forum members and potential members, and from the work we are doing on our upcoming People’s Food System Summit, we can say that the flavor of the Action Forum is going to be about community, discussion, debate, respect, and learning together. Again, the closest analogy in the current food world might be an active, engaged food co-op or perhaps some sort of community-supported farm. The difference here is that the farmers are thousands of miles away, number in the thousands, and are highly dependent on all of us getting this right for their success and survival.


One way we have described this model is that we are an alternative supply chain and non-capitalist organization that connects small farmers internationally to hundreds of thousands of supporting consumers across the U.S. To succeed we need these three legs of the stool to work.

The first leg is the real commitment to small farmers in the Global South. We believe we live this commitment fully, and only a few organizations on the globe do this as well as we do. This in no way means that everything is gorgeous in our supply chains or that there are not immense issues and challenges and contradictions. It just means we believe we engage in those dilemmas and contradictions at an extremely high level. If you want to support peasant farmers economically and politically, Equal Exchange is one of the best places in the world to do that.

The second leg is our experiment in worker-ownership and democracy. We don’t just advocate more fairness (or less exploitation) with small farmers from Guatemala or the Dominican Republic. We are walking the walk of organizing ourselves as a mission-driven organization with democracy for our workers. Workers are owners. As owners they govern the organization and own our mission, including supporting small farmers. Although many in the market followed us down the fair trade path, almost no one follows us down the workplace democracy path. And again we face immense contradictions and challenges in this work, but our democracy is real and powerful.

The third leg that we came to understand was actually missing was that of the citizen-consumer. Although we have hundreds of thousands of consumers, and thousands of supportive activists, we now understand we need to bring this group into our model in a real and authentic way to protect what we have built with farmers and with workers. We cannot continue to do this work at our scale without that involvement, and the Action Forum is our attempt to organize this base.

We are constantly competing with lower and lower competition that has co-opted our fair trade language and messaging, but is not even close to walking the walk. So our higher bar model is under economic pressure because low price often wins, and under marketing pressure because consumers are drowning under socially responsible messaging in every direction.

At the highest level our options are to become more like these scores of competitors and lower our support to farmers and try to message as a smaller entity now competing with fair-washed multinationals. Or to build something different, unique, and real.

We thank you for taking this journey with us.

Join us for the opening remarks of our People’s Food System Summit on Friday, June 9. We’ll be live streaming from our Facebook page starting around 9 a.m. ET.