30 Years of Building a New Food System: An Interview with Equal Exchange

A little over 30 years ago, Equal Exchange started as a small company with a big mission: to change the food industry from the inside out. They understood that the farmers who put food on our plates were invisible to most consumers, and abused by the corporations who paid them meager amounts for their backbreaking work.

So, for three decades, Equal Exchange has worked to build a new food system. They became one of the pioneers of Fair Trade: “a way of doing business that ultimately aims to keep small farmers an active part of the world marketplace, and aims to empower consumers to make purchases that support their values.” In that time, Equal Exchange has established relationships with small farmer owned cooperatives all over the world, bringing ethically sourced products ranging from coffee to chocolate to bananas to avocados and more to our tables.

And Equal Exchange has gone above and beyond: not only do they source from small farmer cooperatives, Equal Exchange itself is structured as a worker-owned cooperative. The workers at Equal Exchange equally own and run the business together. In the face of a campaign to dilute fair trade standards by large corporate competitors, Equal Exchange has credited their ability to stay true to their values thanks to their worker-owned structure.

TESA creates our own products in a different field: board games. Board games are a booming industry (believe it or not), but most of these products are made in overseas factories with unfair working conditions and pay. Simply put, this industry about having fun is built on exploitation. That’s why TESA has been working for nearly 10 years to have our board games manufactured sustainably, domestically, and by businesses using fair labor practices – and we’ve been trying to build a path that other game publishers can follow. It hasn’t been easy, and it hasn’t been cheap. We’ve had to work tirelessly to find new ways to manufacture our products. At times, it has seemed near impossible, and we’ve had to continue to innovate to make our games ethically. Through these challenging times, we’ve constantly looked to Equal Exchange as a source of inspiration and guidance for staying true to our values while creating a new supply chain for an entire industry.

So, we thought we’d talk to Equal Exchange themselves, and ask them to reflect on their three decades of doing the hard work to create a new way of changing the food system and economy. Below, Rob Everts, one of the founders of Equal Exchange, answers our questions.

TESA: What were the guiding values behind the founding of Equal Exchange – and how have those evolved over time?

Everts: From the very start, we were guided by the concept of democracy writ large: democracy in the food system, buying from democratic farmer co-ops, democracy within our organization itself. Another one of our core values was that whatever form our organization took – non-profit, for-profit, worker co-op, hybrid – it would not be a profit-maximizing organization.

We also have always believed in taking calculated risks. We have wanted to be a learning organization and encourage failure – the faster the better – and to learn from our failures.

Finally, we have always just aspired to treat people fairly.

I would say these values have been sustained for over 30 years.

TESA: The concept of fair trade products has become more commonplace in recent years. How did Equal Exchange contribute to this popularization?

Everts: Before the fair trade certification system set up shop in the United States, we had been working to engage consumers and prospective buyers in this concept for 12 years. So in a real sense we built understanding and, over time, demand for coffee and other products sourced this way. We had to prove you could do this and still be a viable business and still put out a quality product. Once the fair trade certification system started marketing the concept (in some good ways and some flawed ways), a larger group of people in this country were at least somewhat aware and ripe for it.

TESA: Our understanding is that as fair trade has become more popular, other large corporations such as Starbucks have tried to get into the business of fair trade food and beverages while simultaneously watering down the standards. How has Equal Exchange responded to these developments?

Everts: We challenged the fair trade certifier from day one to establish a bar which they would not grant licenses to food and beverage companies if those companies went below. I believe that for the largest corporations, we said the certifier should not permit them to enter the system at less than 5% fair trade for their total product volume.

This was rejected. We probably didn’t challenge strongly enough early enough the direction the certifier chose and consequently lots of large companies got certified to sell fair trade coffee even if only a very small amount was sourced this way.

Eventually we went public with our opinion, but decided it was in our best interest to focus on building authentic fair trade and building our brand, and that to otherwise would be a diversion of energy. In a way we hold ourselves and other alternative trade organizations accountable for letting them steal the intellectual property of small farmers and believe we may possibly have been able to fend off the lowering of standards and eventual corporate digesting of fair trade as we knew it.

TESA: Equal Exchange is now one of the most successful worker-owned cooperatives in the United States. How have you been able to find a balance between staying true to your values while being a successful business? What have been the biggest challenges to this balance?

Everts: While we are proud of the democratic organization we have built, and we are also very aware that it will always be a work in progress. We make mistakes every day. But we strive to give meaning to being a worker owned co-op every day. We would not have it any other way. We seek to hire people who are motivated by our mission of fair trade and worker democracy. This has been a key factor to the relatively small turnover in our staff from year to year.

At times it can feel like we are dedicating too much energy to internal things while mainstream businesses steam by us in the market. So it’s important to understand that democracy can be messy and inefficient. But really, our structure is such a strong part of who we are that we wouldn’t trade it for the alternative. From the beginning, the founders built in a strong role for management in the context of the democratic governance structure and that decision has stood the test of time–right along with our capital model, our long term commitment to farmers, and other fundamental parts of our DNA.

Images courtesy of Equal Exchange. Picture one: A small farmer Equal Exchange has partnered with in Indonesia. Picture two: Equal Exchange coffee mugs.