Businesses that uphold sustainable practices in how they source, produce, and serve or sell food play a crucial role in transforming the food system. Food Tank will regularly feature businesses that are providing food to their customers in environmentally, economically, and socially sustainable ways.
The mission of Equal Exchange, an importer of coffee, tea, chocolate, bananas, and other foods, is deeply rooted in building long-term trade partnerships and mutually beneficial relationships. Equal Exchange began offering Fair Trade specialty coffee in 1986, 12 years before a Fair Trade product certification was even created for the market in the United States.
Now, Equal Exchange is one of the nation’s oldest and largest worker co-ops, in terms of both members and revenue. The company is made up of 100+ worker-owners, and each one plays a role in major decision-making and vision-setting for the cooperative.
Rodney North, spokesman for Equal Exchange, emphasizes that Equal Exchange only supports and imports from farmer cooperatives, rather than plantations. But as part of their business model, Equal Exchange won’t buy 100 percent of what a cooperative is producing; instead, they’ll typically buy 20-30 percent of the chocolate, tea, coffee, and fair foods that the cooperative is exporting. North explains, “We’d rather not buy 100 percent of their production. To do so would create too much risk for the farmer co-ops. We’d prefer to see them spread their sales to a variety of buyers.”
Equal Exchange chooses not to use the Fair Trade USA seal, which increasingly certifies crops from large plantations. “Many people fixate only on the price you pay to the farmers, but it is also about when you pay, who you buy from, and what advocacy you are carrying out,” says North. Instead, the company has stayed true to an authentic model of Fair Trade that remains focused on small farmer co-ops. Over the years, at least 95 percent of their product line has been composed of Fair Trade items, but that proportion is often closer to 99-100 percent.
Regarding their total overall environmental footprint, North says, “I don’t think we are truly sustainable yet. There is always more to do.” Currently, Equal Exchange tracks its carbon footprint and sources organically whenever possible. The company also always pays a premium for organic produce, something that not all organic brands do.
But when one examines the whole picture, Equal Exchange’s commitment to Fair Trade and to its worker co-op structure makes them more socially sustainable than many others in the industry. “It is not enough to look for a Fair Trade certification. Ask yourself, ‘Is that a certification or an enterprise that I can feel good about?’” says North. Equal Exchange’s solid foundation and dedication to Fair Trade make them a brand that consumers can feel good about.