Co-op to Co-op Trade: Fair to Farmers, Good for the Rainforest

Donors to Radical Roots' Seed & Spark campaign receive delicious chocolate and coffee from Equal Exchange, America's first Fair Trade coffee importer (and a worker-owned co-op)!

Equal Exchange’s history of co-op-to-co-op partnerships stretches back to its founding in 1986.  Back then, three coworkers in a cooperative produce distribution warehouse wanted to find a way to connect U.S. consumers with the smallholder farmers growing their coffee.  In defiance of the Reagan embargo on Nicaraguan products, they imported a container of Nicaraguan small-farmer-grown coffee that was roasted in Europe and then released on May 1st, the international workers’ day.  The European roasting made the coffee legally acceptable (after a bit of argument) because the embargo technically allowed Nicaraguan products that had “value” added in another country.

The cofounders created Equal Exchange as a workers cooperative because they wanted their own business to reflect the democratic values of the small-farmer-owned cooperatives they bought coffee from.  The first worker-owners quickly began selling the coffee to food co-ops, first in New England, and then around the country.  This was the beginnings of the co-op-to-co-op supply chain that EE worker-owners (including our associate producer, Hilary Johnson) are so proud of today.

As a later-wave co-op, and primarily a wholesale business, EE (as far as Hilary knows) did not experiment with the more radical philosophies of the 1970s co-ops, such as turning the cash registers around and letting customers pay what they would.  But the co-op does prioritize long-term relationships with both customers and farmer-partners.  In fact, this is part of how EE defines authentic fair trade.  Another pillar of authentic fair trade is democratic organization: Paying social premiums to democratically governed cooperatives ensures that the money benefits the community.

On EE’s recent 29th birthday (May 1st, 2015), the co-op received Feliz Anniversario messages from several partner co-ops, including Norandino in Peru.  Hilary visited this co-op in 2013 and was deeply inspired by the co-op’s vision and energy in building value for its members.  The folks at Norandino thanked Equal Exchange for being their first customer when they got started in 1997, and affirmed that “behind all of the work of Equal Exchange is the belief that only through organization can small farmers survive and prosper. The cooperative model has been essential in the construction of this alternative trade model.”

Or, in the words of another cooperative farmer-partner, Las Colinas in El Salvador, “Todo en la cama o todo en el suelo” -- Everyone in the bed or everyone on the floor.  That’s the co-op way!

Get delicious co-op chocolate and coffee and help us spread the word about the cooperative economy by donating at Seed & Spark, and following us on Facebook, and Twitter.