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Equal Exchange Powers Coffee to New Level: An Interview with Co-President Rob Everts
Interviewed by Susan Lutz,
ATH Co-Editor of Organic Living
Editor's Note from Susan Lutz: Equal Exchange is a model for fair trade, dedicated to bringing consumerism to a new level of consciousness. The socially minded organization carved out to bring a new level of consciousness to connect the consumer with the farmers who bring the crops to the table. Equal Exchange is a model for fair trade. Rob Everts, co-president of Equal Exchange, answers a few questions for Allthingshealing about the mission of Equal Exchange and how it is working to recognize the deep social and moral connection we have with our production and consumption of food.
1. What is the mission of Equal Exchange?
To build long term trade relationships that are economically just and environmentally sound, to foster mutually beneficial relationships between farmers and consumers, and to demonstrate through our success, the contribution of worker cooperatives and fair trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.
2. Why has the movement of fair trade, organic, and fairly traded food become a big issue?
More and more people feel an imperative to know more about where their food comes from. A number of things contribute to this. From an enlightened social justice perspective to a self-interest perspective, people are paying more attention to where their food is from and under what conditions it is sourced. Food scares involving incidents of poisons in food from China or E coli in spinach from California have contributed, as has the simple fact that local food tastes better than products shipped thousands of miles.
3. Explain the impact the object of Equal Exchange has on the people who work in the fields and grow the crops?
We consciously partner with organized groups of small farmers, generally cooperatives. This is in contrast to buying from random farmers no matter how good they or their quality may be. Why? We are seeking radical social change and that involves supporting farmers who have built their own organizations. Organized farmers have a better chance to actually challenge the prevailing power structures in their countries than individuals. Beyond this, we want to help small farmers gain market access in these industries dominated by corporate players. This means doing the very difficult work of building supply chains that really work for small scale farmers as well as ourselves.
4. How do you help the consumer make the connection to your objective and that moment of decision at the grocery store in choosing the benefits of you product?
We make packaging as eye catching as possible to get someone to pick it up and be able to hopefully quickly glean there is something different about this product. We use product labels to tell as much of our story as possible, even if it means someone reads it after they get home. Where possible, we have additional point of sale information on the shelf.
5. It is often said organic or fair trade is more expensive. How do you answer that concern?
To put in economic terms, we internalize the externalities. Companies participating in the race to the bottom pay a little as possible and ignore environmental damage. Society ends up paying sooner or later. We try to be up front about that and have the true costs instead of artificially depressed food prices reflected.
6. Can you share a story that has particularly touched you in your work?
On a trip to South Africa to meet rooibos farmers I heard from the head of the coop that he had literally been weaned on rooibos tea because his mother had had so many children her body couldn’t produce milk anymore. I learned that over the decades these farmers, “coloreds” as they were called over there at the time, had been pushed further and further off productive land into the desert plateaus in the northern most part of the Western Cape Province. Rooibos was virtually the only crop that grew there. And even with the advent of black majority rule in 1994, they still had no direct access to foreign markets; the industry was dominated by the Afrikaaner corporation Rooibos, Ltd. Enter fair traders. When we and others like us from Europe began to establish direct trading relationships, it was the first time these farmers ever had any semblance of control over their own lives. They could negotiate prices and quality differentials, demand pre-harvest financing, and many other things to slowly improve their standard of living.
7. Where is the next step for Equal Exchange?
We are looking to keep building supply chains in new products such as cashews. We are also collaborating with two other worker cooperative fair trade organizations in Canada and the UK to see what we might be able to build together.
Learn more here.
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