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Co-op Month Vendor Spotlight: Equal Exchange

What is your origin story? Who started the business and why?

Equal Exchange started with an idea: what if food could be traded in a way that is honest and fair, a way that empowers both farmers and consumers? Our founders – Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal and Michael Rozyne – asked this question as they envisioned a trade model that values each part of the supply chain. So they took a big risk and plunged full-force into changing a broken food system. In 1986, they started with fairly traded coffee from Nicaragua and didn’t look back.

Three decades later (and with several product lines in the mix), we still face vast challenges. Consumers have been overloaded with labels and certifications, while the Fair Trade movement has been watered down in favor of corporate interests. The whole food industry has continued to consolidate into the hands of just a few big players, allowing concentrated power and deception of choice.


Tell us about Fair Trade.

Fair Trade is a voluntary program utilized by coffee importers and food companies to create an alternative market for traditionally disadvantaged producers in developing countries, usually small scale farmers. The components include:

  • Targeted purchasing of coffee through democratically organized farmer co-operatives.
  • Agreed upon commodity floor prices that provide for a dignified livelihood.
  • Direct exports by producers.
  • A promise by importers to make affordable credit available to the farmer cooperatives.
  • A world-wide network of non-profit certifying organizations.
  • A fee paid by importers and wholesalers to cover the cost of certification.
  • A seal that assures consumers that the product was fairly traded.

Your purchase of fairly traded coffee helps build pride, independence and community empowerment for small farmers and their families. A coffee processing plant in El Salvador, community stores in Colombia, the training of doctors in Mexico, new schools in Peru – these are examples of initiatives co-ops have taken in their own communities with the income from Fair Trade.


Is your coffee certified organic?

All of Equal Exchange’s organic coffee is certified by Oregon Tilth. Oregon Tilth Certified Organic (OTCO) is an internationally recognized symbol of organic integrity. The purpose of organic certification is to ensure that the agreed upon conventions of organic agricultural systems are being practiced not only by growers, but also by all the people who handle and process organic food on its journey to the final consumer. To accomplish this, OTCO provides a system which combines strict production standards, verifiable third party inspections and legally binding affidavits to protect the producers and buyers of organic products.


What steps does Equal Exchange take to ensure top quality coffee?

Our concern for the quality of farmers’ lives is matched by our concern for the quality of our coffee. Through our long-term relationships with the farmers and yearly visits to the co-ops, we maintain an intimate knowledge of the coffee harvest and the quality of the beans.

We have a rigorous system for quality control from bean to cup. Each pre-shipment sample is evaluated to meet our standards. When the approved shipment arrives, it is evaluated again for consistency and preparation. After each coffee is roasted, it is individually “cupped” to ensure consistency in the roast and the flavor profile needed for that particular coffee.


Other than coffee, what other products does Equal Exchange produce and what makes them unique?

Most teas come from large plantations where workers have little say. Our delicious organic, Fair Trade teas are sourced from small-scale farmer co-ops in India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. We are helping to build a different system that values the voice of small farmers, their products, and democracy in trade.

Equal Exchange tea, bag, tag and string are compostable. Or if tea leaves are removed, the bag, string and tag can be recycled. No glue or staples are used in our tea bags.
Our Fair Trade chocolate bars are rich in flavor with a smooth, creamy texture that melts in your mouth. Our organic cacao and sugar are sourced directly from small-scale farmers co-ops in Latin America.


Anything else we should know?

At Equal Exchange we believe that we should expect no less from ourselves and each other than we demand of our farmer partners. For that reason we have organized ourselves as a democratic worker cooperative, now one of the largest in the country.

A worker cooperative is an alternative for-profit structure based upon standard democratic principles. It is not designed to maximize profits, nor returns to investors, but rather to bring to the workplace many of the rights and responsibilities that we hold as citizens in our communities.

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