Small Farmers. Big Change and Authentic Fair Trade

A green and more just food system starts with small farmers.

"The message is not as simple as telling customers to look for a seal, in fact, quite the opposite."

Recently, I was asked by my brother-in-law to explain something about my professional life that he has never quite understood. A staunch capitalist, he believes that money motivates. How did we expect workers to give one hundred (and sometimes even more) to their jobs if the financial incentive is not there. How on earth could I be in sales and not make any commission?

I feel incredibly lucky to get these opportunities to educate outside of Equal Exchange's normal base. Most often when I am explaining Equal Exchange's organizational structure or our Campaign for Authentic Fair Trade I am talking to food co-ops, students, or long standing customers. The thing about education is that you have to meet people where they are, and it's not much of a challenge if folks already understand WHY Equal Exchange is doing the work we do.

After some brief discussion about the obvious: profit sharing, decision making, and ownership, I found myself talking about what brings people to Equal Exchange in the first place. People come to Equal either because they want to be part of a co-op for the empowerment that comes with having a real voice (not just voting in board members or holding stock) or to participate in changing trade through building a more equitable, democratic, and sustainable food system; or both! In short, we as workers are motivated by money, but our products and our money are the vehicle for social change.

This company, our company, was founded on some key principles: trade directly with democratically organized small farmer cooperatives, facilitate access to credit for producers, pay producers a guaranteed minimum price that provides a stable source of income as well as improved social services, provide high quality foods products, support sustainable farming practices, build a democratically-run cooperative workplace, and develop more environmentally-sounded business practices. Sounds a lot like what most people imagine Fair Trade is all about. These principles are a reflection of the values of every worker-owner at Equal Exchange.

Equal Exchange is involved in a campaign for Authentic Fair Trade. This is a reaffirmation of commitment to our farmer partners, our customers, and of course, ourselves. Changing the food system, the broadest principles in which we were born from, is our goal.

With FairTradeUSA's departure from the international fair trade system and their intention to lower the standards of fair trade coffee and cacao by including plantations to compete with small farmer coops, the meaning of ‘Fair Trade Certified (*trademarked, yep, that's right, they've trademarked the term) now has nothing to do with creating real change in trade nor does it have to do with democratically organized small farmers. This shift in standards does very clearly make sense to me when reflecting on this conversation with my brother-in-law. If FTUSA is certifying volume, and taking a premium that is based on volume, are they not acting from motivation by money?

The identity of this movement is at stake, as are the small farmers who fair trade was supposed to be for in the first place.

This campaign is not just a statement, but an opportunity to educate everyone, especially our base.

Jump now to those store buyers who already know why co-operatives are important and understand why fair trade is a meaningful alternative to conventional trade; our core.

I am a sales representative and my territory is MA, CT, RI, and eastern upstate NY. The Pioneer Valley in Western Mass, my new home, is a special place with a rich co-operative culture. I decided to invite a few co-ops from the Pioneer Valley for a day long training called, ‘The Pioneer Valley Fair Trade Forum'. This took place at Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater, MA. We had representatives River Valley Market, Franklin Community Co-ops (Greenfield and McCusker's Markets), the Toolbox for Education and Social Action, and from outside the valley, folks from Berkshire Co-op Market. The group was made up of buyers, marketing people, managers, outreach folks, and educators- about 18 people came to Equal Exchange to hear about what was happening in fair trade. This event was a group effort here at Equal Exchange. Marketing helped make materials, the sales team spent much of the day helping with the presentations, the food, the cleaning. The banana team and campaigns manager came to participate. There is a collective understanding that we are trying to build something together- and this particular day, we were the vehicles for change, not the products.

From a history of the fair trade movement, how the certifiers came to be, how different fair trade products/markets evolved (how did those sneaky plantations get into tea and bananas!?), and brainstorming for what we could all do to spread awareness of the issues, it was a very intense day. The message is not as simple as telling customers to look for a seal; in fact, quite the opposite. Our campaign starts with awareness and education. From inside the walls of EE West Bridgewater, to the co-ops of the Pioneer Valley we want everyone to know: in our mind FairTradeUSA's new model is not authentic fair trade.

After breaking down what's going on in the fair trade world, we began discussing what stores can do to further authentic fair trade. One reality stores share with Equal Exchange is the need to be successful and profitable in order to be sustainable. We all have to make a profit but not at the expense of our values, so I guess my brother-in-law was right, money motivates. It can motivate people to work harder, and it can motivate progress and change; successful movement building. Part of Equal Exchange's mission statement is ‘to demonstrate, through our success, the contribution of worker co-operatives and Fair Trade to a more equitable, democratic and sustainable world.'

Through our success, and through the success of food co-operatives, we have built a profitable system of fair trade and we are not going to let anyone take that away. I'm excited to see what kind of education stores will do with their member owners, and how member owners then might decide to educate their friends and family. This is how fair trade was built, and this is how we will take it back.

By Becca Koganer, Sales Representative at Equal Exchange