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Natural Awakenings Boston

Equal Exchange: Supporting Farmers, Engaging Consumers, Changing Economies

Jun 30, 2015 06:02PM ● By Kim Childs

Equal Exchange was founded 29 years ago in Boston’s South End with a mission to bring small-scale farmers around the world in closer contact with American consumers and reform exploitative models of international trade. They began with coffee from Nicaragua and later expanded its product line, supporting growers and educating consumers in the process.

“About 70 percent of what we sell is coffee and we’ve added chocolate, cocoa, tea, bananas and other things under this mission-driven context of engaging consumers to think and be more curious about how products are sourced,” says Co- Executive Director Rob Everts. “We enable small-scale farmers, who generally do not have the same kind of market access as the big players, to build market share and a viable livelihood.” Everts notes that Equal Exchange is a for-profit, worker-owned, cooperative business that gives equal consideration to multiple stakeholders. “The founders believed that if this dream would succeed it would have to do so in the context of a democratic workplace,” he says. “Today we have about 150 full-time employees who are either owners or on the track to become owners, so all have equal stake in the business. Our outside investors have preferred stock but no seat on the board or vote.”

The company’s coffee roasting and production plant is about 30 miles south of Boston, and the product can be found locally in Shaw’s and Hannaford supermarkets, Harvest Food Co-op in Cambridge, City Feed and Supply in Jamaica Plain, and cafes that brew it. The coffees are most often blends of beans from countries like Peru, Mexico and Uganda. Whole Foods Market carries their chocolate and baking cocoa, and these and other items like bananas, cashews, olive oil from the West Bank and teas from India, Sri Lanka and South Africa can also be found online at EqualExchange.coop/products.

Future plans for the company include aligning more tightly with similar fair trade organizations around the world, inviting consumers to play more active roles in the mission, and becoming more deeply involved in efforts to mitigate climate change. Everts says this includes involving Equal Exchange network members in the movement to divest from companies that use fossil fuels.

“Of course we are feeling the climate change in this country, but in the places where we buy coffee, cocoa and tea it’s even worse,” he says. “The warming planet is taking land out of circulation in high elevation places where coffee is grown. Drought and floods are affecting our growers, so we want to link our work with those who are battling climate change.”

Reflecting on the kind of impact that fair trade companies can have, Everts recalls a cooperative of Peruvian farmers that partnered with the company 15 years ago. “Their quality, membership and product line grew over time, and they later became politically active in their province and ultimately elected a woman to the national assembly,” he reports. “Today she is the vice president of the country, helping to steer governmental spending priorities to rural development in new ways. That’s the kind of social change that drives us to do what we do.”

To learn more and purchase products, visit EqualExchange.coop.

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