equalexchangelogo.jpgMaking Co-op-y Things Happen: Good News From the World of Co-ops and Fair Trade
by Rodney North of Equal Exchange

Did you know that October is both National Fair Trade Month and National Co-op Month? It’s just a coincidence, but, like peanut butter and chocolate, Fair Trade and co-operatives are two great things that go great together. No — wait.    I take that back. That’s a lame metaphor. Plus it’s borrowed from a corporate jingle. We can do better.

You see, co-ops and Fair Trade are not only compatible, but extremely complementary. They make each other stronger and more inspiring. And—in our opinion—Fair Trade could not, and cannot, exist without co-operatives.

The Fair Trade model helps farmer co-ops to thrive, and enables consumer co-op members to connect with farmer co-op members and do business with one another sustainably and in solidarity. Sometimes a worker co-op, like Equal Exchange, acts as the bridge, creating a potentially completely co-op supply chain.  This is one of the best examples of the 6th Co-op Principle: Co-operation Among Co-operatives. (If you’re unfamiliar with the seven Universal Co-op Principles check out: http://www.ncba.coop/abcoop.cfm )

In the 1980’s co-ops here and abroad, made Fair Trade possible and today they offer the Fair Trade system its most meaningful expression.  “Most meaningful” because more recently plantations and publicly traded corporations like Wal-Mart and Hershey’s have entered the Fair Trade market. While that development constitutes an improvement over these groups’ historic track record, it doesn’t represent as profound a model as that of co-op based Fair Trade.

When the Fair Trade system for crops like coffee was created in the 1980’s only small-farmer co-ops could participate.  Farmer co-ops still supply all of the nation’s Fair Trade Certified™ coffee, cocoa, and sugar.  (In contrast, the official standards for Fair Trade tea, bananas and other crops allow for the participation of plantations, an issue we’ll return to.)  Measured by weight, at least 90% of the nation’s supply of Fair Trade Certified™ foods are supplied by farmer co-ops.  Later we’ll look at efforts to push that number back towards 100%.

At this end of the global Fair Trade supply chain, consumer food co-ops definitely “punch above their weight”. That is to say that no group of retailers in the US food system does more for Fair Trade, proportionate to their sales, than America’s food co-ops.

But the “good news” mentioned in the headline goes beyond buying and selling of coffee and such. Right now co-ops of all stripes, in both the Global North and South, are working together to build a stronger, more just co-op economy; and Fair Trade is a part of those efforts. Here are some examples:

◊ Two North American farmer co-ops, Organic Valley and Farmer Direct (a Canadian co-op), worked with Equal Exchange and RAFI-USA to develop a model for what Fair Trade could look like for farmers and farm workers north of the Rio Grande. The results were the Principles for Domestic Fair Trade. (See: http://www.equalexchange.com/dftfiles/dftprinciplesflyer.pdf)

◊ Subsequently Equal Exchange worked with a hybrid co-op of pecan growers and workers in Georgia and a California co-op of organic almond growers to create a line of healthy snacks, the first products brought to market under the Domestic Fair Trade Principles. (NOTE: Are there names for these products to mention?)

◊ An international, multi-stakeholder Fair Trade organization, Oké USA  (www.okeusa.com) has been created to import Fair Trade bananas into the U.S. A global co-op of banana growers owns 30% of the operation, Equal Exchange owns 20%, and 5 non-profit organizations own the remainder.

◊ To challenge the current near-complete dependence upon plantations for the U.S. supply of Fair Trade Certified™ tea, Equal Exchange has recently formed three new partnerships with small organic  farmer co-ops in southern India, Sri Lanka, and South Africa. This is in addition to the earlier partnership with a co-op in Darjeeling, India.  Together we’ve been able to introduce seven small-farmer co-op Fair Trade Certified™ teas to the U.S. The South African co-op is especially promising in that they, along with a neighboring co-op, are also majority owners of their own tea packing operation – something almost unheard of for small-scale tea growers.

◊ While Equal Exchange is dedicated to Fair Trade, we also appreciate the critical role of food co-ops, and that’s why we recently contributed $10,000 to the Food Co-op 500 Fund. The Fund is seeking to expand the number of food co-ops nationwide from 300 to 500 by 2015.

Now is such a dynamic time in the food industry and our national food culture. Some of the changes – GMO’s, massive factory poultry and hog operations – are dismaying. Yet there are also trends heading in the other direction, such as the increasing interest in environmental issues, animal rights, and the need to fix the federal Farm Bill.  For decades food co-ops have been at the forefront of new approaches, including that of Fair Trade, and we just wanted you to know a little about what you have helped make possible.

~ Rodney North is The Answer Man for Equal Exchange and has been with the worker co-op for 11 years. He also serves as Vice-Chair on the Board of Directors.   You can reach him at This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it