“A company – co-operative or corporation it does not matter – cannot start a movement. It is called marketing.” – Fred
On October 1, 2010, Equal Exchange and six consumer co-ops launched Principle Six Co-operative Trade Movement. Fair Food Fight picked up the article introducing the new initiative and a skeptical gentleman named Fred accused us of “astro-turfing”. Despite his erroneous comment that the P6 website promotes the products of only one manufacturer, (there are literally tens of thousands of products being highlighted in the P6 initiative through the website and in the stores), Fred nevertheless poses an interesting question.
Can a company (co-operative or otherwise) legitimately have a social mission? Can a company simultaneously meet the needs of its own workers, supply chain partners (in our case, farmer co-ops, food co-ops, and other progressive retailers), interfaith partners, investors and consumers? Can a company be part of a network of like-minded organizations and individuals who want to change the way business is conducted and the terms of trade are defined? In short, can a company (co-operative or otherwise) spark a social movement?
I thought Nicholas Reid provided a great response to Fred’s cynical view of all businesses. “I actually appreciate your skepticism of companies… I think that’s healthy and, more often than not, correct (although I rarely see co-operatives engaged in green-washing or “astro-turfing”). In this case though, I would argue that Fair Trade – Equal Exchange’s primary mission – is the perfect example of a movement started by companies.… There are hundreds if not thousands of great companies that produce excellent products but are also committed to social, environmental, and economic change. It’s a shame to write them all off because they’re in business. Seems like that’s what P6 is all about.”
Fred stopped writing so we don’t know if he ended up agreeing with Nicholas or just moved on to other issues that rub him the wrong way. Still, I found myself thinking about Fred’s distrust, and like Nick, was moved to reflect again on the origins of Equal Exchange. For those of you unfamiliar with the story, let me give you the ever most concise version. Then I’d love to hear your thoughts on these questions.
Equal Exchange, Co-operatives, and Fair Trade
25 years ago three young guys had a vision.
Jonathan, Michael and Rink were working at a co-op distribution center and they saw how disconnected consumers were from their food and the farmers that grew it. At the same time, they began to understand the tremendous struggle that small and family farmers face as they try to provide a livelihood for their families; the very folks who literally sustain our bodies and souls, as well as our planet, are barely able to survive economically.
Clearly, something about our food system wasn’t working: not for farmers and not for consumers.
With these concerns in mind, they founded Equal Exchange. The mission was multi-faceted. They wanted to create a high quality food company that nourished the body and the soul, but they had other, equally important goals:
- Support small farmers by paying them a fair price and establishing trade relationships built on dignity and equality;
- Educate consumers about the food system; where it comes from, how it’s grown and distributed;
- Facilitate stronger relationships between consumers and producers.
Non-profit or for profit?
The question was: given this kind of hybrid mission, what type of organizational structure should they adopt?
Obviously, the educational and social goals of the organization fit nicely with a non-profit structure, and certainly there were individuals and foundations that would be interested in supporting them financially. Still, there was something perhaps too “easy” in choosing this route. There might always be foundations and individuals willing to support a non-profit dedicated to helping small farmers to survive and thrive, and educating consumers about the food system and their connections to those who farm.
But could they form an actual business, with this same social mission… and survive in the marketplace? Better yet, could they prove through the viability of their business, that a company could have a social mission, treat its workers and its “suppliers” and “customers” with dignity and respect, and still turn a profit? Could they serve as a model for how the rest of the business community should behave? In a way, as the founders ultimately decided, becoming a business would provide the true populist test.
Even more importantly, could they make Fair Trade a household name? Could they convince enough other businesses to participate in this system so as to create their own competition? Could they create a MOVEMENT that would actually change the way trade is conducted?
I think you see where I’m going here.
But there’s one more point to be made before we talk about the present. Like Fred, the founders were legitimately cynical about the nature of business, bottom lines, and profits. So, even though they felt that their model was stronger as a for-profit, they still had concerns. For this reason, they decided to found Equal Exchange as a worker-owned co-operative. The organization would be democratically run, with a 3-1 pay scale (20 years later after much controversy, we amended the pay scale to 4 -1), and workers electing the Board of Directors and having a vote in change of operations and locations.
Fast forward twenty years.
At our 20thanniversary in 2006, we celebrated our successes: 40 small farmer co-operative partners in 20 countries. 80-some worker-owners. High quality gourmet coffees, teas, and chocolate products, with healthy snacks, and bananas on the way. $23 million in sales. $2 million in pre-harvest loans provided to our farmer partners. Five cents on every pound of fair trade coffee and other premiums going back to the farmer organizations for social projects.
Rest on our laurels? Well, we could. But I’m going to say that because we’re actually “not just in this for ourselves”, we couldn’t celebrate without some accompanying soul-searching. We looked around and said, hey our farmer partners are much better off than they would have been without Fair Trade and Equal Exchange, but they’re still struggling. In fact, national and international laws and policies that favor large plantations and multi-national corporations are actually making life much harder for small-scale farmers despite all our best intentions. And on this side of the border, our food co-op partners, the pioneers of the organic and fair trade movements, and more recently, the buy-local movements, are getting their butts kicked by large national chains who certainly don’t worry about such things as member control, consumer education, and participatory workplaces.
Collectively, we took a long hard look in the mirror. We talked to our farmer partners. We made the rounds of our strongest food co-op allies and we came to a decision: it was time for a new initiative.
Principle Six Co-operative Trade Movement
Fair Trade may not be a household word, but it’s certainly no longer some radical hare-brained idea cooked up by three wild-eyed crazy young guys. 600 local roasters have followed in our footsteps and several large coffee, tea, and chocolate companies are purchasing a portion of their products according to Fair Trade principles. Pre-harvest financing is the accepted norm in trade circles. Our farmer partners have a seat at the table.
But, could we stir things up a little more? Could we have greater impact? Could we make more of a difference?
Principle Six is only about six weeks old. And the goals of the initiative are really not that different than the goals shared by all food co-ops… in fact, by every co-operative throughout the world: co-operation among co-ops, member education, community empowerment . We’re returning to our roots and our values. Mechanically, this means that we will highlight those products and companies we believe meet our highest values: small farmer/producer, co-operative, local.
Today P6 is a pilot initiative involving Brattleboro Food Co-op, The Merc Co-op, Seward Community Co-op, Davis Food Co-op, Willy Street Grocery Co-operative, and Bloomingfoods Co-op. Consumers can also participate through our new website launching November 15th.
We hope today’s pilot initiative becomes tomorrow’s national movement. Because Principle Six takes the initial goals of Fair Trade (to support small farmer organizations, promote sustainable agriculture, educate consumers, and most importantly, I would argue, to create change) and merges it with the Buy Local Movements concerned also about the environment, community control, and economic development. It places co-operatives front and center.
Can co-operative businesses spark a movement? Only if committed, idealistic consumers with an interest to change the system decide they can. Please join up.