Archive for March, 2011

By Manju Gupta, Equal Exchange Sales Representative

Recently, I traveled to the Weaver Street Markets (WSM) in North Carolina with my co-worker LJ Taylor where we conducted a number of trainings with co-op staff. It was especially meaningful (and crazy overdue) to LJ who worked at the WSM Southern Village store years back! Old friends reunited and new friendships made as we engaged with staff members. It was a blast to share the history of Equal Exchange, our model and core values as we tasted various EE products. We also discussed current happenings such as the P6 initiative and TransFair’s attempt to change its name to Fair Trade USA. Over the 3 days we spent with WSM, there was a lot that occurred almost in a “blur-like” fashion. I knew I wouldn’t process much until some time had passed, and finally I’m ready to share!

I’m not going to lie, I was slightly dreading these trainings. It’s not that I wasn’t looking forward to them, but I had put a lot of pressure on myself. EE & WSM have been strong partners since their respective inceptions (EE was founded in 1986 and WSM in 1988), and I knew there was a lot of history I was walking into. I wanted to respect that relationship and strengthen it even more. There was also a wide range of folks attending the trainings so I wanted everyone to leave with some message. That being said, we had 31 staff members attend one of 5 training sessions (each had the same format and lasted 90 mins) over 3 days. There were so many things that happened during those 3 days and as I sit here reflecting, I am overcome with a feeling of gratitude.

Weaver Street Co-op staff attend an Equal Exchange training

I am grateful for the work that co-operatives do and the unique platforms they create. This was not a small undertaking. It required a serious amount of time and energy on the EE side as well as from WSM’s staff. Windy Willer, who is the Training & Development Manager at the co-ops, helped fill each session with folks from the grocery & prep foods departments of all 3 WSM locations, including James Watts, the Merchandising Manager for WSM. I recognize this took a huge amount of planning and scheduling. So to Windy, thank you friend! And to all those who attended, thank you. I hope there was some value in those 90 mins to you, and I sincerely hope to hear your feedback. Y’all act as positive ambassadors of the work we do here at Equal Exchange, so thank you for attending the trainings and for representing us so well.

I am also grateful for the support co-ops give one another. They provide platforms such as these trainings for us to share information, educate and deepen the work we do. They place value in the collective good; that we’re all better off if we support one another in our work as opposed to constantly competing and bottom lining one another. This is what I find most empowering as a worker-owner of Equal Exchange. Why else did LJ give me endless support in leading stellar trainings with him? Because there is value in us all succeeding, and even more value in doing it together. So thank you to my coworkers who give me support on a daily basis. What I mean to say, is there is a certain humility you all work with. You don’t always get credit, but I appreciate the “lack of ego” I feel when I walk into work.

All in all, it was a great trip for many reasons including the epic baked goods section at Weaver Street! I feel super lucky to be adding to the rich relationship that exists between these two co-ops and can’t wait for my next visit…

For more info on the Weaver Street Markets, check out their website.

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Eight years ago in Peru

I just arrived at the Hotel Peru in Piura, Peru.

Eight years ago, I stayed at this same hotel (I think I’m actually in the same room) with Keith Olcott, Tom Hanlon Wilde of Equal Exchange, and a group of general managers, store managers, and buyers of various natural foods stores that have strong relationships with Equal Exchange.  We were on our way to La Coyona, one of the communities whose members form part of CEPICAFE’s small farmer coffee cooperative.  At that time, the price of coffee was somewhere around 65 cents a pound.  Equal Exchange however, was paying the then-Fair Trade price of $1.41/pound.  (Today, the price of coffee is at an all-time high, somewhere around $3.00 a pound.)

At a meeting of the co-op, one of the women farmers, Dona Dora, broke into tears and told us that she had never before seen someone who bought her coffee, never mind having a group of folks from the United States come visit her community, spending four days and nights, picking coffee alongside the farmers, breaking for lunch, and then spending the afternoon depulping the coffee beans, washing and laying them out to dry on the patios.

That trip was a memorable one.  We stayed in pairs in the farmers’ homes, ate and worked along side them.  After a morning picking coffee, we broke for lunch.  Our original plan had been to continue picking coffee all afternoon, but one by one, folks in our group began to approach me and tell me they were exhausted.  Could we suspend the afternoon harvest?  When we told the farmers that the “workers were tired”, and were boycotting the afternoon chamba (work period), the farmers had a good laugh.  We weighed out the coffee we had picked in the morning and that brought more good-natured laughs.  How much do we get paid, we wanted to know.  The farmers chuckled, not enough for our lunch, in fact, not even enough for a cup of coffee back home.

We told them about Equal Exchange, how we work, our vision for a future with more equitable trade relations and farmers who are paid more fairly for their work.  They shared stories about their lives, their co-op, and their hopes and visions for the future.  After four days and nights in the community, there were real tears when they gave us a going away party.  I’ll never forget walking up to the community kitchen a few hours before the big despedida (farewell party).  There was Dona Dora, holding the head of a sheep in each hand; one black, one white.  It was for the evening’s soup.  Hold it right there, I told her, I’m going to take your picture and then I’m going to be sick.  She laughed… it was just one of many intimate moments we shared that week.

Today, I’m here at the hotel waiting for my ride to pick me up.  I’m thinking a lot about the folks we brought with us here the last time; Michelle Franklin of La Montanita Co-op and Bob Gerner, who met his wife in Lima on this very trip.   Mostly, I’m remembering Dona Dora and the farmers of La Coyona, the laughs despite all the hard work; and late evenings on the porch, softly sharing stories by candlelight with a night sky full of more stars than I’d ever before seen.  I’m also thinking about friends at the CEPICAFE co-op whose office is nearby: Santiago Paz, Arnaldo Neira, and Jose Rojas, folks deeply committed to improving the quality of life for farmers in northern Peru.  We’ve known and worked with these co-op representatives for close to two decades now.

I won’t be seeing the coffee farmers on this trip; I’m here eight years later with the Oke USA banana team to visit two new small farmer banana coops that we have just begun to build relationships with.  Last year, Bradley and I visited El Guabo, in Ecuador.  This year, Equal Exchange has begun to sell bananas from two additional groups.  Over the next few days, I hope to have some stories to share as Bradley, Nicole, Jessica and I learn more about these banana growers.


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By Virginia Berman, Equal Exchange Fundraising Program Manager


Twenty years ago I lived in Honduras with the Peace Corps in Santiago de Puringla working with hillside farmers to find campesino leaders to help in soil conservation. These farmers had tiny plots of land they nurtured to grow enough food to survive and earned a little cash from growing coffee for export. The people I worked with had hope in the land, themselves, and for a reason I still don’t know but for which I am grateful, even in me.


The farmers and I walked for two hours from the mountains where they lived up to even higher mountains where they had their farms. We experimented with the bean that had on other farms improved soil fertility and preserved the soil—the velvet bean. We carved A-frames leveled out of long branches to create a natural barrier so that the coffee, corn and beans went across the hillside, keeping more soil on the land than if they went straight down the hillside.


These farmers with five kids in one bedroom trusted this unknown, suburban white girl and we met and talked in my one room rental, Dona Fidelina’s home. We talked about what we had seen on field trips– the thick, verdant corn and dark soil from the model plots at Don Elias Sanchez’ farm; we remembered the farmers from La Esperanza who, with the zeal of evangelists, told their stories of soil conservation. We talked about having a new group and experimenting on our plots and what we wanted to be called. They chose Amigos Todos Unidos Siempre (Friends United Together Forever).


One farmer who stood out was Don Beto. He was a leader in the loosely organized group we formed to help us in the harsh world of coffee trading. He brought me to his farm to show me and others his soil growing in organic matter after growing the new beans. As a result, his corn had increased its yields. But for their cash crop, coffee, the farmers had one option for selling—to the middlemen at dirt cheap prices. I left Honduras determined to do something at home to help.


When I returned, I worked on an organic farm in upstate NY. Later, I organized first-time home buyers in Hartford, CT. But I was pulled back to the land, and to doing something about the situation of Don Beto and the other farmers in Honduras, so I went to the Tufts School of Nutrition in the Agriculture, Food and Environment Masters Program. And for the past 15 years I have worked at Equal Exchange—a Fair Trade importer of organic coffee and other products from small-scale farmer cooperatives. Each day at work I’ve known that farmers who grow our coffee are working hard. And I’ve never forgotten that children like my 3-year-old neighbor Transito, the youngest and only boy in a family of six children, who shared my birthdate in Honduran mountains–I learned in a letter–died from malnutrition soon after I left.


Today I learned something that has my heart aflutter! For the first time Equal Exchange is buying from the Honduran co-operative, COMSA in Marcala, with members in it from that remote mountain town, Santiago de Puringla. I took a peek on the very 21st century thing—a database of the remote coffee farmer co-op members. In the cooperative I ran through the list of names. I scrolled down and saw familiar appellidos, last names. Finally, I see names from our group — Don Beto Osorio. It’s been 20 years since I was in Honduras. Don Beto is alive! Don Beto is still farming? Yes, Don Beto grows coffee, and Don Beto sells his coffee to me and Equal Exchange!


This is a gift better than anything I could ask for from Peace Corps, from Equal Exchange, from all those who buy Equal Exchange. Thank you all!

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By Daniel Fireside, the Capital Coordinator at Equal Exchange

Many people in the SRI (Socially Responsible Investing) world are familiar with the pioneering work that Equal Exchange has done to bring Fair Trade coffee, chocolate, tea, bananas and other products to the United States. We take great pride in the fact that our success has challenged those who thought there was nothing one could do to address the systemic inequities of global trade.

However, we’re about more than just changing the way people buy and sell what goes in their shopping basket. For 25 years Equal Exchange has been turning a host of conventional business models and practices on their heads. Pay farmers above market prices. Increase your suppliers’ market power by providing affordable credit and helping them form co-operatives. Spend time and resources to educate consumers. Encourage them to care about farmers and families they’ll never meet. Make sure there is no exit strategy. Entrust complete control and ownership of the company to the people who work there. Share your knowledge and business model with competitors and even encourage them to enter your category and compete for your customers. Don’t dodge your taxes.

And it’s been working pretty well: over $40 million in annual sales, growing product lines, and fanatically loyal customers and partners.

But there have been countless social enterprises that make a splash, take off, and then…cash out. To get the capital to go big, you need to open up to outside investors, or sell the company to a global conglomerate that’s looking for a socially responsible branding opportunity, or maybe just reward the visionary entrepreneurs and early investors who got the venture off the ground. That’s the story with Burt’s Bees, Ben & Jerry’s, Tom’s of Maine, The Body Shop, Green & Black, Stonyfield Farm, Dagoba, and countless others. That’s how the system works, right?

In the SRI world, we’re told that the job of the entrepreneur and investors is to turn an exciting, idealistic vision into reality. Hopefully, you won’t have to compromise your initial social vision when you’re faced with the harsh realities of the marketplace. And when you do relinquish the reins to outside investors or the new corporate owner, you just have to have faith that they’re still in it for the right reasons, and will do the right thing no matter what signals they get from Wall Street.

We’re trying to show that there is a different way to raise capital, and that you don’t have to put your social mission at risk. We hope it will inspire others in this still evolving field of social entrepreneurship.

Read more here.

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No Pain, No Gain?

By Nicholas Reid, Equal Exchange Sales Account Representative

Due to a multitude of factors, most beyond our control, coffee prices are going up.  Again.  Starting April 1, 2011,  Equal Exchange is increasing the cost of all coffees sold to retail stores by $.50 a pound. Please trust that this has been a very difficult decision on our part; and that we are doing everything we can to offer you the highest quality coffee at the best prices possible.

Why Are Prices Going Up?

At the heart of the matter is decreasing supply, increasing demand and commodity speculation. On the supply side, climate change is wreaking havoc on weather patterns across the world (we’ve had quite an interesting winter ourselves). Coffee plants rely on periods of rain followed by sunny dry spells in order to flower, produce cherries and ripen. Without these regular “seasons”, harvests around the globe are down. At the same time, demand for specialty coffee continues to rise, not only in the traditional consuming countries like the United States, but increasingly in producer countries as well.

The situation is further complicated by speculation in the commodity market. Traders are buying up supply and coffee contracts, assuming that prices will continue to increase. This becomes a self-fulfilling prophesy, as less supply and contracts are available. Like many other commodities (oil, sugar, cacao, for example), coffee is at a 14-year high.

Why is Fair Trade more important than ever?

It’s true that coffee farmers are benefiting from higher prices. While we spend much of our time- likely too much- talking about the benefits of higher prices, much of the success and value of the Fair Trade movement is in the “infrastructure” we have built: primarily farmer co-operatives. These organizations serve to protect the farmers when prices are down; and grant farmers direct access to markets when they would otherwise be forced to rely on brokers and middlemen who have historically exploited farmers’ isolation and lack of access to markets.

When the commodity market is high, small farmers can be tempted to sell to middlemen for immediate cash, rather than wait to receive a higher price through their co-op at a later date. The cumulative effect of many individual farmers making this decision is that coffee starts to “leak” outside the co-operative fair trade system. Farmer co-operatives lose members and supply, and have a hard time meeting their obligations to partners like Equal Exchange. In the past, middlemen have offered artificially high prices to farmers in order to “break” the co-ops (like busting a union) leaving the farmers in a much weaker position in the future- a “divide and conquer” approach.

What are we doing about it?

We see our role, in this tumultuous period, to do everything we can to support producer co-ops and maintain the cooperative supply chains that are the heart of Fair Trade and real economic change for small-scale farmers. We are scrambling to get co-ops and farmers the best prices we can; so they can compete with local coyotes today and continue to develop and expand sustainable coffee production in the long-term.

In order to do this, Equal Exchange is taking every opportunity to be more frugal and efficient and cut back our own expenses. We are asking retailers and consumers to share some of these costs as well. Through this price increase, we can continue investing in the movement we have all built together, reinforcing the structures of empowerment and change, and continue to offer you the highest-quality coffee available.

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