By Becca Koganer, Sales Representative, Equal Exchange
As I prepared my bags for what would be my first sales retreat, my first time in the Midwest, and my first time in the same room with so many other worker owners at Equal Exchange from different regions- I was overwhelmed by the onset of ‘firsts’. Only in my second year at Equal Exchange, I knew I was coming together with folks from all different backgrounds, ages, and experiences. One of the youngest and newest to the movement, I can say I was a bit intimidated.
It was humbling to say the least, to be surrounded by such knowledge and experience. Some of us had only been at Equal a few years, some 10’s of years, some even from the birth of the organization.
So here we were, together for the first time in one, very interesting, very unique Bavarian retreat house on one of the ten thousand lakes of Minnesota. Represented were the West, Midwest, and East sales teams. Among the sales representatives were also some other inhabitants in our newly organized ‘Store Group’ including but not limited to those doing work in the categories of new products and the Principle Six Movement.
Why were we here? Yes, it’s true we needed to talk numbers and strategy in terms of… well, the sales and industry. We know we need to keep moving product for small farmers to keep the movement alive. For years, Equal Exchange has worked to strengthen co-op supply chains and empower farmers, while at the same time the Fair Trade Movement has been gaining publicity in the mainstream and companies are cashing in. This isn’t the first time movements have been co-opted. Poor organic, how pure you once were and now, oh so green washed. Queue the beginning of what I’ve started terming as fair washing.
What do we do when mainstream, large profit-driven corporations buy in to fair trade; the once upon a time alternative? How do WE stand out as a company (a company that started 25 years ago before there was ANY messaging and that is still struggling to survive within the over-messaging) and in a market where consumers are just plain confused? We do care about education. We also care about being attached to a system that has standards far below our own. We can talk about our own sourcing standards, our own business practices, but what impact will we have in a market that does not differentiate our voices? Not sure what I’m talking about? Just go to Walmart for your fair trade certified coffee. Now, more than ever, it is important for our allies in the co-operative world to stand with us. We have a lot of work to do to educate ourselves and our networks, and while this work feels heavy and daunting- it is at the forefront of why I am here at Equal Exchange.
As we mulled over the current happenings in the fair trade system, in the market of the natural foods industry, and in the consumer co-operative world, I felt overwhelmingly inspired to work for an organization that is actually bringing these issues to the table, taking that table to a nationwide retreat, and allocating our valuable time and resources to figure out what the hell we’re going to do about it all.
At the Fair Trade Futures Conference in Boston in October 2010, Santiago Paz of Cepicafe in Peru said: “It’s as if the certifiers are driving a car. They have their foot on the gas pedal and they’re going 60, 70, 80 mph. They’re accelerating so fast that they haven’t noticed that their passengers, the small farmers, are flying out the window.” To bring it back to me one more time, I want to reiterate that I’m not here to build a brand; I’m here to build a movement. Our products, our brand, our company are vehicles for change. Let’s slow these vehicles down so that we can understand where they are going and make sure small farmers are still on board.