It’s just short of 40 years since Rink Dickinson, Jonathan Rosenthal, and Michael Rozyne took the proverbial leap off the cliff to found Equal Exchange, the first fair trade food organization in the United States. The three young men, all in their mid-20s, met while working at Northeast Co-ops, a Boston-based, regional food co-op distributor. There, they acquired first-hand knowledge about the food system, food cooperatives, and myriad issues relating to farmers, consumers and workers.
It was the 1980’s and revolutionary movements – nationalist, agrarian reform, environmental, labor, and others – were erupting across the Global South. Solidarity movements in the North sprang up to support these popular struggles for social justice, democracy, and human rights. It was a time of conflict, political upheaval, and grassroots struggles; as well as a radical rethinking of power dynamics and possibility.
Jonathan, Michael and Rink traveled to Sri Lanka, Nicaragua and El Salvador; went to graduate school; and eventually, wrote a business plan to create a worker-owned, fair trade, business cooperative with a social justice mission. They wanted to prove that a business could be democratically run, fulfill a social mission, and still be profitable. Their mission was idealistic and multi-pronged: to support small farmer cooperatives and environmentally-sound, sustainable agriculture; to educate consumers about where their food comes from, who produces it, and under what conditions; and to bring producers and consumers closer together. They dug into their pockets; borrowed from their friends and families; and launched this radical and visionary organization.
Through the years, Equal Exchange has grown and evolved. Today, around 100 worker-owners carry out the mission in multiple offices across the U.S. The cooperative works with coffee, chocolate, cocoa, tea, nuts, olive oil and other products, buying from small farmer cooperatives in over 20 countries. As the corporate food system becomes ever more consolidated, making it increasingly difficult for independent food businesses and Alternative Trade Organizations (ATOs) to survive, Equal Exchange has used its profits to support these like-minded organizations to survive: today. There is a global network of independent food companies and food cooperatives in the Equal Exchange ecosystem.
While “trade” is the bread and butter of the organization, the work has always been carried out with an underlying vision of structural change; eventually articulated as fair trade. Already gaining momentum in parts of Europe, Equal Exchange played a meaningful role in establishing the concept of fair trade in the US. As the fledgling movement gained traction, we also benefited from the growing awareness and commitment to fair trade values from US activists and consumers.
House parties, interfaith coffee hours, store demos, postcard campaigns, farmer visits, and organized trips to source were just some of the strategies employed to educate, organize and promote a “new way of doing business.” In certain niche sectors, the idea caught like wildfire. Here was a badly-needed social justice movement that focused on issues of fairness; grounded in food, a universal life staple that brings people together across the world; emphasized community and relationships; and, perhaps most importantly, sparked hope. Emma Goldman’s famous quote, “if I can’t dance, I don’t want to be part of your revolution;” seemed applicable to this movement.
Over time, activists began to successfully pressure conventional supermarkets, coffee companies, and other food and beverage distributors to adopt this model of doing business. Ironically, as the “movement” grew and fair trade entered the mainstream, the original principles and values became watered down and distorted to become more “acceptable” to the corporations. Many of the certification agencies began to control, rather than serve, the fair trade movement and its values and ideals.
A paradox emerged: on the one hand, fair trade was gaining attention and sales of small farmer products were increasing. On the other hand, certification standards were being lowered and manipulated to accommodate the interests of the “big players.” While a fundamental goal of fair trade had been to even the playing field by supporting small farmer organizations, certifiers began unilaterally changing the standards to allow large plantations and corporate food businesses into the system, as they were “easier to do business with.” Once again, small farmer organizations were struggling to compete, now from within the fair trade system as well. And a movement built on the ideas of democratic decision-making was getting steamrolled by entities that had no interest in these underlying ideals. It’s no wonder consumers were confused. Was fair trade a good thing or just one more greenwashing scheme?
The principles of fair trade required those of us in the Global North to take a hard look under the hood of our purchasing behaviors and to consider the impact of those actions on the majority of the world’s growers. Equal Exchange invited consumers to carefully examine what and who is behind the products, producers, manufacturers, distributors; even grocery outlets; to learn who benefits at each stage of the supply chain. We encouraged curiosity and scrutiny: who ultimately controls the food we eat, how it’s grown, and who profits.
Slowly over time, the certification bodies began to gain control of the “movement.” All the deep complexities, rich cross-cultural learning, discussion, engagement, and debate around ethics and democracy that were embedded in fair trade, were reduced to a dumbed-down, but very clever marketing slogan on the part of the certifiers: just “look for the [fair trade] seal.” And so, like other grassroots movements before it, fair trade was co-opted by corporations eager to hop on the wagon and claim a shiny, but hollow, version as their own.
Equal Exchange, and others, fought against this for many years. Finally, after helping to create, as well as benefit from, the wave of excitement, passion, and conviction that fair trade was generating in the U.S., Equal Exchange decided to pull out of the certification system.
Since then, Equal Exchange has continued its work, reconnecting with our original vision and core identity while looking for solidarity in new places following the disappointment and corporatization of fair trade. It’s been hard to see something we thought of as a movement and rightly or wrongly considered a big piece of who we were as an organization for so much of our history, become largely meaningless. As a result, we are challenging ourselves to move past this phase while always reflecting on successes and failures.
As Rink Dickinson, co-founder and president, discusses in the following interview, Fair Trade is no longer the banner under which Equal Exchange carries out its mission. The need still exists; the work goes on; and the organization continues to have impact. But buying and selling products, even under “more fair” terms, was never the vision nor the end-game. Rather, the founders’ compass pointed always toward systemic change.
During the past several months, I’ve been speaking with Rink about Equal Exchange and fair trade. I asked him:
Below are excerpts from Rink’s reflections during our conversations.
Fair Trade is dead
Basically, these questions hark back to when we came out with the proclamation, around 2010: “Fair Trade is dead.” As an organization, we had been talking about that belief for a long time before we went and announced it publicly. And it was provocative. We all knew it was true, but declaring it publicly was like, “Oh, my God, you’ve touched a raw nerve!”
I’ve spent a long time thinking about this: if it’s true that “Fair Trade is dead,” what exactly was this whole thing about in the first place? I’m not even calling it a movement, because I don’t think it ever was a movement. But it wasn’t nothing either, right? I think it’s worth asking the question: if it wasn’t a movement, then what was Fair Trade and what wasn’t it? In other words, if I still care about all that the Fair Trade movement was supposed to be about, then where do I park all of that now? What is the place in which I’m asking people to relocate their thinking? What have we learned and how do we move forward?
Equal Exchange: a radical organization in a capitalist system
One of the things I’m trying to get my head around is the market and how it works. If you asked me what I was thinking about in the beginning; what was I trying to do and why? Back then, I would have said, “I want to do this impossible thing that is not allowed in the world system.” I think Michael and Jonathan and I were fairly unified on that.
Literally, at the time, we just wanted to try and do this impossible thing: to create a radical organization within the market that would attempt to serve, rather than exploit, farmers, consumers and workers. We considered incorporating as a non-profit, because our mission was social and educational. But after much deliberation and debate, we opted instead to form a cooperative business. Our reasoning was that if we could succeed in proving that a business could be democratically-run, promote fairness in the market, have a social justice mission, and still be both entrepreneurial and profitable, it might serve as a model.
By year three, we start to realize that there will be something here. Because when we began, we didn’t know: it could just be an attempt to do something but never even get breathing. But we soon realized that we were indeed building something.
We were an organization trying to do something very radical within a market system: build a democratic workplace that fosters entrepreneurship, participatory decision-making, ongoing worker education, and a 3:1 pay scale; keep profits low and reinvest in workers and farmers; prioritize worker-owners over outside investors by giving them a voice and vote, as well as a share of profits; and ensure that Equal Exchange can never be “sold out; in the event that the worker-owners vote to sell the cooperative, all net proceeds would be donated to a like-minded Alternative Trade Organization (ATO).
All of that felt pretty radical at the time. But that’s really different than believing you are creating anything approaching a movement that would have any sort of global impact.
Fair Trade: a neo-movement?
When we started out, we would have said that we were part of, and grew out of, the Central America solidarity movement. Fair trade [in the U.S.] came much later. Ironically, while fair trade never became a full-fledged movement, in some ways it was much more magical and alive. It had more people showing up in some way because it’s something you can feel good about and there’s a tangible “product” that brings people together [across communities in the North and between the North and the South.]
In hindsight, I guess I’d call Fair Trade a neo-movement, with a small “n.” I think there really was a “Fair Trade.” But I’d say it’s either a small movement, or something less than a movement. It’s somewhere in that status.
I say this because I don’t think that there was a Fair Trade movement in the sense that there was a civil rights movement or an anti-war movement; or even a Central American solidarity movement. On the other hand, I’m not going to say that Fair Trade wasn’t a movement, either…. It’s a judgment call.
Was there an anti-apartheid movement? I think there was. What’s the difference? Think about what the anti-apartheid movement was trying to do: at the most basic level, we wanted to end apartheid. Yes, there were all these strategies and tactics and beliefs and alliances, as well. But, generally speaking; if we can overthrow apartheid, that’s what we want.
What was the U.S. solidarity movement trying to do? We wanted to end the U.S.-funded wars in Central America. In that sense, you could basically argue that we won. But what was the Fair Trade movement trying to do? It was too vague and broad: I mean, change [the terms of] trade? Give me a break!
The concept was unclear. The actions were unclear. The goals were unclear. And that was why it was both strong and why it was so weak. And why we got to the point of saying it was dead.
Because, you know, “Hey, there’s $2 billion worth of product being sold with a fair trade seal.” Wow, now that’s a powerful movement, right?! No one knows what that means. No one cares. And it’s irrelevant to everybody. And truly, when we were saying that Fair Trade is dead, we were correct. And now, you couldn’t be more dead if you tried.
The high point: leverage in the market
At our strongest moment, we did have leverage over the market. Our maximum point of leverage was sometime around 1996 or 1998. That lasts maybe until around 2008 or 2013. During those years, we’re at this point of maximum leverage and maximum neo-movement.
This means that you’re setting the terms. Of course, this is overstated. But you appear to be setting the terms of trade — in your little world. The same is true with the farmers: they appear to be setting the terms of trade to some extent, also in this world.
Excerpt from the 2001 Equal Exchange Annual Report
This is when FLO (Fair Trade International) is wandering around doing stuff. Max Haavelar is doing stuff. TransFair USA is doing stuff. People are debating standards in sugar versus standards in bananas versus standards in fresh flowers. And then Fair Trade USA is splitting off from Fair Trade International. There’s a lot of movement and debate.
What’s happening is that several consumer market activities going on at the time are having their moment of leverage. The organic movement, which has a separate history independent of us, is trying to influence consumer behavior; and is having leverage. We are also starting to have some leverage. It’s the corporations [supermarkets and distributors] who are very slow to respond to any of this; and when they do, they are really ineffective at responding.
All this is happening, at least, in our world, which is just a piece of the Specialty Coffee arena. Specialty coffee is selling more and more. And basically, the big corporate coffee brands literally don’t know how to respond to any of this. They are totally ineffective at responding. They’re like the US government: they can’t even move; like they just can’t function.
So in this period of leverage, it appears that organized consumers are influencing these major players: the corporate actors appear to be responding to issues of sustainability, fairness, small farmers, democracy, etc. But because there are separate mini-movements [organic, fair trade, local, etc.] all developing, spreading, and interacting, all of these consumer activities get blended together. This is true for the corporations, as well as for the activists.
But let’s take it from the corporate point of view, because it’s the corporations that actually dominate the market system: everything they’re doing is somewhat indistinguishable. If you’re a corporation during this point in time, you might be thinking: “I have consumers; I’m in a competitive situation. I see that consumers seem to care about some of these things.” [Fair Trade, organic, local, sustainability, etc.] I’m competing and I see I have a problem that I need to solve. Someone tells me the way to solve my problem is: “you got to get this Fair Trade thing, okay?” So, I better go get this Fair Trade thing.
That’s how we can see that we’re having market leverage. These corporations are like, “Oh, I have to care about this. We have a problem in chocolate; what are we going to do? Go solve our problem! Go buy some stuff! I think we have to care about this. Somebody on our board says we should,” or something like that.
But, what actually is “this thing” I’m told I have to have? Say it takes you five, six, seven, eight years to figure out what Fair Trade is and to figure out how to try to start solving this problem (competition) you have. And, your “Fair Trade” problem; it’s also overlapping with this organic thing. It’s overlapping with “local” and “speciality,” or something else, as well.
The paradox of the market
The irony is that the activists are also buying the market model. And the alternative stores [food co-ops, etc.] and the alternative distributors are all basically buying the market model. Everyone’s underneath the dominant market model. And so they’re winning and feeling good about it and thinking things are good. Very good. The fact that they’re actually alive and influencing things makes them feel good. But they’re not learning about; well, not enough of them are learning enough about; power dynamics and how they really work.
The paradox is that you are having leverage in the market; and yet, by nature of being in the market; you are limited in what you can achieve. The activists who actually cared about small farmers and fairness and democracy and international solidarity are part of an alternative that’s working. They’re having leverage over these corporations. But, they’re also following the dominant market model.
Because at the end of the day, we never did any of what we did, just to be some kind of socially responsible business. We’ve always seen ourselves as being more than any of these things. We have a more developed understanding of what we were trying to do and how these things actually work. But it hasn’t been easy to find allies and partners with this same level of analysis and purpose.
So, at the time, we were watching the power of this lever; we were watching the leverage and saw it starting to hit a wall and then to recede. And then, the dominant corporate system; which ignored all this; didn’t understand any of this for 20 years; and then responded; kind of finally did respond; and then responded in all kinds of ways for some period of time; then figures out it shouldn’t respond; and stops responding; and responds less and less and less until… like, suddenly, there’s just nothing left at all.
And just as Fair Trade USA grows and grows and grows, it actually makes no difference at all.
Neither for the activists nor for the corporations. It’s like suddenly everybody runs out of steam at the same time.
And so the contradiction is; depending on who you are; if you’re a market enterprise in that dynamic, you look after your market interest. TransFair will look after certification revenues and how to add more products. Fairtrade International will do that, but they’ll do it a little differently. And the SPP (The Small Producer Symbol certification system), will as well; everybody and everyone is playing the same game. Perhaps, a food co-op that’s been part of the idea will think about these things a little differently. They’ll go further, but ultimately they are also captive to their market interests.
Suddenly, no one’s worrying about this neo-movement. Everyone rose somewhat from this neo-movement and this point of leverage, and then all of a sudden, everybody just starts “minding their own little store.”
Reforms vs. movements
As fair trade grows, you start having these reforms of the production system: fair trade, organic, local, etc. Do these concepts and reforms lend themselves to being a movement? I don’t think so. There’s a brief time when there’s momentum to build a reform space around the market and citizen action and corporate responsibility; perhaps all this could have grown to justify being called a movement; I’m not sure.
There’s a difference between reforms and a “movement.” If I’m a supermarket chain in the early 1990s, these reform concepts are coming to me at different speeds, from different players, depending on a set of random things; they’re all coming to me and at me. Depending on who I am, where I sit, who happens to get to me first; I might respond to organic trends, or the specialty market, or fair trade.
This is all true in the food co-op world as well. It’s all good stuff. And it makes everyone feel good about themselves. “We’re good people. We care about that. This is a good thing to care about.” But the alternative space is not defined; it never gets fully articulated and defined. There really isn’t much analysis or critical thinking about what we are truly trying to build, and build together, rather than just responding to a lot of concepts that are all good ideas in and of themselves.
Fair trade in decline
We see this all happening. And this is when we begin to understand that fair trade has reached its peak. Internally, and along with allies and activists, we organized and campaigned and fought to prevent the corporatization of fair trade: the weakening of standards and the betrayal of the original principles to support small farmer organizations, with the entry of plantations into the system, etc.
Those were difficult years as we saw that the enthusiasm and passion was still there, but the leverage was weakening. Then, around 2007 for about three years or so, we began internally (within Equal Exchange) to debate this idea that, in fact, fair trade was dead. By 2010, we started to publicly articulate it in those words.
Everyone is struggling to reform the certification bodies, to inform and educate consumers, to organize campaigns. In the end, really none of this makes a difference toward the long-term goal of transforming trade. Whatever “movement” people think they are part of building; it isn’t succeeding in creating systemic change. The corporations have “taken” the movement and turned it into their own, weak marketing tool.
During this time, and as a response to the corporatization of Fair Trade certification, the SPP was created in the Global South. The small farmer co-ops and a handful of Alternative Trade Organizations (ATO’s) and coffee roasters see themselves as part of a movement. In fact, they probably cared more about building, or rebuilding a movement in a way that no one else does.
But the SPP movement is on the producer side only. And, they’re taking a tactic which is only for the consumer side. Their basic strategy is organizing consumers, but there are actually no consumers at all in their organization. And they’re just pushing down from a producer view the relic of a tool that worked at this one moment of incredible leverage.
They’re learning the wrong lesson. We had this huge lever back then from 1993 to 2005. So, the SPP says, “Let’s go recreate this other thing, but with higher standards.” They do that to recreate that lever. But, in reality, they didn’t know how the lever actually worked here in the Global North, which is where their strategy is designed to play out. But, at least, that is their goal.
Reframing the Vision
What I make of all this is that it was actually never supposed to work. Like the Zapatista movement; did they think it was going to work? Or were they taking a magical moment to push something forward; to engage people in understanding some issues? And then maybe, likewise, for them: it kind of worked for a while; and, all of a sudden, you’re actually sort of running something?
How could you possibly go and buy and sell things and change the way the international trade system works? In some bizarre way, we had dramatically more influence than we ever could have dreamed. I’m saying “we,” now, both as Equal Exchange, but also as the collection of people in those groups that did all this at this time.
It shouldn’t be surprising that it’s really hard to do this today. For Equal Exchange, the business, at the scale we’re at; to try to continue to do two things simultaneously is just an almost impossible thing. We are trying to support a movement; trying to find a movement; trying to understand and apply lessons from what we’ve learned as a model of how the world should work. But at the same time, we are an organization which is, in fact, in the marketplace and has to deal with these massive contradictions of a business being at some scale [$70 million of sales/year, almost 100 worker-owners, multiple partner organizations] and trying to do the impossible still.
I think somehow one of the challenges was that you had that theoretical success at that time of most leverage. Now it’s much harder. Everything is harder now. A lot of ATOs are gone. Conversations with core stores or core activists are harder to have. You can organize way fewer people. It’s harder to talk about these issues. It’s less exciting and there is less excitement.
Fair trade is dead. It’s literally dead; meaning there’s no life to it anymore. And yet, now, when you finally do organize something, you still have to have the same conversation with a few people: “Oh, actually, Fair Trade is NOT where it’s at anymore, and this is why.” “Why do you believe that; I was for Fair Trade?” And then you have to start saying: “Oh no, it was actually… it was all just part of the corporate system.” If they make it through that conversation, then you have to say, “Yeah, but it’s still exciting. And we do this other stuff, right?” And it’s like, “Oh, man, is that challenging to explain.”
An idea in good currency
One of the hard things for people is that they want to believe they’re successful. And success is defined how the dominant culture views it. You see yourself through the reflection of the dominant culture. If you’ve got that reflection that what you were doing was pretty meaningful for a while, and then it’s gone; well, that can feel pretty bad. But, if you think that it was never actually what you were organizing for, you can look at things differently; try to move forward in a new way. But you need to have solidarity, vision, and perspective to work through all those things.
I’ve thought about this concept that our professor, Don Schoen, put forth. He had this theory about “ideas in good currency.” In other words, when Fair Trade starts to become “an idea in good currency,” is when the dominant culture starts to accept your idea. Suddenly, you hear: “tell us about your idea. Tell us about Fair Trade. That sounds great! We like that.” That’s the dominant culture starting to accept your ideas. And there are real, actual positives that come from that; as well as a lot of challenges. It’s a multifaceted dynamic that I’m attempting to grapple with here.
The dominant culture is the industry. For example, say you’re an Equal Exchange salesperson, calling a store to talk about what we do. The buyer answers the phone. You explain our mission and they respond, saying, “Yeah, yeah, we’re interested! Come on in and make a presentation about what you’re about.” The dominant culture is now interested; and they might be genuinely interested. They might treat you with respect. They might also be just, like, “whatever; I guess, I have to do this thing.” They might just not even know what you’re talking about, or why they’re talking to you about all this.
But, when you have that amazing connection over mission and values and impact, which Equal Exchange did have during that period; when you have that and then you slowly, clearly, broadly lose it… when you were there for all of it… and then, when Whole Trade is running Fair Trade, which is running TransFair, which is running… and the whole thing has gone off the rails… And you’re less successful. What do you do with that
You were not trying to get known in the dominant culture. You weren’t opposed to that. But that’s not what you were ever trying to do. You were trying to bring small farmers to the table and consumers to the table. And have people use their power in a different, more direct and democratic manner. That gets perverted by the dominant culture; and then it gets discarded by the dominant culture. And then, who are you now?
But you weren’t ever doing all this so that a supermarket would do a promo with you. That’s not why you were doing this. Of course, you wanted a buyer to respond favorably, and support and promote your brand; that just was never the end goal. Food coops understood what we were trying to do; certainly, more than most of the supermarkets; but even they had a hard time stepping out of the dominant culture. Equal Exchange has to operate in the market, as well; but we were only one of a handful of legacy brands that at least tries to operate as much outside of the dominant culture as possible.
Replacing fair trade as the banner
None of this is to say that you stop doing any of the work you’re doing. It’s just that your banner for that work is no longer there. The work is still there; was always there; and will be there: but it’s the banner that is totally discredited. So the question I’m asking myself is where is all of this going: what movement should we think of “Ex-Fair Trade” being in now? What would be a new banner? Is there; should there be a banner? And if so, what might it be? How should we think about all this?
Because, we articulate Fair Trade as the banner: literally in 1986, I was talking about Fair Trade. I was going to supermarkets and talking about Fair Trade. And it was like talking to people about some other planet in the solar system. No one had any idea what Fair Trade was, and yet, there we were, asking people to support us and to get behind this whole new way of doing business.
That’s where we started. And then all sudden, it all happens. We didn’t say: “You know, the world system has been oppressing most people for the last 500 years; would you like to be part of a really tiny model that’s trying to challenge that?” That’s how I was feeling about our mission. But that was not what I articulated. Internally, as Equal Exchange, we were trying to create a proposed solution to this problem in a very practical, but utopian way. And then, it all got put under a banner of Fair trade and suddenly, things flipped in the most amazing way. You’ll never get that again. You might get that kind of leverage every 100 years.
I still think that being part of and helping to organize a social justice movement is extremely important. We need to do this today more than ever, and there’s a huge opening for it right now. But no one knows how to effectively do this right now.
Clearly, the world in 1986 was very different from the world we’re in now; but in some ways, you could say that we are circling back. When Equal Exchange was created, international solidarity was on the table. I think that at some point, it went extremely off the table. Right around 9/11. I think that event changed our relationship with the rest of the world. In some ways, we are much more back to international solidarity on a macro level now. Once again, we are all living on one planet. You can’t really separate the United States and France from the world; that approach doesn’t work anymore. So, the macro world political discourse is much more open to the world system again.
My current view is that during this next period, you’re just wandering around for however long it takes. It’s uncomfortable and not the way most of us want to be doing our work. But I don’t think there’s a clear path at the moment. You can’t organize right now by telling people, “this is what you have to go do.” I just don’t think that would work. If I thought there was a clear path, we would be doing it. For example, when the goal was, “let’s stop the U.S. government from funding the war in El Salvador,” then we would go ahead and organize around that. But, what’s the goal now?
Clearly, we care about democracy movements; environmental movements; economic justice movements. But you don’t know. You hope there are movements that are meaningful; that are compatible with what you’re doing; that you can support, and gain from, and be part of. But I don’t think you can sit and define what they are. I can hypothesize that the next spark that ignites a movement will be worker-ownership, or agroecology, or climate change. I can hypothesize about various things; but it’s probably going to be something that we can’t yet imagine.
Until a new path becomes clear, we’ll keep doing what we do: supporting small farmer cooperatives and connecting them through trade and solidarity with consumers. In the meantime, to lay the groundwork for the future, we have to shed old ways of thinking and working that no longer serve our mission. We need to continue making sense of our history and context; evaluating what worked and what didn’t work in this last period of rise and decline of the banner of fair trade; and organizing space with consumers and activists. We’ll keep working toward justice, solidarity, and social change.
I keep returning to the internal question I never articulated out loud: “would you like to be part of a really tiny model that’s trying to challenge a world system that oppresses most people?” At some point early in our history, Fair trade took off as one such possible model. it rose and fell and then died a slow death. The way forward might not be as clearly defined without that banner, but the work remains as critical as ever. We invite you to join us in this next phase; perhaps together we’ll create a new model that just might spark the next movement.
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