Equal Exchange: Worker-Owned Fair Trade Food Company

07/25/2011 02:12 pm ET | Updated Sep 15, 2011

My guest today is Daniel Steinberg, Community Brand Builder at Equal Exchange. Welcome to OpEdNews, Daniel. Can you tell our readers a bit about Equal Exchange?

Equal Exchange is a successful worker-owned fair trade food company. For 25 years, we have worked to change the food system. We import and sell coffee, cocoa, chocolate, sugar, and bananas, mostly organic, from small farmer cooperatives in over 20 countries. While our main customers include natural food stores and cafés, we also partner with thousands of faith based organizations to bring fair trade to more people and communities. We even developed a fundraiser program for schools and we have a popular web store for those folks who can't find our products in their community.

I had no idea Equal Exchange has been around for so long. Has it always been worker-owned? Can you give us more background, please?

From the beginning, we have been a democratically organized enterprise that is governed and 100-percent owned by the employees on a one-person/one-share/one-vote basis. When profits are distributed, all 100+ worker-owners receive the same amount, regardless of rank or seniority. For example, a customer service worker with two years here receives the same check as the founder who's been here 25 years. We also have a salary structure where nobody is paid four times as much as the least paid full-time employee. While worker-ownership is a lot of work, it helps me feel more committed to the pursuit of our mission.

I love it. When you say it's a lot of work, what do you mean by that?

Along with a financial stake in our business, worker owners at Equal Exchange are asked to approve any major change in operations. For example, in 2005, a majority of owners had to approve the decision to move our headquarters to a new location in Southeastern, Massachusetts. Now with offices in St. Paul, Minnesota, and Portland, Oregon, along with employees who live and work in New York, Wisconsin, Washington, Maine, and California, making this type of decision takes a lot of coordination and consensus building. We think we're the first worker co-operative in the world to be spread over 3,000 miles! As owners, we are not just thinking about our personal responsibilities, but the goals and challenges of the entire company. Yes, it is a lot of work, but well worth it!

How did you end up at Equal Exchange?

I grew up in Boston, about 30 minutes from the Equal Exchange headquarters. I first remember getting interested in their work around my sophomore year in high school. After graduating from Connecticut College in 2001, I applied for a job in the Equal Exchange finance department. I had majored in anthropology, so I knew very little about finance, but that was the only available position. I wasn't hired, but my desire to work with Equal Exchange continued as I worked for other small businesses. It was in 2006 that I was hired to help Equal Exchange with consumer outreach. I became a co-owner in early 2008, and was recently elected by the worker-owners onto the board of directors. Equal Exchange is a dynamic organization, and I have really enjoyed being in a position to share our story with people across the country.

It sounds like a great place to work. You are your own bosses, for better or worse. Can you talk about some of your products, Daniel?

The Equal Exchange organic Love Buzz coffee and our 71% organic Very Dark Chocolate bar are two of our best sellers. I am also a huge fan of our Rooibos, a red tea that we purchase from The Wupperthal Tea Association, a democratically organized group of small-scale farmers in South Africa. More recently, we started selling organic tamari roasted almonds from California, and high-quality, organic olive oil from Palestine.

How are decisions made regarding new product lines? Where do the ideas come from?

Equal Exchange has over 100 co-owners, but we each have specific roles to play to help run a sustainable business. It is our purchasing team that develops relationships with farmers around the world. For international products, part of their work is to identify democratically run small farmer cooperatives that are producing high quality products. We develop relationships with farmer co-ops because we believe they are one of the best tools to address the long-standing economic, commercial, environmental, even political problems commonly found in the country-side of developing countries.

What's in Equal Exchange's future? How do you see yourselves growing and changing?

I am trying to tell everyone that we now sell organic fair trade bananas from small-farmer co-ops in Ecuador and Peru. Also, our Fair Trade fundraising program for schools is an exciting way for us to reach schools, individuals, and organizations. I already mentioned our olive oil, which is an exciting new product from small farmer co-operatives in Palestine. And of course, we will continue to rely on our farmer partners to provide us with the best coffee beans in the world, while relying on ourselves to enhance the beans' flavor profiles with each and every roast.

How does the Fair Trade fundraising program work?

The program is a 100% organic and fair trade school catalog fundraiser that gives the school 40% profit and, through the process, brings awareness to the students and community about where their food comes from and the people behind the products we use every day. It is an exciting initiative to engage with young people to change the world. What is really popular are the crafts such as hand-made alpaca finger puppets and the tree-free gift wrap that's made from recycled cotton from the garment industry. And of course, the Equal Exchange chocolate, coffee, and tea are also very popular items in the catalog.

So much nicer than those horrible gift wrap and candy bar sales that our schools are always doing! How long have you been offering this program and is there a lot of interest?

The Equal Exchange Fundraising Program started at the grassroots. Teachers, parents and students across the country began approaching us about their interest in a Fair Trade fundraising program. Like you, they were ready for a change from conventional fundraisers selling industrial gift wrap. We launched it as a pilot program in 2006. It worked, and since then, hundreds of parents and schools have helped grow the program across the country. We have even offered customers the opportunity to visit our cacao-farming partners, the CONACADO Co-op, located in the Dominican Republic. The Equal Exchange fundraising team also developed a Fair Trade curriculum and pen pal exchange program to help connect US children selling the chocolate with the children of the farmers who grow what they sold. Now, five years since we started, the program is really building energy and reaching more people.

I know you've been quite busy on two different fronts - with a big food show and also your first meeting as an official member of the Equal Exchange Board of Directors. How's all that going? What can you tell us about it?

On the one hand, I have my day job where I am currently coordinating Equal Exchange's involvement at the Fancy Food show in Washington D.C. This requires a lot of hands-on work and logistics. On the other hand, I was just elected to serve as a member of our board of directors. This presents an opportunity for me to engage in bigger organizational challenges then I can during my day job. For example, along with the legal and financial responsibilities of being a board member, I want to help ensure our business stays successful in ways that foster a democratically run workplace, support sustainable agriculture, and build lasting relationships with democratic farmer cooperatives. I am one of four new board members this year in a board made of up of six worker owners and three outside members. That is a lot of new energy. We had our first meeting last week and it went really well.

Glad to hear it. Anything we haven't covered yet?

It was really nice to talk with you today. I think we discussed most of the products and programs that Equal Exchange offers. If your readers want to learn more, I encourage them to visit our website and web store and to ask for Equal Exchange wherever they shop.

Thanks for talking with me, Daniel. Good luck to you!