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An Interview with Equal Exchange’s Lucas Fowler

Since we are celebrating fair trade this month, I thought it best to go straight to the company I think about first when I think of fair trade, Equal Exchange. I asked Lucas Fowler, the Equal Exchange rep for Willy Street Co-op, if he would be up for an interview regarding Equal Exchange’s involvement in the Fair Trade movement and about fair trade in general. Luke was kind enough to oblige and had a lot more to say then I could fit in our column but here is the heart of it:


MB: How did the fair trade movement come about?
LF: In 1946, a Mennonite by the name of Edna Ruth Byler started buying needlework from women artisans in Puerto Rico and selling those goods to neighbors and friends in Pennsylvania. Her work became the foundation for what is now Ten Thousand Villages. In 1949, a small group from the Church of the Brethren started selling cuckoo clocks made by German refugees. Their early work laid the groundwork for SERRV, whose headquarters are based in Madison. Fair trade handicrafts, and organizations built to sell those handicrafts, existed for almost 40 years before coffee from small farmers was being marketed as fair trade. Alternative trade organizations in Europe started importing fair trade coffee from small farmers in Latin America in the mid 80s. In 1986 Equal Exchange formed and imported its first container of coffee from Nicaragua, becoming the first fair trade coffee company in the United States. Willy Street Co-op started selling Equal Exchange coffee in 1987. You were one of our first customers!


MB: How can people be sure that what they are buying is legitimately fairly traded?
LF: At this point, I think you really have to know and trust the companies you are buying from. Apart from Equal Exchange, companies like Just Coffee, and their importer Cooperative Coffees, Dr. Bronner’s, Alaffia, Divine, Theo, Guayaki, Canaan Fair Trade and Alter Eco do really interesting and important work in the fair trade market. Building small farmer supply chains is difficult and risky work. Multi-nationals and bigger companies have convinced fair trade certifiers that the only way they can participate in the system is if the difficult work and time it takes to establish small farmer supply chains is taken out of the equation. That is how we have arrived at having plantations in the fair trade system. The pioneers of fair trade envisioned a system where small farmers had power and dignity in the global economy. A consumer isn’t necessarily supporting that vision anymore when they buy something that is certified fair trade. Consumers have the most power of anyone in the food system, and if they continue to demand to know where their food is coming from, fair trade can get back on track. In the mean time,the companies I listed are doing work that people can feel good about.


MB: Do you really think that fair trade is the best answer to struggling small farmers and producers around the world?
LF: Fair trade, and I mean authentic small farmer fair trade, is part of the answer, but not the whole answer. There are many conditions that need to be in place to create economic development that respects producers, their communities, and the land. Fair trade, when it’s practiced well, provides better prices, access to information, and opportunities for collaboration. Those are very important first steps to economic sustainability for a small farmer. Higher prices and pre-harvest financing help a farmer feed their family, the fair trade premium often gets used by producers to make upgrades to their farms, and the organic premium helps farmers protect the land and their community’s health. With access to information, farmers know what the market price for coffee or cocoa is, they can utilize the cooperative agronomist to help improve yields or troubleshoot issues, and they can get real-time data from Equal Exchange about how their harvests are tasting so that adjustments can be made for the following year’s harvest. Collaboration comes about when different organizations like Equal Exchange, Just Coffee, Lutheran World Relief, and Catholic Relief Services, to name a few, assist farming communities in building something that those communities have identified as an issue. That could be in the form of building community-owned drying beds, or investing in technology to help cacao farmers ferment their cacao beans to create the best chocolate possible. Beyond that, small farmers around the globe need what all rural communities often need: access to well-maintained roads, schools, health clinics, electricity, the internet, and those needs often exceed the capacity of selling one agricultural product. Fair trade, when done right, can be the fuel that makes the engine go, but you still need to build a vehicle around it.


MB: How does Equal Exchange play in to the fair trade industry?
LF: As the largest 100% fair trade food company in the United States, Equal Exchange does a few things really well in the fair trade industry. First, we set the bar really high for how we feel products should be traded, and want other companies and organizations to join us and compete with us in that type of trade.


Equal Exchange highly respects the organizations that enter the fair trade market, and execute on a mission that works with small farmers and seeks to educate consumers about the differences between conventional and equitable supply chains. The flip side of that is Equal Exchange can be a real thorn in the side of companies and certification schemes that take shortcuts to appear to meet those goals. Major endeavors like wide-spread organic production, building fair trade supply chains, maintaining foods that are free from GMOs, or recreating the means for local food production require really loud voices to prevent those ideas from being commodified, focus-grouped, and marketed to the point that they are virtually meaningless. Equal Exchange tries to be the loud voice for fair trade.


The second thing Equal Exchange does in the fair trade industry is introduce products that serve as an ethical counterpoint to conventional means of trade. Coffee is the first and most obvious example. We introduced fair trade chocolate and cocoa in the early 2000s when the only big players in the organic channel were Dagoba and Green and Black’s. Hershey’s and Kraft Foods (now Mondelez), who aren’t exactly in it for the farmer, now own those two companies. Introducing our chocolate bars and cocoa not only created a market for small farmer chocolate, it allowed us to educate consumers about child labor abuses in the conventional cocoa supply chain.


For tea, we wanted to create a product line that was actually from small farmersor worker-owned plantations. Fair trade-certified tea was actually the first product that allowed big, single-owner plantations into the fair trade system, and that marked the beginning of the division between the major certifier for fair trade products and the movement that was being developed around small farmers. The way tea is produced in much of the world is still a holdover from colonial era plantations. The owners of the plantations have changed, but many of the conditions on the plantations haven’t. By allowing plantations to be certified fair trade in the tea industry, it gave the illusion that tea could be this equitably traded product, when in reality, plantation owners are reaping the benefits of fair trade marketing while tea workers essentially remain bonded to plantations while gaining little to zero benefit from the fair trade certification. Equal Exchange actually has the first tea line in the industry that comes exclusively from small farmers or worker-owned plantations. For every product that Equal Exchange brings to market, the conventional equivalent has a dark history associated with it, and often our farmer partners are organizing to break free from that form of oppression. The examples for cashews, bananas, avocados, and olive oil are all similar.


MB: What makes EE so special?
LF: Thirty years ago, Equal Exchange’s three founders had a vision for what the organization would be:



  • A social change organization that would help farmers and their families gain more control over their economic futures.

  • A group that would educate consumers about trade issues affecting farmers.

  • A provider of high-quality foods that would nourish the body and the soul.

  • A company that would be controlled by the people who did the actual work.

  • A community of dedicated individuals who believed that honesty, respect, and mutual benefit are integral to any worthwhile endeavor.



In 2015, Equal Exchange still reflects that vision exactly. We’re able to work with thousands of farmers and dozens of farmer co-ops around the world, we get to do features like this that will hopefully be illuminating to your members, our products taste incredible and use great ingredients, we have over 115 worker-owners, and we still get out of bed and try to do the right thing every single day. That’s special.


MB: What does the future hold for fair trade?
LF: I would like to say the future is bright for small farmers who are participating in the authentic version of fair trade. Many farmer cooperatives are continuing to develop their infrastructure and diversify their capabilities in order to return more value back to the farmers. Although many of the farmers we work with are doing amazing things to protect their land, increase yields, and improve soil fertility, climate change is affecting farmers everywhere and increasing these challenges. Add on top of that certification schemes that no longer give small farmers an advantage in the fair trade system, as well as proposed and existing free trade agreements that tend to be extremely unfavorable to small farmers, and the future of the fair trade movement can seem pretty bleak. Those aren’t reasons to give up on building a more equitable food system though. If anything that makes us dig in deeper to the work we were already doing at Equal Exchange. When someone purchases Equal Exchange coffee, chocolate, tea, nuts, or bananas from Willy Street Co-op, that item is part of the most democratic global supply chain in the world. As long as organizations like Willy Street Co-op and Equal Exchange continue to grow, stay true to their respective missions, and inspire similar organizations to form and do business with small farmers, fair trade has a future.

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