Equal Exchange: Twenty Years of Cooperation and Fair
by Virginia Berman
On July 14th 2006, in honor of its 20th Anniversary, Equal Exchange held a Stakeholder Summit to assess its accomplishments to date and the challenges that remain to creating a more just economic system. Attending the Summit were two hundred people from nineteen countries, including some that came from as far as India, Ethiopia, Tanzania, South Africa and Paraguay. A great many were from the cooperative sector. About 70 employees of Equal Exchange were present, along with representatives of Fair Trade worker coops in Canada and Scotland, managers from coffee, cocoa, sugar, and rooibos small- farmer cooperatives, leaders from the global Fair Trade movement; U.S. store managers, and some of our interfaith partners.
Together, we asked difficult questions about where Fair Trade is going, where we want it to go, and how we think it could get there. There were two tracks at the Summit:
• How to build small-scale farmer solidarity, in particular through Fair Trade Certification, movement building, and cooperatives.
• What are our collective measures of muccess as leaders in this movement? In particular we looked at measures for: volume in Fair Trade imports, relationships between buyers and sellers, and consumer engagement.
Fair Trade leaders from farmer coops in Latin America, Africa and Asia shared personal and organizational experiences with traders, store owners and activists to facilitate better understandingof what lies at the “heart” of Fair Trade. Through collective, first hand, and sometimes opposing viewpoints, we heard a range of stories which are helping us to create a foundation of information and experience—along years of our sweat, passion, misgivings and joys—which will help us to forge new paths into the future.
Some of the highlights from the Summit:
• The problems small-scale producers face are many. The producers at the Summit highlighted the need to expand the Fair Trade markets along with the need to expand their own financial skills. They commented on how the policies of their governments often block them from progress, especially in the areas of tax reform and land policy.
• There was agreement on the need for Fair Traders to take more of a leadership role regarding the standards used in the Fair Trade certification process. In order to lead, we need to be better connected to one another as Fair Traders: consumers to producers, producers to other producers, and so on. The importance of introducing the cooperative model to producers, and to others located throughout the whole supply chain, was discussed and confirmed, and an educational campaign on the value of coops was suggested.
• There were questions about multinational corporations entering the Fair Trade niche and moving a high volume of Fair Trade coffee or cocoa, despite these companys’ low-to-nil philosophical commitment to Fair Trade. There were concerns about the concept of “fairness” when U.S. importers are showing strong growth in Fair Trade sales while the producer coops that they are purchasing from are not benefiting in equal proportion. In addition, producers and importers alike emphasized the importance of relationships based on mutual learning.
For a list of highlights from all of the workshops, shared and recorded at the end of the Summit, please visit http://www.equalexchange.coop/summit. A more comprehensive report from the event will be released in the Fall of 2006.
Virginia Berman is the Organizing Director for Equal Exchange.
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