Equal Exchange: a coffee co-op

I love anything you can drink in a mug. And until April, I worked at a local organic coffee shop where I had a great time trying out coffee roasts and tea varieties. It was there that I first heard of – and became addicted to – Equal Exchange coffee.

equal exchange header

Equal Exchange was founded in 1986 with $100,000 and the determination to positively impact the way coffee was grown and distributed. I often picture fair trade founders as sweet and soft spoken, so the Equal Exchange story fascinates me. On the Our Story page, they explain:

They chose Nicaraguan coffee — which they called Café Nica — as the first Equal Exchange product for a few reasons. In 1986, the Reagan administration imposed an embargo on all products from Nicaragua’s Sandinista government. Importing coffee beans from Nicaragua would demonstrate solidarity with the fledgling people’s movement and would challenge U.S. trade policies.

Equal Exchange brought Nicaraguan coffee into the U.S. through a loophole in the law. If the coffee was roasted in another country, it could be regarded as a product from that country, and therefore legally imported into the U.S. A friendly Dutch alternative trade organization stepped forward to offer assistance with the brokering and roasting.

Alerted to this symbolic action, the Reagan administration tried to stop the tiny organization. Officials seized Equal Exchange’s Nicaraguan coffee as soon as it arrived in the port of Boston. During their first two years of business, the founders spent many days, with trade lawyers at their side, doing battle with customs officials. Each time the coffee cargo was released it was a small victory.

In 1988, the Office of Foreign Assets Control threatened to close the loophole, and Equal Exchange’s founders launched a campaign against the move. Local and national congressmen, such as Rep. Joe Moakley and his dynamic assistant Jim McGovern, provided critical help alongside a groundswell of grassroots support. The result was a victory that made it clear that Equal Exchange wasn’t going away. Now Rink, Jonathan, and Michael — and a few new members of the Equal Exchange worker-cooperative — could focus all of their efforts on building their alternative business.

I think this kind of activism is as effective as it gets. Food production is a basic – and vital – component of human society; to resist the federal government to support the livelihoods of ignored or abused people packs an even bigger punch when its aim is to bring about freedom of trade for something so foundational, and harmless, as coffee.

Unlike most fair trade companies, Equal Exchange operates under a co-op model, which gives each individual equal importance and responsibility for the success and direction of the company.

mind, body, and soulThe truly great thing about Equal Exchange products, however, is that they’re delicious. I love Organic Mind, Body, & Soul. At the coffee shop, several individuals told us it was the best coffee in town. One even threw out the coffee he’d purchased at another coffee shop earlier in the day and bought Mind, Body, & Soul instead.

In addition to coffee, Equal Exchange sells tea, hot cocoa, chocolate, and snack food. They even have a Recipes section on their website; I can’t wait to try out the Moroccan Mint Iced Tea using the mint that’s growing with abandon in our yard as a garnish.

 

Are you addicted to coffee? What are your favorite fair trade brands?

image sources: one, two
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About Leah

I have a vintage clothing company called Platinum & Rust (.com). I'm also passionate about fair trade and sustainability issues; I work at a fair trade, organic coffee shop and blog about sustainable fashion at StyleWiseGuide.com.
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