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Meet Rob Everts of Equal Exchange in West Bridgewater

Today we’d like to introduce you to Rob Everts.

Rob, let’s start with your story. We’d love to hear how you got started and how the journey has been so far.
Equal Exchange was started in 1986 by three young men who worked in the cooperative food distribution area in New England. They wanted to demystify for consumers where our commodities from overseas come from, products like coffee, tea, bananas, etc. The objective quickly embraced the goal of totally reforming international trade, bringing small scale farmers and consumers closer together, and injecting more equity into the system.

In the early years a strong base of support came from people active in challenging U.S. policies in Central America that were responsible for so much repression and misery. We also found support from curious consumers, and especially from food cooperatives and activist churches.

We trace our founding date to, poetically, May 1, 1986 when US Customs released our first container of coffee that we imported from Nicaragua (via a third country) to challenge the Reagan embargo against the Sandinista government.

We’re always bombarded by how great it is to pursue your passion, etc – but we’ve spoken with enough people to know that it’s not always easy. Overall, would you say things have been easy for you?
Everything was a struggle in the early days. A conventional start-up is challenging enough, but here we were trying change trade, we were committed to paying farmers a price that enabled them to stay on the land, usually far above the world commodity price. We focused on coffee, but today have several other products including chocolate and cocoa, tea, bananas and cashews.

In the early years, “free trade” was barely in the public dialogue let alone the “fair trade” concept that we were talking about. So we have always consciously built in education as a critical element to what we do. Very challenging at many times was the very low commodity price environment where we were committed to pay farmers often much more, so since we didn’t believe we could plausibly pass all that on to customers, we have often operated at lower margins than other specialty coffee companies

So, as you know, we’re impressed with Equal Exchange – tell our readers more, for example what you’re most proud of as a company and what sets you apart from others.
Broadly speaking we seek to reform a food system that is in the grip of large corporations. From imports to manufacturing to distribution to retail, control of food has been increasingly consolidated into the hands of a small number of companies.

So we are trying to democratize the process and engage “citizen-consumers” in the process. We also try to practice what we preach, meaning, we have created a democratic ownership structure here. Equal Exchange is a worker owned cooperative business. Every worker-owner (founder and top management included) have the exact same ownership stake in the coop. We elect our own board of directors. All members are invited to participate in the governance; they of course attend board and membership meetings but are also encouraged to run for the board. For sure, we are far from perfect and have made more mistakes than we can possibly count, but we are engaged in the daily practice of building democracy.

On the farmer partner side, we commit to long term relationships with about 40 cooperatives around the world. We share market information, we engage in cross-training, and in recent years, we have invested more heavily in helping them increase productivity and yields as farm organically. We have also committed additional resources to help them fight the worst present-day impacts of climate change.

On the market side, we sell coffee, chocolate & cocoa, tea, bananas, nuts and dried fruits and olive oil. Food cooperatives make up a critical component of our base but we also sell to thousands of natural food stores and cafes, many mainstream supermarkets, and thousands of faith congregations.

We are proud that our non-capitalist model has stood the test of time. We are proud of the assistance we have provided others who seek to travel down this path. And we are proud to have built a brand that people have high trust in as a brand of integrity and of high quality products.

Where do you see your industry going over the next 5-10 years?  Any big shifts, changes, trends, etc? 
This could be answered in a couple of different ways. In terms of the products such as coffee, cacao, etc., we anticipate that climate change will make it more and more difficult for farmers in many parts of the world to stay on their land and be viable. This, of course, is extremely serious.

At another level, consumers are becoming increasingly interested in where their food comes from and under what conditions was it sourced. This is a very encouraging trend for those of us committed to transparent relationships and equity.

Finally, at the political/policy level in the world of “fair trade”, unfortunately, fair trade certifications have been largely taken over by large companies, sometimes misleading consumers into thinking they are buying one thing when it is something else. We are engaged in the very challenging effort of getting consumers to look beyond certification labels.

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Getting in touch: BostonVoyager is built on recommendations from the community; it’s how we uncover hidden gems, so if you know someone who deserves recognition please let us know here.

1 Comment

  1. Danielle

    June 27, 2017 at 1:25 pm

    Great interview!

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