Equal Exchange: Defining Smart Business

Equal Exchange coffee bag

Equal Exchange is more than a successful business. The worker-owned co-op not only preserves and protects the sustainability of its own business model, but also devotes resources to improve the food system their products depend on.

This holistic outlook redefines corporate responsibility. Equal Exchange, probably as much as anyone, has struggled with competitor interpretations of corporate responsibility. The fight to keep Fair Trade authentic from copy cats continues. But Fair Trade is just one political topic that Equal Exchange stands behind. They take action for workers rights internationally and in their home state of Massachusetts. In the Congo, Equal Exchange has partnered with the Panzi Foundation that is combating sexual violence against women. Dr. Denis Mukwege from Panzi Hospital just won a Nobel Peace Prize for his work there.

And Equal Exchange is proceeding with an intellectual approach to food production. They have a growing Action Forum educating consumers, activists, and investors. Somewhat undefined when it started, this forum has evolved into an expansive think tank where members learn about the market, the growers, and the environment that Equal Exchange products come from. Recent topics include environmental challenges, human rights, and democracy.

This intellectual analysis is valuable, exceptional, and takes resources. But at the same time it is common decency. When I worked with business consultants, I was amazed at the intellect that came with high powered MBA degrees. But what struct me just as much was the lack of intelligence regarding the business ecosystem such as what Equal Exchange strives to protect. Growth in a vacuum is standard in traditional business. But if “value” is based on pure extraction of resources and profits, aren’t there obvious consequences? This lack of concern for real world effects inspired this blog with co-ops as a solution and my first blog post that covers this evident blindness in business. All resources need to be measured in the “economic throughput” (See author Herman Daly).

Equal Exchange’s conscientious business model defines what smart is. Responsible intellectuals, according to Noam Chomsky in his essay “The Responsibility of Intellectuals,” speak the truth. Equal Exchange has boldly embarked on an intellectual assessment of food production and wants to educate the consumer on its realities. Equal Exchange empowers their suppliers. They further make this model transparent for the consumer. What Equal Exchange does isn’t easy. Their business is built on years of difficult decisions and risk. But their worker-owner model is willing to think through the impact of making money off of resources which I think is good business.

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