Where Did All the Avocados Go?: Exploring Market Imperfections

Equal Exchange avocado supporters may remember that in October 2016, Equal Exchange avocados were unavailable for about 2 weeks due to strikes in Mexico. You may also remember that during that time, Equal Exchange Produce President Nicole Vitello put out a blog post about the supply gap in which she tackled two major questions about the situation. Why did the supply of Mexican avocados to the U.S. suddenly stop? And how is Equal Exchange an alternative?

In late October and early November 2018, we found ourselves in a strikingly similar situation – once again, there were strikes in Mexico that effectively halted the avocado industry for a little more than two weeks. Although the strikes have come to an end as of November 14, we want to take the time to reflect address these questions again.

Why did the supply of Mexican avocados to the U.S. suddenly stop?

The avocado business is weekly and imperfect. Each week, exporters consider their costs, margin, and the forces of supply and demand at play in the market to determine a field price, or price per kg of fruit that will be paid to growers. The field price is perhaps the biggest influencer of the subsequent prices in the supply chain, down to the price for a single avocado on the store level. However, the train goes both ways — the field price is also influenced by the desired unit prices of retailers.

In this push and pull to determine a weekly field price, there are imbalances of information and power. As fruit is harvested, packed, and shipped, the market continues to move — sometimes resulting in fruit that was purchased above or below the price in the market when it is sold.

The strikes that just concluded in Mexico were largely in protest of different issues related to field prices, including market volatility and the low level of field prices. Large price drops are especially difficult on farm operations. “Prices fell quite abruptly in the last week … to almost half of what the producers were receiving a month or a month and a half ago,” Ramon Paz, president of Avocados From Mexico and consultant for the Avocado Producers and Exporting Packers Association of Mexico (APEAM), told Fresh Fruit Portal last week. The level to which the price has dropped is low enough that growers are citing “economic losses and employee layoffs”.

These economic frustrations are very much akin to those behind the strikes in 2016. Colin Fain of Agronometrics shows how monthly prices have been dropping since supply became steady in August.

U.S. Historic Monthly Avocado Shipping Point Prices

Source: Avocados in Charts: How does the Mexican growers’ strike compare to 2016?

Price (USD) = price per 25 lb case of avocados

This chart shows shipping point prices in 2016 vs in 2018. Why did producers strike this October, since prices are not at or near the lows of 2016? As discussed earlier, market volatility is part of the issue. This chart illuminates the drop in prices between August and October – along with generally lower price levels throughout the season.

Side by side with steep price drops and consistently lower prices, the more nuanced issue of transparency throughout the avocado supply chain and industry shines through. Growers asked APEAM, an industry association, to set minimum price levels. APEAM cites international  trade law in stating that they cannot legally comply with this request, and that price is to be determined between a buyer and a seller. Per the recap of price negotiations earlier in this article: pricing in the avocado business is messy and lacks transparency, with various actors and forces influencing the price with changing and uneven force.

Ramon Paz’s statement regarding the end of the strikes further suggests the importance of the transparency issue: “…the parties had agreed to increase the transparency of information so that everyone knows the reality of the market, the costs and the marketing margins.’”

How is Equal Exchange an alternative?


EE Staff walk with producers
Equal Exchange team members checking out the huertas (orchards) of avocado producer partners in Michoacán, Mexico.

Equal Exchange takes an approach in which farmer and importer can sit at a table together, on equal footing, and express themselves, negotiate terms that work for both sides, and learn from one another.

What are some of the ways that this approach come to life in Equal Exchange’s work, with regards to pricing?

  • We negotiate prices directly with growers. Negotiating directly allows for more transparency, as growers know the export price of fruit. In other models, growers sell to intermediaries who consolidate fruit to sell to exporters. Growers often do not know the export prices of their fruit. Negotiating directly also allows both parties to share market information. We believe letting growers know what is happening on the distributor and retail level leads to more informed discussions and healthier businesses for everyone.
  • In addition to negotiating prices directly with growers, we purchase directly from growers. This builds efficiency into the supply chain by cutting out intermediaries, and is part of what allows us to pay growers prices above going market rates to realize the value of their premium fruit.
  • We insulate against major price drops by adjusting prices more gradually. This means sometimes taking a hit to our margin to smooth out market volatility for both producers and consumers. This also means investing in education for our customers, to give context for why Equal Exchange fruit prices can sometimes differ from that of other suppliers.

It is estimated that the avocado industry lost $4.3 million a day due to the closures caused by the strikes. While Equal Exchange’s producer partners were not directly involved in the strike, they, along with 25,000 growers and 24,000 industry workers, were impacted by the halting of operations and are implicated in these losses.


Avocado Warehouse
Workers packing avocados into boxes at a packhouse in Michoacán, Mexico.


On Wednesday November 14, harvest, packing, and shipment of avocados resumed per agreements between growers and APEAM. The resolution that was reached include various commitments that address the root issues of the strikes, like transparency: one next step is the development of a weekly report with market information shared by APEAM.

As the avocado industry continues to evolve, Equal Exchange is committed to continue offering an alternative supply chain that is transparent, direct and fair, and will continue to act as a bridge and advocate between producers and the rest of the supply chain.


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Congregation Spotlight: Fair Trade Sunday with Carolyn Boone

Carolyn Boone’s church brews fairly traded coffee at gatherings and sells a variety of Equal Exchange products once a month after services. Every year, they rank among Equal Exchange’s top customers! What’s their secret? We thought we’d give Carolyn the change to tell you, in her own words!

Read on to hear about some of the steps Carolyn and other volunteers take to help the program succeed — and what inspires the whole community to get behind this ministry.


We started attending Trinity Lutheran Church in Lynnwood, Washington, about ten years ago.  We were drawn in large part by their commitment to community, both locally and internationally.  I was drawn to the Fair Trade ministry that had been running at the church for about six years, and started to help volunteer.

We sell Equal Exchange products on the first Sunday of every month, offering coffee, tea, nuts, olive oil and, most importantly, chocolate.  With a set monthly time that people can depend on, they will wait to buy their product until it’s Fair Trade Sunday, which allows the growth of a dependable customer base.  We listen to their requests and pay attention to what sells and what doesn’t, and try to adjust our inventory to their needs. We also sell at our cost, since our goal is to funnel business to the Fair Trade farmers, not to raise money for some other goal.  This makes us able to sell at a more attractive price than our competitors. Our church has a weekly newsletter that is emailed and handed out every week, and we make a point of putting a reminder and thank you in the week before Fair Trade Sunday.

We have been in the top 5% of Equal Exchange faith-based customers for several years now.  This is due in large part because the church as a whole supports the ministry by buying all coffee through us.  When we make our monthly purchase from Equal Exchange, we always buy several cases of 5-lb bags that are used in the large kitchen for fellowship hour and all other gatherings.  We have a grinder that also measures the correct amount for a good pot of coffee, so it’s a seamless process. The staff kitchen uses the 2.5 oz. pillow pack coffee in their kitchen, which we also buy on a monthly basis.  Other ministries in the church contribute to the cost of the coffee their group uses, so we are truly supported by the entire congregation and staff.

If we who have so much can find ways to help those of us who have so little, I believe it is our duty to do so.  Farmers in the third world work so hard just to survive, while we have so much we are able to splurge on luxuries such as coffee and chocolate.  It seems an easy choice to funnel our money through the most direct pipeline to those farmers while enjoying the fruits of their labor.

Galatians 2:10:  Only, they asked us to remember the poor, the very thing I was eager to do.

Two smiling women
Jude Vaders and Carolyn Boone volunteer at their church’s Fair Trade ministry.

Got tips of your own? Let us know how you share fair trade at home, at school, at work or at church! We’d love to hear from you in the comments below.

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Get Social! Boost Fundraising With Social Media

Promoting your fundraising campaign is important. If supporters don’t know about it, they can’t participate. Use email and handouts to amplify your campaign, or take advantage of your organization’s website, newsletters, blog, and — best of all — social media accounts. We’re here to help!  For this post, we’re going to focus on your organization’s Facebook page, but many of these tips can be applied to other forms of communication.

Download Graphics To Promote Your Fundaiser>>

You’re raising money for something important. We’re not all sales people and for some of us, reaching out for support can be uncomfortable; even a bit scary. What can help take this fear away, as with most things in life, is to simply make a plan. There are three phases to a fundraising campaign; a beginning, a middle, and an end. When broken down into sections, planning out what to post on Facebook and when to post it becomes much easier.

Facebook works best when you use short, direct posts and good images. Planning these in advance isn’t difficult, but it does require a little thought before starting your campaign. If you don’t map this out, you can easily forget, post haphazardly (people do notice!), or miss out on fundraising opportunities altogether just because people just don’t know.

Facebook posts should coincide with each phase of your campaign. Rotate messages to include just one or two these key basic points: Who, What, Why, Where, When, and How. First, customize this list to fit your organization’s needs:

  • Who: Your organization and the program that needs funding
  • What: An Equal Exchange Fundraising Campaign
  • Why: Why you selected Equal Exchange
  • Where: Where can people find you so they can participate
  • When: Stress important dates like the last day to place orders
  • How: How can people help?

Then, rotate Facebook posts about these points throughout your campaign to remind your supporters what you’re doing, how they can help, and when you need them to help.

We created graphics >> that you can use in various places on Facebook including your Cover Photo, Profile Pic and Event Cover Photo.

Feel free to use these anywhere online they fit. You can also choose pictures from Equal Exchange’s inspiring photo collection >> which includes farmer and product images. Just be sure to follow our easy usage guidelines >>.

Phase One – Introduce your Fundraising CampaignImage shows organic cacao farmers with text "Fundraiser Coming Soon" to support your fundraising campaign.

The overview your fundraiser so should be your longest post. (You can always link back to this post in the future to remind supporters of the most important details.) Your post could read something like this:

Hello friends!

As you know, we need to raise $X,XXX for ______________ so we can __________.

We’re partnering with Equal Exchange (tag EE’s Facebook Page: https://www.facebook.com/equalexchange/ ) and their fundraising catalog program to help us reach our goal. We’ll raise money while also also supporting Fair Trade by offering delicious and organic chocolate, coffee, tea and more, grown by small-scale farmers around the world!

Your participation is very important for us to reach our goal so please find products for yourself and for gifts!

Our campaign dates are (start date) – (end date) so to help, connect with our team during these dates. (Please note: you must be local to participate). With your help, we know we’ll be able to continue our amazing work!

As always, thanks for your support!

-Your Name

To start a wish list, click here (provide link to preview catalog: http://equalexchange.coop/sites/default/files/communitysales/fundraising/catalog.pdf)

Follow up with very short posts to inform people about the upcoming start date (“Our catalogs arrive Tuesday!”). This helps generate excitement. Remind them what you’re raising money for and how they will be able to participate (“We’ll be at the library Saturday from 11:00am-1:00pm to take your order! Stop by and help us reach our goal!”).

Phase Two – Fundraising During the CampaignImage shows an organic cacao farmer with text "Support our fundraiser" to support your fundraising campaign.

This is, obviously, the most important part of your fundraiser. Communicate your campaign’s progress and continue to let supporters know how they can participate. Be sure to thank them for their support so they feel appreciated. Remind them how much time they have left to be able to help you, and what they are supporting. People want you to succeed, so these kinds of posts boost sales. Share pictures of your fundraising goal board and of the project or people you’re raising money for to keep supporters engaged.

Phase Three – Wrap up and Thank you

Image shows an organic tea farmer with text "Thank you for your support!" to support your fundraising campaign.

This phase is, sadly, the most forgotten with fundraising communications. It is so important to let all involved know how much they helped your project, whether you reached your goal or not. Let them know when they can expect your team to deliver their products to them. Sum things up with a recap of how much the money will help your organization and what is next on the horizon.

No matter what method your group uses to inform your community about your fundraiser, we hope these tips help you raise the most you can during your campaign! As always, feel free to reach out and network with other Equal Exchange Fundraising organizers in our special Facebook group >>.

Image shows farmer and Equal Exchange Worker Owner toasting cups of coffee with text "Write your own success."

Of Caravans, State Terror and Climate Disruption

A closer look at the U.S. role in creating refugees from Latin America

November 16th marks the 29th anniversary of the slaying of six Jesuit priests, their housekeeper and her daughter by government-run death squads in El Salvador in 1989.  This past October 14th, slain Salvadoran archbishop Oscar Romero was canonized as a saint by the Catholic Church.  The murders of these priests—and of 80,000 more whose names we’ll never know—were carried out in no small part with the support of billions of dollars in U.S. funding and training of corrupt governments in El Salvador.  The victims were largely peasants and workers organizing for their rights and a better life.

A mural commemorating Oscar Romero.

This violence which lasted from the late 1970s to the early 1990s, caused hundreds of thousands of Salvadorans to flee the country, seeking safety.  It also exposed a generation of young people to a culture of violence and disrespect for human life. Such was the backdrop to the formation of the oft-mentioned gang MS-13, formed in Los Angeles the same year Romero was killed, 1980.  The deportation of gang members back to an El Salvador still traumatized by years of war has contributed to yet another generation terrified by the constant threat of extortion and assassination.

Is it any wonder that so many have sought refuge and stability in the north?

Since time immemorial, humans have migrated in the quest for survival and a better life.  That much is a given. But the daily dose of lies we hear from our president about who these people are also ignores our own role in triggering the decades-long exodus of desperate people from Central America, and Mexico as well.

I have highlighted El Salvador here, but a brief internet search will bring up equally disturbing examples of our government’s role in supporting violent anti-democratic forces in the region dating back nearly 100 years through to the present day.

  • Nicaragua: For over forty years, beginning in 1936, the United States supported the corrupt dictatorships of the Somoza family who used the military to protect their vast private holdings and jail and kill those who opposed the regime.
  • Guatemala: In 1954, the CIA—in close contact with the United Fruit Company (i.e., Chiquita banana)—overthrew democratically elected president, Jacobo Arbenz.  This triggered decades of mass killing, primarily of indigenous Guatemalans, the staggering toll of which remains very present today.
  • Honduras: As recently as 2009, the United States recognized the coup which overthrew democratically elected president Mel Zelaya.  Our country then recognized his re-election amidst evidence of massive fraud last November.  These events have triggered assassinations by death squads acting with impunity of hundreds of activists including the internationally recognized indigenous leader and grassroots environmentalist activist Berta Caceres.


Besides our fundamental support for human rights and economic justice, why is Equal Exchange dedicating this space to this topic?  It is because many of the small farmers we work with in all these countries are victims of our government’s policies. As Green Coffee Buyer Carly Kadlec wrote last December,

“This week I was supposed to visit our producer partners at Café Orgánico Marcala S.A. (COMSA) in Marcala, La Paz, Honduras, along with Equal Exchange Coffee Quality Manager Beth Ann Caspersen, to discuss milling practices, contracts, and ongoing project work with our counterparts at COMSA. However, due to political unrest we decided to reschedule our trip so as not to put any of our partners at risk, and recognizing that our work could be put on hold while the Honduran people are fighting for democracy.”

Similarly, our Director of Purchasing and Production, Todd Caspersen, reports that our partners at the Las Colinas Cooperative in Tacuba, El Salvador have informed us it is no longer safe for us to visit them at the coop and accompany farmers on their parcelas, and so we can only meet them in the country’s capital.

We’ve written in the past about the sordid history of U.S.-based banana multinationals like Chiquita and Dole, with support from the U.S. government, have worked to eliminate competition from smallholder farmers while exploiting and injuring workers.  It is against this backdrop of corruption and exploitation that our affiliate, Oke USA, has worked for ten years to educate store owners and consumers to the true cost of a banana, and to build demand for an ethical alternative.

a person stands, hands on hips, next to a field of fair trade banana plants
A small-scale banana producer at El Guabo Cooperative in Ecuador. (Photo by Aurelio Loret de Mola and Stephanie Pellny.)


As a reader of this blog, you know that the mission of Equal Exchange is to build viable, sustainable markets for small farmers in a system stacked in favor of big players.  More broadly, we are trying to inject equity into a food system overwhelmingly controlled by large corporations. Fair trade as we live it is both a philosophy and a practice.  It is also a direct challenge to the worst impacts of unmitigated free trade.

One such consequence of the North America Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) of 1994 was the massive inflow of subsidized industrially-produced corn from the U.S. to Mexico.  The tragic result was the depression in prices for this nearly religious staple, maiz, such that hundreds of thousands of smallholder corn farmers lost their land and saw no alternative for economic survival but migrating north in search of a better life.

Finally, as we seek to honestly account for the role the United States has played in provoking emigration from Central America and Mexico, we have to recognize the devastating impact of climate change.  While our country has historically been by far the largest contributor to the warming of the planet, we have only recently experienced its devastating impact as manifested by extreme weather events. But for many years, small farming communities around the world—communities that have contributed little to the problem—have lived at the mercy of increasingly frequent, unnatural weather extremes.  Many of our partners, from cacao producers in Peru to coffee growers in southern Mexico to rooibos farmers in South Africa and cashew growers in El Salvador, have confronted weather patterns and events that add exponentially to the challenges of survival on the land.  The extremes of droughts and floods, together with the no longer dependable seasonal patterns of rain and sun, have forced thousands of farmers to abandon their land and seek economic alternatives elsewhere.  Again, that “elsewhere” has often meant leaving family and everything familiar behind in favor of the dangerous journey and uncertainty wrapped in the hope of better opportunities in the United States and other countries.

So as we at Equal Exchange do our best every day to help improve the livelihoods of small farmers and make that work viable over the long run, it is our duty to speak our truth as we see it in response to the many crises in the world today, especially those that touch our coop and our partners directly.  The demonization of desperate immigrants and the ignoring of our own government’s role in the tragedy are among those issues we will not stay silent on.

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We don’t just vote in elections…

This fall’s midterm election is sure to be full of emotion, anxiety and a fair bit of tension. Many of us will go to the polls on November 6th to elect new or existing members to Congress to be our representatives in Washington DC. We will vote for those who most closely align with our individual ethical standards and our beliefs about what is important. The choices we make will have a substantial impact on the direction of our country and the world in the years ahead.

For some of us, however, the choices may be limited. The seat may be uncontested in your district, or none of the candidates might represent your values. In this case, your direct options are to vote for the least bad candidate or to get inspired to run for office yourself during the next election. That being said, voting in elections is not the only way to participate in democracy. There are other ways to express your ideals that are just as essential.

While the election this fall is important in shaping the politics of the coming years, there are other votes we all make, every day. These votes are choices, related to where we spend our money, our time and our thoughts. With these everyday votes, we can have an immeasurable impact on our community and the world around us. So while you’re deciding how to vote this fall in the election, I challenge you to also reflect on how you vote each day by running through this simple exercise below.

What you purchase:

Think about the products you purchase every day, week or month.

  • Are the items produced in a way that you feel comfortable with?
  • Are there alternatives that could meet your needs that better align with your beliefs? For example, if you are concerned about the environment, you might purchase organic products when possible or grow your own produce in a garden.
  • Do you need to purchase said product or service at all? Often times the best choice for people and the planet is to purchase less. Ask yourself if this is a purchase you can forgo. The money saved can then be applied to a cause you believe in or to further secure your own financial future.

Where you spend your time:

Most of us work, socialize and spend our time in various ways, sometimes productively and sometimes simply for relaxation. How we spend our time is also a vote.

  • Where do you work? Does the organization you work for share your values? If not, are there ways to make change within the organization to move it closer to your ideals? If not, would you consider making a change? Of course, most of us work to support ourselves and our families. However, we spend a significant amount of our life at our jobs and where we choose to spend that time is a type of vote.
  • Where do you spend your personal time? Do you volunteer with a local non-profit that does work you find important? Do you spend your time raising your children to be positive members of society? There is no right answer to how you should spend your personal time, but there is a wrong answer if you’re not using your time in a way that supports your beliefs. Consider how you spend your time and give real thought if there are some changes that would satisfy your conscience.

How you allocate your thought:

This is a little less concrete than where you spend your money and time. But what you give your attention to is also a form of vote. All of us are bombarded each day with messages, ads and content vying for our awareness. You can’t possibly concentrate on everything happening around you, so you must choose what and whom to pay attention to.

  • Take a moment to consider what you “think” about each day. Are your thoughts being spent on the right things or people?
  • How can you better spend the limited attention you have each day to your benefit and to the benefit to those around you?

I hope this quick post and exercise is a useful and helpful reminder to reflect on the votes we all make each day. If together we make better choices, we can affect real change in our personal lives and in the world around us.

Please feel free to share in the comments below your thoughts on everyday votes you have made that you are proud of! What do you hope to change this fall?

Episode 1: Back to the Food Co-op

We’re excited to announce that Equal Exchange has a new storytelling podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food! Here’s the first episode.

You can hear #StoriesBehindOurFood on:

Stitcher (on both Apple and Android.)

Apple Podcasts (Apple devices only.)

Google Podcasts (Android devices only.)


or wherever you enjoy online audio!

Did you like this episode? Please consider subscribing to The Stories Behind Our Food and leaving a review. It means the world to us!

Episode Transcript

Danielle:0:17I’m here to introduce the new Equal Exchange podcast, The Stories Behind Our Food. My name is Danielle Robidoux and I’m here with my co-host Kate Chess.


Danielle:0:29I’m also here with Susan Sklar, who’s been a worker owner, at Equal Exchange this year for 15 years.


Danielle:0:34And she will be talking about her personal experience with the cooperative movement from when she grew up, all the way to now

Kate:0:47— focusing on the groovy seventies!

Susan:0:49Indeed, indeed.

Kate:0:54All right. Susan, where did you grow up? Where and when? And what was your experience of food?

Susan:1:00I grew up in a very, um, kind of conformist time when it, when it comes to food, when it came to food and I grew up in Scranton, Pennsylvania, a pretty conservative area. And in my city, the ethnic food consisted of Italian food and Chinese food at the local Chinese restaurant that was pretty, um, pretty bad. I had had the floppy chow mein and all that stuff. Um, so food was, it was very, um, a rigid that world. And in addition to that, my mom really didn’t love to cook. Um, so, you know, she would make frozen vegetables, frozen peas and carrots. Um, we had iceberg lettuce salad with Russian dressing and all of that stuff. So when I went to college I started at University of Pittsburgh in 1972 and at that time I met someone who was a boyfriend who was older than I was and who introduced me to the wonderful world of food co ops. And it was totally revolutionary for me. I did not know about things like brown rice granola. I had heard about those things, but, um, I was a pretty mainstream kind of eater and I’m again, and I didn’t cook very much at all. So that was, those were my origins. Yeah.

Kate:2:57What was going to the food co op like to a grocery store of the time?

Susan:3:01Oh, it was like night and day. It was totally different. Um, the whole shopping experience was um, you know, these kind of gleaming aisles full of boxes and cans. I mean, we still have that today, but there really were not that many fresh vegetables or there were no natural foods back then. So, um, it was pretty sterile I would say, and I hardly ever went to the supermarket Spec then. So, um, when I went to this co-op in Pittsburgh for the first time, it was magical because it was really like going back in time, it was old fashioned looking within a storefront and had a wooden floors and all kinds of foods that I had never seen before. There was arrowroot powder in little bags. There was burdock root, there was fresh ginger. It was crazy. Um, I just had never really encountered foods like this before, so it really rocked my world in terms of the types of food that were out there. And um, I also began to meet different types of people who were very, very interested in where food came from. And um, were interested in small farmers, um, you know, and um, local farmers — things I had hardly ever thought about. I think the only time I had ever thought about those things was when I — there was a big farmer’s market in the summer in Scranton and I used to go once a year with my mother and see all the fresh peppers and um, you know, various types of eggplants and various types of vegetables and would get very excited by that, that, but that was once a year. So here was a store that was really focused on food. People were participating, there were all these new kinds of foods. There was all this, these discussions going on about whole foods and natural foods and organic foods, something that I hadn’t heard about at all. And it was really pretty riveting.

Kate:5:11How would you characterize the other people who shopped at the Co op?

Susan:5:16They were different than people I hadn’t encountered before. Um, first of all, it definitely a lot of women, more women were involved, um, which, you know, usually when you would go into a supermarket or just about any type of business in those days. Men were in charge. Um, things have definitely changed since then. But um, in 1972, it was really refreshing to see a lot of women taking leadership roles. Calling meetings, running the co op, um, and making decisions. So that was also revolutionary and um, it was eye opening for me. It really, really changed my world.

Kate:5:59You’re talking about other people taking part where there rules for this co op who could be a member who could shop there?

Susan:6:06Yeah. This was um, in the old days of Co ops you had to join you how to become a member, so you paid your dues and you also had to work. So you had to bag rasins, you had to bag nuts, you have to put it. I don’t remember how many hours it was, but you really had to work there. There was no opting out and in so doing, you really got to know the other people who work there and you got to know their styles and there were definitely lots of rules about how to do things. Um, but it was very community oriented and you know, you did have those interesting conversations with people while you were working. So, um, it was very, very interesting. It was much more, it felt more participatory, more democratic, and even me as a new person who was, I’m pretty ignorant about a lot of the new foods that people were starting to eat and think about and this whole natural food movement, people cared about what I thought and that was interesting to me too, that um, you know, I could be part of this and you know, there were meetings, there were all sorts of discussions about what kinds of food to bring in and it felt very, very different than the world that I had been part of in Scranton, Pennsylvania.

Kate:7:30Yeah, definitely. Do you feel like there was a learning curve for you at all or like you were this person, you’d been eating iceberg lettuce and now you’re exposed to burdock root were you an immediate convert or … what was that like?

Susan:7:44No, it wasn’t an immediate convert, you know, I was 18 and there are many, many years of um, um, conformist eating that had taken place. But, um, I, I would, I started experimenting and actually, um, I had, I was part of the food plan at the University of Pittsburgh. That’s where I was going to school and I would go in and see all of this really, you know, institutional food and didn’t like it very much. So I started actually cooking, um, at the end of my, um, dormitory there was one little room with a stove and I just started cooking brown rice and cooking fresh vegetables and sustaining things, eating Tofu, um, and actually I became a vegetarian, um, during those years. And so I started experimenting, but you know, when you’re going to school for the first time was the first time I was living away from home. Um, you know, there’s all these new things hitting you, so I just didn’t have that much time to devote to planning meals and cooking and um, and all of that and working at the food co op. But it happened gradually, but it really, you know, there was a seed planted and it really started growing from that point and it really, it really changed who I was. So it’s very, very important for me.

Kate:9:09Were the work shifts you talked about always fun or where are they ever kind of a drag? Was there any drama? You’re describing a perfect utopia!

Susan:9:17It was no, no, it was, it was not utopia and there were, there were still people with disagreements and different ways of doing things, but um, it was just nice to be able to talk to people openly and to, um, for, for there not to be as much of a hierarchy as I saw in other places. Um, I remember a conversation which I thought, which I still think back to, um, which was pretty humorous, which was um, a group of, there was a meeting called to talk about whether we should thank people who shopped at the co op. So when somebody, if you were a cashier and you were taking a turn as a cashier rather than bagging something, um, should you actually thank the person who shop there because it was their co op too and why should you be thianking them for shopping at the co op? So we had a very earnest, serious conversation. Everybody was really very, very intense about this, talking about whether to thank someone when they shopped and they know they were checking out at the co op. So I think at the time I was definitely, I don’t know if I was smiling during the meeting, but I was smiling to myself because I thought, wow, this is intense.

Kate:10:36What was the role of the consumer? This cooperative — you’re talking about people, they don’t need to be thanked because they have ownership too. Can you talk about that?

Susan:10:46Yeah. Um, I mean you couldn’t buy natural foods, organic foods anywhere at the time in the seventies. There were some small natural food stores opening up that were, they were called health food stores, but really if you wanted to start thinking about and start using this kind of food, you had to go to a coffee shop, which is what made them so, um, interesting at the time. And so people would come and they would be looking for certain things, you know, they, maybe they were just becoming vegetarians and they were looking for non meat alternatives and they would ask for things. And there were, there was a bulletin board and so you could put up what you were looking for and you could ask for the people who were ordering things to order certain types of foods. I mean, this is all something that now we’re more used to at this point, but back then it was, it was quite different.

Kate:11:40Yeah, it’s interesting. My experience at co ops today is that not everyone who shops at them as necessarily an owner or a member. So I think of the person ringing people up and the customer is being a different category. But you’re saying literally every single person who shopped there was also a member. Is that correct?

Susan:12:00At that time? That was true. And I think today there’s a mixture. I mean, I think most co ops who have gone the way of you can just pay your dues. You don’t have to work. Um, and because people are so busy and people don’t, don’t, um, participate, um, directly with work shifts. But, um, there was something very, very nice about that. And there was a deeper connection between people and their food and people participating in this store. And people thinking more about farmers and people coming up with suggestions about where to get food. Um, and that again, that was very democratic because people could make different kinds of choices and could influence the whole shopping scene.

Danielle:12:57Susan, can you talk a little bit more about the culture of democracy within the cooperative and was there a voting structure? Um, did people get voted in as a consumer, as a part of the cooperative or…?

Susan:13:09No, there was, there was no, um, there was a voting in um, because it was, again, it was very open. It was inclusive. So if you were in the community and you wanted to be part of this endeavor, you could be part of it. So yes, there were definitely meetings, meetings about how long to work and when to work and scheduling. And um, there were definitely, you know, managers, um, when people who coordinated different things, um, but it, yeah, people were involved, they were welcomed in and um, they didn’t have to be voted in.

Danielle:13:57What are your thoughts on kind of the evolution of that from your experience in your food cooperative and kind of the experiences that are typical of someone who is part of a consumer cooperative now? And what are your thoughts on that?

Susan:14:14Yeah, I mean, again, we’re all so busy. We’re running around, you know, we’re texting and we’re doing so many — trying to do so many different things and we’re commuting and um, there’s not a lot of time. So people have opted out of that direct participation and um, I think there’s, there’s something that’s lost with that. It becomes much more of a, uh, just your basic shopping experience. So when I moved to Providence, like over 20 years ago, um, I guess the last food co ops, and this is Providence, Rhode Island, had they had, they had just ended and so we were stuck shopping as you know, regular old supermarkets. Um, it was really hard to get natural foods and I, I’m, I’m no longer a vegetarian, but it turns out my daughter is now a vegetarian and um, it was hard to get those special foods that she, she liked to eat and then also that we’d like to eat. So, um, you know, it was hard to find those foods and we were actually quite pleased when — at least I was — when Whole Foods moved into the area and it was like eight blocks from our house because it was very, very convenient to go there.

Kate:15:35When was this?

Susan:15:35That Whole Foods moved in, I would say probably about 10 years ago. Um, you know, so then you could get all the specialty seitan and all the, you know —

Kate:15:47Hail seitan!

Susan:15:49Yep. All the specialty items, um, and nuts, um, that you were looking for and all the frozen natural foods, you know, all that stuff. So all that was all. That was great. But it didn’t really replace a food co op because it was more like a big, you know, grocery store. I can, I guess the main thing that was, I mean, in addition to having natural foods and organic foods, the main thing that was really different is as soon as you walked through the door, you were hit with the big fruit and Veggie section, you know, all those beautiful stacked fruits and veggies. So that was, that was, um, very nice. But, um, you know, it’s expensive shopping there. And um, and then over the years I began to notice that Whole Foods was replacing a lot of the brands and the smaller brands with their own brand, the 365 brand and they were working with economy of scale and just producing these cheaper products that actually shut other people out. Um, so that was distressing. And um, I think for me, you know, I turned a corner when Amazon bought Whole Foods just recently and it really started to have a much more corporate feel and for me it feels like, um, Amazon is taking over the world and that people are not going to have that direct connection with their food the way they used to in co-ops. But the good news is that for about 10 years, people in Providence have been working on putting together a new co op, a new food co op, and, and after many years and after thinking that it was never going to happen, um, it’s actually opening up this November, so I’m very about that. Um, I became an investor, um, and as soon as they open up in November, I am totally leaving Amazon-Whole Foods and switching over to, um, to the new co op. So I’m very, very happy to be getting back to my roots.

Kate:18:08Yeah, that’s good news. Should I talk about cost, now just a little bit? I know Whole Foods people call it Whole Paycheck. It’s got this reputation as this elite, expensive store, which it deserves. A lot of things are priced high there. Uh, but people that reputation carries over to the co ops that exists today. I think. I feel like a lot of folks think of co ops is elite and expensive. Was that your experience at this co op and Pittsburgh?

Susan:18:34No, I mean it was just the opposite actually. I think one of the reasons that food co ops were formed was to, um, cut down on expenses and encourage people to buy things in bulk, actually cut down on packaging, you know, to, you know, for environmental reasons. People came with their jars and their cloth bags to carry things home in a, you were encouraged not to use paper bags or not to use plastic but grocery bags. So, um, it was something very, um, economic about shopping at co-ops. I think that some of the cops today have to jack their prices up and that’s unfortunate. I really don’t know what it’s gonna look like at the this new co op. But um, yeah, they kind of have, um, generated this image of elitism and I think that’s really not how they started. They were really a store for, for people. Um, they were like buying clubs in the beginning and um, so I think there’s some part of the population that is moving back towards buying clubs, um, and trying to buy things more economically and trying to make choices about purchasing organic food and local food. And I think that partly comes from a food consolidation that’s going on out there. There’s, um, all of these large corporations that are buying up smaller brands and changing the ingredients, eliminating them, jacking up the prices again. Uh, so I think it’s interesting. I feel like we’re moving back to the time of people thinking about these issues again, from an environmental point of view and from an economical point of view and even from a community point of view and trying to get more of a sense of connection with other people.

Danielle:20:37What’s been your involvement in the new food cooperative in Providence and what kind of structure are they taking on? Is it that you buy into the providence cooperative and do you have to put in the hours or work at all to be a part of it or…?

Susan:20:53So because I’m one of those extremely busy people that commutes to work and actually work at Equal Exchange, which is a cooperative. Um, and I’m super busy. I have not. And also I was also one of the people who lost hope that the cop was actually going to be built there because it takes so long. I haven’t been that involved. I was approached. I actually called them and told them I wanted more information. Then I was approached and asked to be an investor and I became one and actually somebody here at Equal Exchange who works here is on the board and so I keep asking that person what’s going on for updates, but I am not really as informed as I should be. However, I’m going to get involved! Much more involved as soon as I can switch over and there’s a place for me to buy food and I can start planning on what I’m going to buy and start stocking up. I will know more. But right now I don’t know that know that much.

Kate:21:48That’s fair. Yeah. I think it’s interesting. I’ve heard that the Park Slope Food Co op in New York still requires members to work and that’s become less common. All members at Park Slope have to work and that itself seems to me sort of democratic because whether you’re an investment banker or a, you know, a dog walker, you have to put it in the same hours, your time, even though you may feel like your time is more valuable than someone else’s, you have to put in x hours per week in order to maintain your membership at the Co op.

Susan:22:22Yeah. I’m not sure how I feel about that. I, I do feel like there are people who have incredible time constraints on them. Um, and they shouldn’t be allowed to maybe pay a, a fee, a big fee and not have to work directly. I think that might shut a lot of people out, particularly people with families and with, with young children.

Kate:22:46Right. In fact, low-income people, people working multiple jobs maybe don’t have time to ever go to the co op.

Susan:22:52Exactly. Exactly. So I think there is, but then again, if you’re low income, you’re not going to be able to pay a big fee to become a member of the co op. So, I mean, that might argue for some sort of sliding scale, um, membership as well, and that’s something if you’re part of the Co op you can talk about with other people and you can advocate for it because there’s room for people to talk to each other, which is very much the point. Yeah. So, you know, it’s, it’s no accident that I moved from the world of food co ops, um, to housing co ops. I lived in houses over the years and participated in meetings and shared the cooking. And then, um, I ended up working at Equal Exchange, which is a cooperative and we meet and we vote on things like change of location, change of production, we vote new members in. We have a much less hierarchical style here. And um, that’s part of who I am. It’s actually an essential part of who I am. And it all started with the Semple Street food co op in Pittsburgh.

Kate:24:06Do you think that’s a personality thing or do you think that you developed a set of skills or a set of interests because of this?

Susan:24:15I think I was influenced by the Co op movement because I came from a pretty, I came from a nuclear family, Jewish American nuclear family, pretty standard, pretty top down now with my father being the picture and all of that. Um, and my mother being the cook, she cooked every meal and no, this really influenced me a lot. I mean, you could also say that it was part of the seventies too. There was a whole alternative lifestyle being developed. People were changing, people were acting different, people were exploring different ways of interacting and being democratic and I’m buying things and eating their food and, and, you know, politics. Um, so I think I was influenced by everything that was going on in the seventies and I think the food co ops, we’re part of that. Um, and it was just a different way of interacting with people and the world. And after living in the nuclear family for 18 years, I was ready for that. I really, really liked it. I have to say probably to the feminist movement was part of that as well because I was pretty traditional. Good little girl. And so it just allowed me to branch out more, do more things, take more leadership roles, and um, have more fun.

Kate:25:41Is the world moving in that direction in your opinion since the seventies or has there been a sort of backswing? How can we get that feeling back?

Susan:25:49That’s a great question. I do think with the over corporatization of the world and you know, it’s all just living in these very tight bottom line types of structures, living with them. Um, there is a move back to getting more of a sense of community being more directly involved. Um, even, you know, in, in politics with the Bernie Sanders campaign, people getting much more involved in directly engaged. Um, it is almost a, I think a reaction and it’s really frightening when you look at all the, you know, in terms of food and frightening in many ways, but when you look at food, um, and you just see that there are no pen, large mega companies that own all the small brands and are controlling what we eat and how it’s sold. Um, it doesn’t give you that warm fuzzy feeling. I think that it’s great that people are getting more involved and I’m not, I don’t think it’s everybody, but I do think there is some movement in that direction and I’m really happy about that.

Kate:27:12Thanks for taking the time to talk to us and taking us back somewhere we haven’t been. We hope that the Providence Co op, this everything you hope it will be in that you can take an active part in.

Susan:27:23Thank you very much. This. This was great. Thanks for having me.

Inspiration for your Holiday Sale Display

We collected some of our favorite creative, yet simple display ideas for Holiday Sales! Check them out on our Pinterest Board>> and view inspirational examples below.

Use Inexpensive & Attractive Display Materials 

A sparkling, lighted display draws in shoppers, using wooden crates to add height and extra shelving. We also offer chocolate and tea racks for purchase. Garlands can drape the front of your table. You can bring greenery and pine cones indoors for a gorgeous, natural and economical display. Burlap coffee bags make an eye-catching table cloth or backdrop that couldn’t be more relevant to the products you’re featuring! Order authentic burlap bags that were used to transport coffee beans to Equal Exchange for $2 each.


While you’re at it, why not add on some free promotional materials like posters, pamphlets, stickers and comic books for your table? We recommend promoting your sale early to drum up excitement. Putting up our holiday sale poster with your event details and getting the word out using our e-newsletter template is a great way to do this. We’ve also created a shareable photo collection. Pull holiday images to make your own promo materials.


Showcase Equal Exchange Products in Ready-to Gift Ways

Pre-assembled gift baskets full of fairly traded goodies for people who want gifts to grab and go. Offer a variety of price points to fit every budget. Themed baskets like a “Baker’s Basket” including chocolate chips, baking cocoa, olive oil and high cacao content chocolate bars make choosing gifts fun and easy.


Move over, wine! Suggest a bottle of organic, fairly traded Palestinian Olive Oil as a unique & meaningful gift.  Tea-towels or silk scarves from the thrift store make beautiful and reusable gift wrap.

Don’t forget to order our free gift tags that can be attached to the bottles to give the gift recipients more information about this very special olive oil!



Our chocolate minis packaging kit contains 35 acrylic bags that can be filled with 25 dark chocolate minis. Add holiday stickers and voila! We find that $8 a bag is a fair price that covers your costs with a bit extra left as profit. Recommend them to shoppers as the perfect “little something” for a teacher, mail-person or neighbor.


Sell Other Fair Trade Items that Coordinate with Equal Exchange Products 

Cappuccino ornament from Ten Thousand Villages

Serving trays, coffee mugs, and cup cozies from the Fair Trade organization Ten Thousand Villages complement coffee, tea and cocoa and make perfect add-ons at your sale table. If you want to include more crafts at your sale, Ten Thousand Villages has an extensive selection of Fair Trade garlands, ornaments and nativities that can be purchased at discounted prices for groups who want to offer crafts for sale at events on consignment.


Attract Customers and Increase Sales 

Break up a chocolate bar into bite-sized pieces and offer samples of flavors people may not have tried, like our wildly popular Lemon, Ginger and Black Pepper,  Panama Extra Dark 80% or Milk Chocolate with Caramel Crunch and Sea Salt. They won’t be able to resist picking up a few bars for themselves as well as for gifts!

Brew up a carafe of coffee or hot cocoa for samples. Equal Exchange has compostable 4oz size sample cups and airpot labels so folks know what they’re tasting and can buy it from your table. If samples aren’t in your budget, charge just enough to cover your costs (about $0.15 per cup on average ). You could even charge a little more and use this as a fundraiser for your group.


Did you know that our best seller, Organic Breakfast Blend coffee, is the perfect coffee to feature at your sale? It’s not only most popular… it’s also our lowest-priced coffee! Your group makes a profit while offering a high-quality, fairly traded coffee for less than what most stores charge. And buying Equal Exchange coffee helps small-scale farmers stay on their land, supports your own organization and members get delicious coffee at a great price. What shopper could pass that up?


 DIY Gift Ideas 

Feeling crafty? Fill tin-tie bags with whole bean coffee from bulk 5lb bags and decorate the bags with stickers and markers. Tie chocolate bars with ribbon and sell them as a bundle with a price incentive like 5 for $15. You’ll sell more and customers have an instant gift.

Try your hand at creating a bunch of “tea-trees” with green and peppermint tea bags for fun gifts that also double as display! Or pre-assemble the ingredients needed to make Fair Trade brownies or cookies in mason jars and include the recipe.









Love to bake? Offer treats made with Equal Exchange products for sale. Browse recipes made with fairly traded, organic ingredients like chocolate caramel pecan pie!


Learn more: Holiday Sale Tips>> and ideas for making Fair Trade gift baskets >> 

Share your displays with us!

Tag @equalexchange on Facebook or Instagram  when you post your photos.

Who Grows Your Chocolate? An Update

You probably already know that cacao is the crop from which cocoa and chocolate are made. West African countries like Ghana and Côte d’Ivôire produce most of the world’s cacao. Starting a few years ago, labor abuses in West Africa began to get international attention. You may have heard about poverty wages, unsafe working conditions, the worst forms of child labor and even modern-day slavery. You may have heard that farming practices that damage the environment were common, too. But what’s going on with that now? Have things gotten any better? Let’s take a look at the current state of affairs in the chocolate industry, and what you can do to help.


Shop Fair Trade Chocolate Now >>


A split cacao pod. Chocolate is made from the dried and fermented seeds of this plant.

Taking the Measure of the Cacao Industry

Every two years, a global consortium of organizations, including Green America, the International Labor Rights Forum and Oxfam, publishes a report called The Cocoa Barometer.  Though minor progress has been made in the industry in recent years, the 2018 Cocoa Barometer doesn’t show much good news on the horizon for cacao farmers. As the executive summary puts it, “If business as usual continues, it will be decades – if ever – before human rights will be respected and environmental protection will be a basis for sustainability in the [cacao] sector.”

Here are some of the biggest challenges:

The price of the crop is currently low and unstable.

Between September 2016 and February 2017, the price of cocoa cratered, dropping from around $3,000 per ton to below $1,900 per ton. Smallholder farmers are most vulnerable to price drops and, without a guaranteed minimum price, they bear all the risks of a volatile market. They can’t afford it! A report by Fairtrade International calculates that farmers in Côte d’Ivôire earn an average income of just $0.78 per day. That’s 37% of what’s considered a living income in rural Côte d’Ivôire.

A map of the countries of West Africa
Map of West Africa by Peter Fitzgerald.

Cocoa still exploits children.

Though growing and harvesting cacao can be hazardous for anyone, the report estimates that in West Africa alone, over 2.1 million children currently perform this work. The 2018 Barometer reports that “not a single company or government is anywhere near reaching the sector-wide objective of the elimination of child labour, and not even near their commitments of a 70% reduction of child labour by 2020.” In fact, the number of young workers has risen in recent years. The report notes that because child labor “is a symptom of deeper problems, it will not be eradicated without tackling systemic poverty.”

Some workers don’t get paid at all.

Financial insecurity can exacerbate the worst form of child labor — slavery. Green America reports that sometimes, farming families “are in such dire means of desperation for the money companies contracted by the chocolate industry promise, that they sell their own children into the illegal and inhumane child labor industry.” The Food Empowerment Project cites Abby Mills, Campaign Director of the International Labor Rights Forum, who says “every research study ever conducted in [Western Africa] shows that there is human trafficking going on, particularly in the Ivory Coast.”

Cacao farming contributes to deforestation in West Africa.

Historically, cacao has been a slash-and-burn crop. But global cacao production has increased fourfold since 1960 and now, more than ninety per cent of the region’s original forests have been destroyed. The Barometer attributes this damage to a combination of “corporate disinterest in the environmental effects of the supply of cheap cocoa, and to an almost completely absent government enforcement of environmentally protected areas.”


Individual Decisions Matter

These problems are hard to tackle — and big corporations aren’t doing enough. The Hershey Company, Kraft Foods, Mars Incorporated and Nestle signed the Harkin-Engel Protocol in 2001, showing they were aware of the problem and resolving to take action. But as the continued rise of child labor in the cocoa industry shows, the Protocol has failed.

What can we do, as individuals? Here are some suggestions for disrupting the “business as usual” attitude that the Cocoa Barometer talks about.

You can tell your friends about what’s happening in the West African chocolate industry. Show them the 2018 Cocoa Barometer or Equal Exchange’s Chocolate Infographic.

You can let big companies know that you care about this issue and that you’re paying attention to how they handle it! Write to Harkin-Engel Protocol signatories, or tag them on social media. These big players need to hear from customers that abusive practices aren’t acceptable, so that they have motivation to change their systems.

You can opt out of chocolate produced by the worst forms of child labor and forced labor. Eat less  chocolate or — even better — switch to fair trade chocolate that’s traceable, so you can feel confident about the conditions under which it was produced. Find out which brands are rated highly on Green America’s Chocolate Scorecard.

A man and a woman proudly display cacao pods, from which organic chocolate is made.
Ramon Mosquea and Glenys Rosario are members of CONACADO, one of Equal Exchange’s partner co-ops in the Dominican Republic.

What about Equal Exchange Chocolate?

We currently source 100% of our cacao from Latin America.  We work only with democratically organized groups that are part of the fair trade system and have the vision of improving the lives of farmers and their communities. We visit our partners, with whom we’ve established personal relationships. They are not slaves or children working in inhumane conditions — they’re smallholder farmers who are proud of their work and want to sell organic cacao for delicious chocolate through a fair system. The fair trade minimum price Equal Exchange guarantees and the advance credit our partners receive helps them weather the ups and downs of the market, improve their farming practices, and plan for their families’ futures.

And you’re among the first to know about an exciting new development! Our Chocolate Team wants to share the following BREAKING NEWS:

Equal Exchange is committed to supporting authentic, transparent and democratically structured supply chains worldwide. In the context of abuses in West Africa, we have connected with a group that is working hard to create an alternative. This year we have begun a relationship with a fair trade cacao cooperative in Togo, in West Africa, and we look forward to using their beans in our products beginning as soon as Spring 2019.

Chocolate shouldn’t be cheap. It should be fairly produced, and delicious!


Members of the ACOPAGRO co-op in Peru and their children pose with cacao pods.


Why not browse Equal Exchange’s selection of  Fairly Traded and Organic Chocolate!

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Cocoa Barometer 2018 by the Barometer Consortium.

Child Labor and Slavery in the Chocolate Industry” by The Food Empowerment Project.


USAID Grants and the Democracy of Information

We recently interviewed Cristina Liberati, who administers grants that support farmer cooperatives in Latin America as they improve their quality, productivity, and financial stability. Because of this project, small-scale cacao producers in rural areas can taste samples of the product they grow and assess its quality. This democratization of knowledge makes it possible for farmers to participate fully in a global market! Read the interview below to learn about how Cristina got her start in the chocolate industry, the unexpected spicy perks of international travel, and her hopes for the future of fair trade.


Sharing Knowledge is Good Business

Q: Hello, Cristina! What is your position at Equal Exchange?

A: My position title is the Grant Projects Manager. Grant projects have been a part of Equal Exchange’s past for some time, but starting in around 2010, Equal Exchange partnered with another chocolate company, called TCHO Chocolate, in San Francisco, to apply for a grant from the United States Agency for International Development (USAID), so those are funds from the US government that are used to support projects in developing countries. And this is a multimillion dollar grant and has involved four countries in the last seven years — Peru, the Dominican Republic, Colombia, and Ecuador — and as a result of its scope and size, it’s the largest grant project that Equal Exchange has ever done.

Q: You get paid by Equal Exchange, but your work is in this sort of development realm, non-profit, aid work. Is that correct?

A: It’s a complicated question. I am a worker-owner at Equal Exchange, but for any time I spend on the grant, we actually get reimbursed by USAID.

Q: What value do you think this work has to Equal Exchange’s business?

A: Equal Exchange is a funny company in that we are a for-profit business with a social mission, and there are benefits to doing this kind of work that are not quantifiable — you can’t say “oh, well our sales tripled because we did a project in the Dominican Republic with a cacao cooperative.” But there are specific activities that we’ve done that do contribute to our commercial activities, such as improving the quality of coffee and cacao coming from particular groups, which is a clear connection to our being able to provide higher quality products to our customers. We purchase organic, and it is a major challenge for organic farmers worldwide to produce as much raw product as their neighbors who are producing with conventional methods and chemicals, so part of our project is working with small farmers to improve their productivity. Which helps us! And, finally, we work with the co-ops to improve their financial management practices. It’s always better to have a partner who is financially and managerially stable than one who is not. And unfortunately, that’s more the exception than the norm for agricultural cooperatives.

Q: What was your job before this? Your job description, which lists all your various duties, is really overwhelming! How did you get into this, how did you prepare for it, and what else have you done?

A: Before coming to Equal Exchange, I worked for TCHO Chocolate, who we partner with on the grant. I was hired there as a tour guide of the chocolate factory, and that really helped me to learn the chocolate business from the other perspective — you know, working with consumers and also having to explain production of cacao to people who know very little about it, and learning at the same time, myself. That was a great introduction into the world of chocolate. Prior to moving to San Francisco, I did go to graduate school for International Affairs, and I have lived in Latin America and studied in Latin America for a number of years. Because that’s where we primarily carry out our grant activities, knowing the language very well and knowing the culture to a certain extent helped prepare me for this work.

Cristina Liberati (far right) with a group of Equal Exchange and CONACADO partners.

10,000+ Partners

Q: The grants cover both cacao, coffee and banana farmers. All these crops may be grown in the same regions, but they’re totally different businesses. And you’re also working with project coordinators and grant consultants. What are your relationships like with all these different kinds of people? How do you balance that?

A: It’s a fun challenge, for sure. I have regular calls with each group or consultant that we work with, and that really just helps to keep on the same page of how the activities are developing. We also through our grant program helped to organize 15 different cooperative exchanges, where we brought different representatives from the farmer groups in our project together, to share information and learn about the activities they were doing and about those crops. I think my job is unique in that I get to serve as a nexus for all that information, so if I learn about how one group is, say, for example, identifying local trees with great productivity characteristics and cataloguing them, I can share  — with their permission — what they’ve learned with another group who’s interested in the same type of activity.

Q: What about your traveling?

A: I travel about 30% of the year, and oftentimes what I’m doing is visiting with the cooperatives that are part of our project to see how the activities are playing out in person. Also, to troubleshoot any issues they might be having, because sometimes it’s hard to get people to talk about challenges and issues over the phone. It’s also great to just meet face-to-face with folks every once in a while. The other primary thing that we’re doing when we’re visiting our partners or these countries is holding workshops or the exchanges that I talked about, amongst different producers.

Q: Do you have trouble keeping people straight, just because there’s so many people?

A: Not really. I’ve been working with the same people now for almost seven years. The cooperative in the Dominican Republic has 10,000 members, so I don’t know everyone. But there are teams of people that I’ve worked with over and over. On farm visits, I try to visit farmers that I have met before and some that I haven’t. I always write a trip report, so I try to go back to my trip reports to refresh my memory of people’s names if I don’t see them or talk to them often.

Q: To what extent are you accountable to USAID? Who do you feel like is your boss and what keeps you accountable to this grant?

A: That answer is pretty simple. It’s the farmers that we’re trying to serve and that are our partners. We’ve been very lucky that USAID has been supportive of the work that we’ve done and of course, like anyone who offers you money, they want you to account for that properly and would like to hear about the outcomes of the use of that money, and I think that that’s fair. I also feel accountable to the worker-owners of EE that this is a good use of our time and resources as a cooperative. But I’ll stick with my first answer as to who I feel MOST answerable to.

Fertilizer Production and Distribution Center in Cibao, DR co-financed with the USAID Co-operative Development Program and CONACADO

Tasting Chocolate — and What That Means for Co-Ops

Q: You do some quality-control work around chocolate. Is that right?

A: Yes. If I had to say I had a specialty, chocolate would be my specialty, because I did work in a chocolate factory before I came here, and it’s the crop that I know the most about, and it has been the largest focus of the grant. I’m on the Quality Control Panel at Equal Exchange, that meets once or twice a week to make sure that our chocolate is both high-quality and food safe for customers. I’m not going to complain about having to eat chocolate for my job!

Q: Equal Exchange has worked in different capacities with producers about analyzing their own products in country so that they can keep on track of whether tweaks need to be made, or how high quality their stuff is. Can you talk about that at all?

A: Sure. Beth Ann Caspersen, who’s the Quality Manager for coffee has been doing this for many years with coffee cooperatives. I do a bit more of it with cocoa cooperatives, but the ideas are the same. The way that chocolate makers analyze a sample of cocoa beans is by making it into chocolate liquor or a solid chocolate sample, and tasting it. For almost the entirety of the history of the chocolate industry, producers have been excluded from conversations about quality analysis that chocolate makers do. Through this grant and through a partnership with TCHO, we installed laboratories that would allow them to make chocolate liquor samples. And we work together with our partners to create a standardized tasting form and tools to train people to be cocoa tasters that were never publicly available before. And what these tools have allowed our partners to do is negotiate the value of their product with their clients, based on its quality. So instead of shipping a bunch of beans to a chocolate maker and then basically receiving a price from that chocolate maker that is determined by them, the producers can say, “We’ve tasted this. We know it’s worth this. And this is the price we’d like to ask you for it.” That has been a really exciting part of what we’ve done.


Cristina (standing, with black shirt and glasses) celebrates with a group of cacao partners.

Innovation, Hot Peppers, and the Future of Fair Trade

Q: What cool work stories do you have to share with us?

A: Last year, we decided to create what we call the Innovation Prize Program with our USAID grant and we were offering prizes up to $50,000 to cooperatives for new and novel ideas to tackle problems they had, either in quality, productivity, or what we call capitalization and one of the cooperatives that we work with called ACOPAGRO, based out of Peru, came to us with an idea for an irrigation program. The project manager there said to me, “You know, we’ve actually had this idea for some time, but couldn’t find funding for it, and I told my colleagues: ‘you know who we should ask about this? We should ask Cristina. We should ask Equal Exchange. Because they’ll listen to us and our idea.’” That felt really good.

Q: Did they get the prize?

A: They did get a prize!

Q: Can you tell me another story?

A:  I was visiting Peru, a remote community along the riverbank of the Amazon, and the community members just had this incredible energy and were doing some wonderful things. They had formerly been coca producers for cocaine, and wanted to change from illicit crops to licit crops and were supported with growing cacao by a previous project. We went and we helped with some improvements to their fermentation area and drying area. But somehow, they found out on my first visit that I really like hot peppers. And when I came back for my second visit, they offered me a whole plate of hot peppers that they had grow specially for me to try. Which was fun, but also somewhat painful!

Q: Right, ‘cause you had to eat them all!

A: I took a few bites. I think I have a picture of that somewhere.

Q: Were they good?

A: Yeah. Oh my gosh. The food in Peru is incredible, in general. And part of it is because they know how to use those peppers!

Q: What are the lessons learned from this work?

A: I’ve seen, over the past few years, that several of our partners have had to deal with natural disasters that just seem to be more frequent and more intense every time. What I’ve learned is that the resilience of the people we work with is just truly incredible. One should never underestimate the strength, the creativity and the love for the land it takes to be a farmer. I definitely had no idea of the magnitude of that before.

Q: What’s your outlook for the future of fair trade, of farming, and of these specific communities that you have gotten to know?

A: That’s a big one. I think that fair trade or alternative trade — as a strategy and a philosophy — is more and more important every day. For me, the basis of fair trade is the relationships between the people who grow our food or produce other products, and then the people who use those products. And we do have opportunities, with technology, to connect with those people in ways that weren’t options before. But on the other hand, people continue to want cheaper and cheaper options. One of my friends told me recently that her grandparents used to spend 25% of their income on their food. Nobody seems willing to do that anymore. If people aren’t willing to pay for fair food, the farmers that we work with as it is barely get by. They do it for the love of the land that I talked about. Compounded by climate change issues, I’m not sure what that means. But people will keep eating, and they seem to not get tired of chocolate and coffee. Or bananas. So we’ve got to keep fighting to do this work the right way.

This fall, we’re posting content about Food and Democracy — and the important ways they intersect — up until the U.S. primaries on November 6th. Stay up to date by following the hashtag #FoodForDemocracy on Facebook, Instagram and Twitter!

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How to Talk about Fair Trade

Do you want to let people know why they should support Equal Exchange, a pioneer in the Fair Trade food and beverage industry in the United States? What  if people ask tough questions?  We’ve put together some talking points to help you explain why everyone should support authentic Fair Trade.

“I like my *insert non-Fair Trade brand product here*. Why should I switch to Equal Exchange?”

Fair Trade products from committed brands are better for farmers, better for the environment and better for ourselves. A small change, like choosing fairly traded, organic products has a real and meaningful impact in all three areas. If you want to promote social justice, environmental sustainability and fair trading relationships, buying from Equal Exchange is way to connect your values with your actions as a consumer without sacrificing taste or quality.

Introduce Equal Exchange with this 2 minute video: Who We Are and What We Believe In or put up  this colorful display sign in your office, school or place of worship to inspire others to make a change.

“Are Fair Trade products really that different from non-Fair Trade products?”

Fair Trade is a way of doing business that aims to keep small-scale farmers an active part of the world marketplace. It’s not charity – it’s a sustainable and alternative trading model that helps producers make a viable living and stay on their own land while advancing many economic, social and environmental goals. Long-term trading relationships mean income that farmers can count on, year after year. When you buy a fairly traded product from Equal Exchange you know that a stable price was paid to farmers, significantly higher than the fluctuating market price.

 By choosing Fair Trade products, you’re supporting a different kind of business model. One that is based on dignity and transparency. One without forced child labor that is not focused on profit-maximizing at the expense of others in the supply chain. Fair Trade premiums allow farming communities to decide collectively which development projects they want to use the money on, like improving access to clean water and education.  Small changes we as consumers can make regarding what we choose to buy make a real impact on the quality of the lives of producers and their families. Read a more about Fair Trade principles here.

“Do Fair Trade products cost more?”

Often Fair Trade products cost about as much as other organic and specialty-grade products of similar quality. At local farmers markets in the US, many people are willing to pay prices that reflect the hard work of small-scale farmers because they know the care that their community members put into the organic cultivation of food on their farms.  It makes sense that local farmers should make more than what it costs them to grow a product, so, the same concept should apply to products like coffee, cacao and tea that aren’t grown locally, right?

We believe a shift in perception of value needs to take place in the marketplace before Fair Trade products become the norm. Equal Exchange has been dedicated to creating an alternative trading model since 1986 and we are committed to continuing to build this movement. To help make fairly traded products affordable for everyone, we offer wholesale pricing to faith-based groups, non-profits, offices, buying clubs and schools so they can access high-quality and fairly traded products for serving and fundraising. Read more a more in-depth answer to this question here>>

“Where does the money I pay go?”

Traditional supply chains have many middle men that take a large percentage, but buying from Equal Exchange, who trades directly with small-scale farmer cooperatives, ensures that that more of the money you spend on coffee and our other products reaches the hardworking farmers who actually grow them.  In fact, by the time you purchase from Equal Exchange, the farmers have already been paid and received pre-harvest financing so they can pay for expenses when they need the money. A fairly traded product also means that the producer has received a guaranteed minimum price for their harvest, regardless of the highs and lows of the commodities market. When the market prices are low, the price a farmer gets for their coffee harvest often doesn’t even cover the cost of production. When the market price is high, Fair Trade premiums paid to farmers increase even higher.

Farmers in the Fair Trade system get additional premiums paid to their cooperatives because they farm organically. These premiums go towards projects that their communities choose to improve their social, economic and environmental conditions. Access to clean water, education, and healthcare are basic human rights we all deserve and Fair Trade purchases contribute directly toward that advancement.

“Where do the products come from and who grows them?”

At the heart of Equal Exchange’s story is our relationship with small farmers. We work directly with over 40 small farmer cooperatives in 25 countries in South American, Latin America, Africa, and Asia to bring you high quality, organic products grown with care by people who take pride in their harvests. There are a variety of videos to share as well as different educational resources, including cooperative profiles, on our website

“I see similar products with Fair Trade labels at stores. How is buying from Equal Exchange different?”

There’s a big difference! Equal Exchange has been fighting for market access for small-scale farmers from the moment we were founded. We’re a worker-owned cooperative whose mission is tied to building a just food system where consumers have choices and feel connected to the people in the supply chains. And Equal Exchange works only with other democratically-organized farmer groups. When you buy from one of the corporate big guys you might ask yourself these questions regarding whom you’re supporting.  Are 100% of the products they offer fairly traded? Are economic justice for producers and transparency for consumers among the top priorities for the CEO and shareholders?  Equal Exchange operates independently with a more democratic business model.

Another difference is quality and freshness! Did you know Equal Exchange expertly roasts our own organic coffee in Massachusetts daily with a team of quality control professionals? Each batch of coffee is “cupped” to make sure it meets the consistent and high quality standards we set for our coffees. We seal in the freshness on each package so it arrives directly from us to your door super fresh and delicious! Take a peek inside our roastery in this video.

And Equal Exchange partners with many relief, development and social justice organizations. Learn more about these partnerships here.

“What does Equal Exchange think about current controversies surrounding Fair Trade?”

We believe Fair Trade is one tool of many that are needed to build power and more equity for small-scale farmer cooperatives around the world.  The biggest problem from our vantage point has been the corporate takeover of Fair Trade.  Certifiers invited big players into a system designed for and by small farmers and permitted them to weaken it to meet their needs.  Equal Exchange continues to stay the course we initially charted to promote authentic Fair Trade that is in line with our mission.

“I’m committed to living a more Fair Trade lifestyle. What else can I do?”

There’s a great variety of choices in fairly traded and high quality apparel, body care, crafts and home goods and food from committed brands.  

And if you’re interested in going deeper on food justice issues we invite you to join Equal Exchange’s Action Forum.


Have other questions come up? We want to answer them! Post them right here in the comments or

Explore more Fair Trade FAQs from Equal Exchange >>

Read Fair Trade Fact sheet from the Fair World Project >>


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