On an equal footing: trading fairly with Equal Exchange

On an equal footing: trading fairly with Equal Exchange

Equal Exchange began life in the UK more than three decades ago as Campaign Coffee Scotland – an organisation seeking to make positive changes to the way coffee was traded. Now a workers’ co-op, and part of a larger ethical organisation in the USA, Equal Exchange is a force for change in Fair Trade and sustainable production. Josh Pitts works on UK sales and business development for Equal Exchange; here he tells us about the co-op’s values and challenges, and why independent retail is so important to ethical trade.

Josh with a Fair Trade producer

At Equal Exchange, we’re best known for our speciality coffee, but in fact we have a really wide range of fairly traded products, such as chocolates, raw honeys, cocoa, peanut butter, olive oil – there are so many food producers to work with. Everything we do is organic and fairly traded too, plus we ensure that our products are as un-processed as they can be; we avoid palm oil completely and you won’t find any needless lecithins in our chocolate and cocoa.

Our Grown by Women project coffees are becoming really well established, so we’re gradually expanding that range. These products are sourced direct from female members of growers’ co-operatives, and recognise the vital role of women in coffee growing, seeking to empower women with the same rights as their male peers.

Josh learning to sort coffee beans

The main focus for us at Equal Exchange has always been traceable, ethical and co-operative supply chains. This extends to our own co-operative structure, too: we are not seeking monetary gain for our directors, but long-term stability for our company and our producers. We’ve also been a champion of the independent retail sector throughout our time, and this has been the base of our close relationships over the years.

Our corner of the market is a challenging place to be sometimes. As a wholly ethical brand we have a lot of trouble shouting above the noise. In my experience, there are lots of companies that pay their way to ethicality, without embodying those values – they often hide behind noisy branding and confusing new certifications schemes. Supermarkets are only making the problem worse – driving down prices in a way that only big brands can take advantage of. Truly ethical small brands are struggling to compete.

We’re constantly working to find better ways to approach sustainable packaging. Coffee degrades quickly when exposed to oxygen, light, warmth… basically everything! So, finding an alternative to plastic that preserves the quality all the way to the cup is a real challenge. We did a lot of research into compostable packaging, and soon realised that this isn’t a silver bullet – compostable packaging seldom ends up in the right waste stream. But we’re making great progress and are hoping for great things within the next year. On the flip side, some of our other products are way ahead, for instance our chocolate wrapper is completely recyclable and home-compostable.

The future is always interesting at Equal Exchange; as well as developing our current projects there are always ideas for new products. You may have also noticed some of our logos switching to a version that we now use both here and in the USA – you’ll see this more and more as we begin to address the packaging conundrum!

See more on Equal Exchange.