Rink Dickinson, co-founder and Equal Exchange president, reflects on Fair Trade 40 years after Equal Exchange was founded by himself, Jonathan Rosenthal and Michael Rozyne. Interviewer Phyllis Robinson https://www.info.equalexchange.coop/articles/the-fair-trade-experiment, Citizen-Consumer Member and former Equal Exchange Education and Campaigns Coordinator (2002-2018), reports from discussion how Fair Trade is no longer the banner under which Equal Exchange carries out its mission, that the organization continues to have impact but buying and selling products, even under “more fair” terms, was never the vision nor the end-game. Rather, the founders’ compass pointed always toward systemic change.
After much consideration Equal Exchange came out with the provocative announcement, around 2010: “Fair Trade is dead.” The interview spotlights how activists began to successfully pressure conventional supermarkets, coffee companies, and other food and beverage distributors to adopt this model of doing business. Ironically, as the “movement” grew and fair trade entered the mainstream, the original principles and values became watered down and distorted to become more “acceptable” to the corporations. Many of the certification agencies began to control, rather than serve, the fair trade movement and its values and ideals.
A paradox emerged: on the one hand, fair trade was gaining attention and sales of small farmer products were increasing. On the other hand, certification standards were being lowered and manipulated to accommodate the interests of the “big players.”
Equal Exchange invited consumers to carefully examine what and who is behind the products, producers, manufacturers, distributors; even grocery outlets; to learn who benefits at each stage of the supply chain. We encouraged curiosity and scrutiny: who ultimately controls the food we eat, how it’s grown, and who profits.
Equal Exchange, and others, fought against this for many years. Finally, after helping to create, as well as benefit from, the wave of excitement, passion, and conviction that fair trade was generating in the U.S., Equal Exchange decided to pull out of the certification system.
Since then, Equal Exchange has continued its work, reconnecting with our original vision and core identity while looking for solidarity in new places following the disappointment and corporatization of fair trade.