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Inspiring Change: Equal Exchange co-op

Published: 11/01/2024

Tell us a bit about yourself.
My name’s Josh, I’ve been a worker/owner at Equal Exchange for around ten years now. I work in sales and spend a lot of my time working with our customer base and the wholesale network. Over the years I’ve become very familiar with some of our core independent customers here in the UK and Ireland specifically.

When did you launch your brand?
The Equal Exchange brand started around 1979, first appearing as Campaign Coffee up in Scotland as a push towards direct/fair trade principles and creating awareness around the supply chain problems. Fast forward a little and the company was renamed and became the co-operative group, Equal Exchange.

What inspired/ prompted you to start your brand?
Equal Exchange was created on the back of an awareness around coffee, the lack of transparency in the supply chain, and the desire to create a system of fairer trading. Coffee consumption in the UK was rising, yet the farmers were being forced to accept less money than it cost to produce. Coffee drinkers were unaware and Equal Exchange wanted to change that.

How are you different from other brands?
We’re a worker co-op, there’s around 150 of us who work at and own Equal Exchange as equal partners and voters. We all decide how to run Equal Exchange and the path it takes in the future which is still incredibly rare and difficult to achieve in the current market. We have no outside influences or money-hoarding CEOs sat on the board, so a lot of the EE profit goes straight back into the business.
We prioritise long-term relationships with co-operative farmer groups. We’ve been around for a long time so equally some farmer groups have been trading with Equal Exchange for many years. One factor Equal Exchange takes into account is that small farmer groups really benefit from the knowledge that they will always be able to sell their product to our company, this gives security and knowledge that they will have an income from their produce especially the smaller female organisations and ‘grown by women’ groups.

Tell us about your brand’s ethos and values.
Equal Exchange promotes worker empowerment around our co-operative culture, everyone should have a voice and can use it how they wish.
Open supply chains, we are honest about who and where we purchase from, we publish our accounts and, in most cases, you can find the individual producer group on each product.
Through our coffee programmes we promote gender equity in supply chains, we work with female-run co-operative groups and source products from co-ops that help promote the women within their groups, which is still a rarity in the coffee world. The focus behind this was to try and empower women, who in most cases are doing the bulk of the work around the coffee farm. Enabling them to form co-op groups, receive payments, and control their side of the coffee business which has historically been reserved for men.

What are you most proud of about your brand?
Equal Exchange has been around for so many years and it never stumbles on its principles. We’ve seen brands come and go in the UK or be swallowed up by corporations and supermarkets, but over 40 years later Equal Exchange is still here working alongside Independent groups.

Sustainability is very important to us, how does your business support sustainability?
Equal Exchange is always weighing up its business in terms of sustainability and at the core is our packaging responsibilities. With a few exceptions, that we are working on, our products are either recyclable or fully compostable. We were one of the first here in the UK to introduce a recyclable coffee bag and we remain at the forefront of those developments as we all try to do better.

Tell us about your product range.
Oh, it’s huge. We have a core range of organic coffees including our Grown by Women coffees, promoting female co-op groups, there are now 5 Grown by Women coffees in our range. We have our very popular organic Cocoa and Raw Honey products as well as our delicious chocolates, raw cane sugar, and Palestinian Olive Oils. Some people may have also seen that we incorporated Tropical Wholefoods into the Equal Exchange co-op last year so we have all of these products too, Organic Mango, Pineapple, and Bananas. The Dried Mushrooms and the organic Just 5 snack bars! It’s a real spread but all of our products have tremendous links to some great farmer groups and programmes across the globe.

What can you tell us about future plans?
There is no shortage of things going on here, since adding the Tropical Wholefoods brand in 2022 we’ve been looking at all our ranges and possible paths to new things over the next year or two and we’re always looking at stronger ways to connect our co-op entities in the US and the UK. Keep an eye out!

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