Cooperatives and Fair Trade

When I think of October, I think of the onset of Fall. I break out the sweaters and socks, enjoy many a mug of mulled cider, watch the trees go from green to fiery red and orange, and stand by as every café in town clears a space on its menu board for the infamous but undeniably popular pumpkin spice latte. But the beauty of October goes beyond the leaves and lattes. October also carries with it enormous social justice overtones, as it is both Cooperative Month and Fair Trade Month.

Cooperatives and Fair Trade go hand in hand. The founding purpose of fair trade was to provide market access to small-scale farmers who have been consistently marginalized by plantation-style agribusiness. Fair trade is a model based on decent prices, long-term partnerships, and democratic participation from all angles of the supply chain. It is a model in which producers have a stake in their business, and the ability to leverage their selling power using a collective, organized voice. This level of collective ownership and collaboration is best exemplified by cooperatives.

Farmers of the Global South began organizing into cooperatives decades ago as a means of survival. It was these cooperatives that alternative trade organizations (ATOs) in Europe began seeking out as suppliers and business partners in the 1970s. Since then, cooperatives have formed the core of the fair trade movement. They have been hailed time and again by entities throughout the world, from the United Nations to the Pope, as agents of poverty reduction, economic development, education, and workplace democracy. Without the inclusion of producer cooperatives, the food system is not changing, and the supply chain is not fair.

The contribution of cooperatives couldn’t be more evident – and their involvement more critical – than the role they’ve played in Fair Trade. Small farmer co-operatives in the Global South, and worker-owned and consumer co-operatives in the North, have been three invaluable links in a co-operative supply chain that has helped shape and build an empowering and activist model of trade that supports small farmers, democratic organizations, and engaged consumers.

–Phyllis Robinson, Equal Exchange Education & Campaign Mgr., “Cooperatives: The Heart and Soul of the Fair Trade Movement”

Small-scale producers of the Global South are the legs on which the developed world stands, yet they are the ones crippled by conventional trade, and squeezed out of the market by plantations. However, when producers organize into cooperatives and can speak with a collective voice, they are not just gaining power within the system. They are transforming the system. And when consumer co-ops of the North can meet them half-way by offering solidarity, a fair price, and a partnership, that is when you have genuine fair trade. Fair trade is not simply paying a fair price. It is changing the system, one cooperative supply chain at a time.

Crunch some leaves, pick some apples, and treat yourself to that pumpkin spice latte. Just know there is a lot going on in your cup.

By Rachel Dana – Equal Exchange


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