Alternative Economic Models: Food Co-ops And Fair Trade

Last week, the Fair Trade world was all a-buzz from an interview with Franz Van der Hoff , one of the original founders of the movement. The interview sparked many discussions about the difference between a poverty alleviation model of Fair Trade and one which has economic transformation at its core.

A few days later, I received a tweet from El Dragon over at Fair Food Fight, about this awesome new one-minute video where Sean Doyle of the Seward Co-op in Minneapolis, one of the country’s most visionary (and beautiful) food co-ops, shares his views about how locally-owned businesses impact their communities and how co-op members have a real stake in shaping this impact. Another one-minute video from Just Food Co-op in Northfield talks about the role of a co-op as an alternative economic model; built and owned by members of the community itself.

Check them out; they’re really inspiring!

And then I got it in a new way: Inherent in poverty alleviation strategies is an intrinsic sense of US and THEM. WE have money and power. WE donate and WE purchase. THEY benefit. The more WE buy, the more THEY benefit. And, no one can really argue with that, can they? Well-off consumers change their purchasing practices and poor farmers benefit.

Go Fair Trade.

But, there is an alternative. If the goal of a movement is economic transformation, US and THEM can actually become WE – considerably more complex and nuanced an approach, but at the end of the day, a much more inspiring and worthwhile goal. And imagine the difference, when people feel ownership in a business model: farmers, workers, members all have a different relationship to their work when they own the decisions… and the results of those decisions.

Not only are co-operatives a more empowering model in and of themselves, but in a co-operative economy, the entire system can be transformative. Supply chains are carefully and thoughtfully built so that while each party has their role to fill, a true partnership is formed – people are not reduced to mere “producer” or “consumer”, but instead, all parties along the supply chain become actors, more fully developed and invested in the entire supply chain, the product and the partnerships: quality, integrity, respect and transparency occur throughout the chain.

Once, when visiting our farmer partners in Sri Lanka, I met a businessman who asked me why Equal Exchange doesn’t buy from plantations. “There are plenty of “good” plantations in our country,” he told me, “and they deserve to be certified Fair Trade just as much as small farmer co-ops.” It’s great, absolutely and undeniably, that the plantation owners he referred to want to do the right thing and treat their workers well; and they deserve respect for their practices, but Fair Trade isn’t about rewards.

It’s about economic transformation. And change. And as we all know, change doesn’t come about easily. Higher prices and decent working conditions are absolutely, critically important; but these criteria are only a part of the puzzle. And like any equation, if you have only partial factors, you won’t get the desired solution.

Recently, I’ve begun working more closely with some of our food co-op partners and have been learning more about their principles and practices. These are folks who have been steadily and tirelessly walking the walk… bringing economic development to their communities; supporting local farmers, Fair Trade, and sustainable agriculture; and creating democratic ownership models. Not only are they bringing us healthy food, but through their buying practices and their ownership structures, co-operatives are transforming relationships every day.

Unfortunately, food co-operatives (like farmer co-operatives and worker-owned co-operatives) aren’t always the best at tooting their own horns. They don’t have the marketing budgets, probably because they are busy running businesses. And yet, because co-operatives don’t excel at self-promotion, their mission – nothing short of transformation – can often get lost. What kind of marketing budget do you suppose Walmart and Whole Foods have to spend?

It’s time for co-operatives to start highlighting their values and principles, to promote their vision and impact. These videos make a great contribution toward that end. Because the world doesn’t have time anymore for poverty alleviation… we need new economic models.  And we need them now!