Equal Exchange Serves Up a Cup of Cooperation

Almost everyone gets a vote at the "fair trade" coffee seller.

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When Equal Exchange started in 1986, its founders wanted to structure the West Bridgewater, Mass., company to reflect its mission of selling "fair trade" coffee. They saw workplace democracy as the only option for a natural-foods company trying to boost coffee farmers' living standards while also making a profit. "They built a workplace where people are respected," says Equal Exchange's current codirector Rob Everts, who has been at the company for 10 years. "We attempt as best as possible to walk the talk."

Workers at Equal Exchange must be at the company at least a year before they are eligible to join the cooperative, which elects a board of directors made up of six employees and three outsiders. Seventy-seven out of 100 employees are co-op members.

Everyone from the newest warehouse worker to the company president gets one vote when making decisions like picking a new director or starting a new business line selling chocolate. Employees even have a say in where to roast beans and locate headquarters. When Equal Exchange was hunting for new office space, Everts recalls, its real estate agent quickly got used to groups of company workers checking out possibilities.

Everts admits that workplace democracy takes time and effort, which could cut into profits. Workers at Equal Exchange spend 90 minutes every Thursday, for example, learning about issues like governance to help them inform their votes. A training group also holds regular classes on financial literacy to help employees understand the company's books.

But Everts insists that such practices have built a stronger, better company. Equal Exchange has a retention rate of 90 percent, he says, and has turned a profit for 18 of its 21 years. Its 2007 sales were $29.4 million, with earnings of more than $500,000. The Equal Exchange difference, Everts says, is that "profit goes to build the mission, not line CEO pockets."