|Equal Exchange is about 40 min outside of Boston (or at least, that's how long it took from where I was staying in Boston). On the way there, I could NOT find a decent cup of coffee anywhere. Dunkin' Donuts has just about taken over the entire northeast and my options were that or McDonalds. But I figured that a coffee company would probably have some coffee available for me to drink. Sure enough, I was not disappointed...
What you don't see in that picture is the large, very well equipped kitchen at Equal Exchange. Eating well at work has always been a challenge for me, because you're limited to what you can cook in a microwave or eat raw. Perhaps it's because Equal Exchange is a worker-owned co-op where each employee has 1 vote, but they've got an entire kitchen so that their staff can eat real food. And, of course, all you can drink Fair Trade coffee.
Most of their business is coffee. They start by receiving samples of green beans from their growers, which the quality control department roasts and "cups" (cupping is essentially the coffee version of wine tasting). They place orders and - if the coffee isn't good - they tell the growers exactly why so that they can improve in the future. All of the coffee comes from cooperatives of small farmers and Equal Exchange wants them to succeed - hence the thorough feedback loop when the coffee isn't up to snuff.
The orders come in after they are placed. In the pictures below, you'll see enormous piles of burlap bags filled with green beans.
A lot of green coffee beans
Much of the roasting process is computerized. From these burlap bags, the green beans go into a storage area that is hooked up to the roaster. The computer knows what kind of beans is in each different storage container, and it can move whichever variety of beans you specify into the roaster. You can see the roaster below, but you can't see it well because it's blocked by a large vat where the beans are cooled to stop the cooking after they are done roasting.
The roaster... The actual roaster is in the background a bit, the vat in the front is where the beans are cooled
Often coffee is sold in blends (i.e. beans from more than one origin or beans that are roasted differently are mixed together), and you can either form the blend before or after roasting. For example, you can mix green beans from El Salvador and Guatamala and roast them together, or you can roast them separately (perhaps for different amounts of time and to different temperatures) and then blend them once they have cooled down. After the coffee is roasted, the cooled down beans go into another storage container, and from there they are packed into 1-lb or 5-lb bags using the machine below:
The machine that puts the roasted beans in 5-lb bags
During the process, there is a bit of waste, and Equal Exchange gives this to a farmer for compost. They also mentioned that they have leftover organic burlap bags to give away, if anyone wants them.
Leftovers from the coffee roasting process
So where does the coffee go from there? Coffee shops, natural foods co-ops, retail outlets, and places of worship. Because Fair Trade practices jive pretty well with religious beliefs about treating others the way you want to be treated, several religious denominations and faiths work together with Equal Exchange to get their churches and/or mosques to buy Fair Trade coffee.
A poster for one of the interfaith outreach programs
Equal Exchange also sells cocoa (see the poster below), tea, pecans from Georgia, cranberries from Massachusetts and Wisconsin, and bananas. Most of these products come from small farmer-owned cooperatives, but tea is a little bit different. A lot of the world's tea is grown on large plantations, so finding small farmers to work with can be challenging. Equal Exchange only works with one plantation for tea and the rest of their tea still comes from small farmer co-ops. In addition to the Fair Trade products listed above, I've also seen Fair Trade sugar, mangoes, and cheese, sold by other companies. When you can't speak to a farmer directly, Fair Trade is a good way to go.
A poster for Conacado cocoa cooperative
A few books from Equal Exchange's library, which now contains a copy of my book