Creating a mental bridge from material to social aspects of product stewardship

Below is a blog post by Rodney North of Equal Exchange, in preparation for the PSI Networking Conference Call on Thursday, Oct. 28 (2:00-3:30 EST). This blog discusses the connection that Equal Exchange makes to the lifecycle, social, and environmental impacts from making its products. They strive to make a better, more sustainable, product in a way that most companies are not yet thinking. We will continue this discussion on our networking call. Please join us for the dialogue.


For those interested in product stewardship the focus historically has been upon physical/material matters – such as:

 Is a product toxic in its production, use, or disposal?

Can it be recycled? If so how?

How much water or energy is used in its life-cycle?


We do this both out of a concern for the environment itself but equally because of the direct and indirect effects upon people. And if improving human welfare is sometimes/often/or always your motivation for product stewardship then we modestly suggest a wider perspective on the many ways the stuff people buy impacts people’s lives.
For this reason Equal Exchange might have unusual insights to share with the product stewardship community. For 24 years we have worked hard to make select industries that produce goods that most Americans buy every month, and maybe even daily – like the coffee, tea and banana trades – work better for more people. We’re focused most of all on the millions of small-scale farmers around the world who grow these crops. In fact the industries beyond these everyday items have shaped the course of history for dozens of nations. For example, where do you think the phrase “a banana republic” came from? Suffice to say that the systems that keep our grocery stores stocked with bountiful amounts of very affordable tropical products works better for food companies, retailers and consumers than they do for farmers or farm workers.

Specifically, as a business Equal Exchange has been uniquely concerned with how the buying and selling of products affect people, especially those who are the most disadvantaged within a given supply chain. So even when the physical aspects of a product pose no threat we have seen over and over how the commercial aspects of a supply chain can have powerful negative or positive effects upon communities both abroad and here at in the U.S. It is for these reasons that back in 1986 we helped introduce to US grocery stores the Fair Trade model for imported foods.

In the U.S. and other developed economies we have taken many steps to soften the edges of the marketplace so that it is not as callous, dangerous and exploitative as Charles Dickens’ “dark satanic mills” or Upton Sinclair’s “jungle”. There is still more to be done – for example for migrant farm workers and meat-packing employees – but especially for those in less affluent nations, where the marketplace remains largely ungoverned and where the vast majority work at the mercy of amoral and impersonal market forces.

I know that’s strong language but there is no other way to describe it. Plus it helps explain why there is a need for companies like Equal Exchange and why governments, at all levels, should think about products more broadly and consider not only physical and environmental attributes, but also the social character of how goods are produced and traded.

With that said, Equal Exchange is also very concerned about the environmental impacts associated with our products and for good reason. After one’s home and maybe even more than one’s car the food we buy (annually over $6,000 per year per person) may represent the largest environmental impact we have.  For example, agricultural is a bigger contributor to climate change than are all forms of transportation combined. A whole host of other environmental issues also pivot on farming, including soil erosion, dead zones in the Gulf and Chesapeake Bay, and loss of wildlife habitat. So if you care about how products affect the environment, then you have to think about food, which means thinking about farming. At Equal Exchange we do and that is why over 95% of what we import is organically grown.

This is where our work, and that of tens of thousands of organic farmers around the world, overlaps most closely with the traditional concerns around product stewardship.  Let’s put it in what might be more familiar language.

Imagine you have two ways to produce a widget:

Process A involves chemicals ranging from mild to very toxic, including many that are have long been banned in the U.S. due to their extreme environmental side-effects when used as directed.  The chemicals are often used by people with no safety instruction or equipment (masks, gloves, aprons, washing stations, etc). There is little-to-no regulatory oversight of the use of these chemicals. Direct and indirect harmful exposure to workers, their families, and other in their communities is common, resulting in frequent illness, and even birth-defects and death. Rivers and public water sources become contaminated. These chemicals are typically combined with complementary production techniques that together accelerate climate change, soil erosion in mountainous regions, lower soil fertility and the loss of both animal and plant biodiversity.

And Process B for producing the widget avoids all of the problems above, while also sequestering carbon and increasing climate change resilience, restoring soil fertility, minimizing erosion, restoring biodiversity, and encouraging a stewardship mentality to the productive resources involved. Process B often produces higher quality “widgets” and is also sufficiently productive and efficient to be competitively priced on the market.

This over-simplified story of 2 “widgets” essentially captures some of the production choices we face in how much of our food is produced in the global South, and we hope the product stewardship community will consider this, as well the human/commercial side of those supply chains, in the years to come.

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