For the owner/employees of Organic Planet Worker Co-op, a small cooperative in Winnipeg, Canada, making fair trade an integral part of the store’s mission was a no-brainer. “We felt that we needed to apply the same values that we use to manage our store—consensus and equality—to our suppliers,” says Stephen Kirk, an Organic Planet employee, owner and buyer. As a result of this decision, the co-op buys fair trade whenever it’s an option—just as it does with organic and local.
Today, Organic Planet shoppers almost always find fair trade bananas, avocados, berries, sugar, chocolate, coffee, quinoa products and lentils. In addition, other fair trade items are popping up throughout the store—such as in the personal care aisle, where products like soap certified by the Palestine Fair Trade Association are becoming increasingly common.
Beyond the bottom line
Organic Planet’s mission to stock fair trade products has become easier to execute since the co-op owners started working with Vancouver-based Discovery Organics, an independently owned distributor that is as dedicated to fair trade as it is to organic. “They make a lot of effort to get fair trade options,” Kirk says.
This commitment to fair trade can mean that items are more expensive at times, but values win out over price at Organic Planet. “There are occasions when we have to make the choice between cheaper non-fair trade and fair trade, but we always choose to pay the premium prices; we are motivated by more than the bottom line,” Kirk explains.
Although fair trade is a more recent addition to the 8-year-old store’s mission, organic has always been a core value at Organic Planet. “Shoppers know that about 85 percent of our products are organic. They expect it, so we don’t have to promote it much,” Kirk says. Local is also well represented in the store—in late summer, about 90 percent of the co-op’s vegetables are grown locally.
Educating consumers about fair trade
Because customer awareness about fair trade is still low, Organic Planet works to communicate the benefits of fair trade via signage and shelf talkers. The store also bumps up promotion during Fair Trade Month in October. “We’d love to see our customers’ awareness about fair trade increase,” Kirk says. “We live in a neighborhood where you’d think more people would be concerned about it, but maybe since we already offer so many fair trade products we are making the decisions for them.”
Even for employees as well educated as those at Organic Planet, the array of fair trade seals and certifications is sometimes daunting to navigate. “Most of our stuff is Fair Trade USA, and we understand that well, but we do see other seals and aren’t always sure what they really mean,” Kirk says. Products that make fair trade claims but carry no certification seal raise the most questions for Kirk and other Organic Planet employees. “Sometimes, I wonder about companies like Starbucks, which has its own internal fair trade policy but no outside certification,” he says.
For local items such as produce, the Organic Planet staff assumes the farmers use fair trade practices, Kirk adds. “The certification is more important for the farms you can’t visit,” he says. “There’s a gap then between suppliers and retailers, and you need certification. We also know that, as with certified organic, some small farmers can’t afford fair trade certification.”
Organic Planet Worker Co-op stats
877 Westminster Ave.
MB R3G 1B3 Canada
Square footage: 800
History: Opened in 2003
The differences between worker-owned and consumer-owned co-ops
Organic Planet is a worker-owned co-op in Winnipeg, Canada. It differs from the more common consumer-owned model in several ways:
- The sole owners are some or all of the employees.
- There is no board of directors.
- Decisions are usually arrived at by consensus.
- Each owner has one vote regardless of investment level.
- Its main purpose is to provide employment for its members.
The worker model, which is more prevalent in South America than North America, can be seen as perhaps more stable in the long term than the consumer model, says Stephen Kirk, a worker/owner at Organic Planet. “With the consumer model, you can end up with a board that doesn’t always have the same interests as the members.”
Another benefit is that because the employees are the owners, they are willing to sacrifice more in terms of time, Kirk says. The downside? “Sometimes we get customers who resent that they can’t be members, but mostly it’s not a problem; it’s just a matter of a conversation,” he says.