Four Questions with Jonathan Rosenthal, founder of Equal Exchange
If you've ever enjoyed fair-trade coffee, chocolate or a banana, you have Jonathan Rosenthal to thank. In 1985, Rosenthal co-founded Equal Exchange and pioneered the sale of fair-trade coffee. Twenty years later, he did the same for bananas with Oke USA. Today, he and his wife run Just Works Consulting, helping fledging nonprofits bring their visions "from concepts to reality." I asked him about the relationship between his work and Judaism.
You pioneered fair trade. Today, you can find fair trade and organic products in supermarkets. Do you worry that these terms will lose some of their meaning?
I take the long view! The struggle to connect social and economic justice has been a core theme in religious, spiritual and revolutionary communities for millennia. For example, I wrote a commentary on a commentary on this passage from the Bible: “And you shall bring no abhorrent thing into your house or you will be under the ban like it. You shall surely despise it and shall surely abhor it, for it is under the ban” (Deuteronomy 7:26).
In the late 1700s, Quaker Abolitionists in England created a Slave Free Produce, calling on civilians to only purchase produce and textiles produced without slave labor. This idea was brought to the U.S. and popped up in different locations of the U.S. for over 60 years until the Civil War ended the formal need.
In the 1960s, the Black Panthers organized access to free breakfast and connected local community-owned businesses and products with the notion of a healthy community.
Fair trade has succeeded in ways we did not envision 20 or 30 years ago. So, yes, there are parts of the fair trade world that have focused on the mass market in a way that has watered down some of our ideals. The challenge now is for the idealistic part of the movement to develop new strategies to keep our integrity intact and find new ways to innovate in the marketplace.
The good news is that fair trade has been absorbed into the corporate mainstream and not crushed. The challenging news is that it has been absorbed and is being reframed. We need to build new alliances and organizations and keep our ideas alive.
Your current business provides consulting services. How has the recession affected the landscape for the kinds of organizations you work with?
Many of the organizations I work with have been slowed down by the recession. That means they have less money for nonessential training and facilitation and less appetite for exploring new projects. That has meant it has been harder to rely on my traditional networks for new business. So I have worked with my life and business partner, Ora Grodsky, to rebuild our website and put more time into outreach.
You've built your career on making business more ethical. How does your Judaism inform that mission?
I was not raised with much conscious connection to Judaism beyond a general connection to the 10 commandments. I was instilled with a strong commitment to service and ethics but it wasn't grounded in my heritage or any particular tradition. I found my way to Jewish community through my daughters, who asked for and pursued a Jewish education. Our family joined a congregation, Dorshei Tzedek, to facilitate that education. My own connection to my new Jewish community began through fair trade and other food activist activity. Over time, I realized that I felt a sense of connection, community and belonging that was powerful and compelling. Through social justice activity, I have slowly, step by step, begun to learn about the rich body of thought, struggle and wisdom that is my heritage—this has been a tremendous gift for me. I probably would not have struggled past the hurdles to find my place if it had not been for the warm, compassionate and encouraging leadership of our rabbi, Toba Spitzer.
The second company you founded imports fair trade bananas. Give me your favorite banana recipe.
After having read much history of bananas and the banana trade, it's hard to eat a commercial banana. So my favorite recipe is one that uses fair-trade bananas from Equal Exchange or Interrupcion or other ethical banana brands. One recipe I recall from the Fair Trade Foundation in the UK is simple and delicious:
Take ripe yellow fair-trade bananas (not too soft), slice the skin once and stuff with delicious fair-trade chocolate. Wrap in foil and bake on the BBQ or toaster oven until the chocolate melts and the banana is gooey (approximately 10 minutes).
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Four Questions is a weekly interview column featuring interesting people connected with the Greater Boston Jewish community. Find past columns here. Have an idea of someone we should interview? Email Molly!