Threads of Life withdraws from the WFTO

Threads of Life has been a part of the fair trade movement since we began working with Indonesia’s traditional weavers in 1997. In 2004 we became a member of the World Fair Trade Organization, which in its own words, “represents Fair Traders from grassroots through to the G8 and is the authentic voice of Fair Trade, having driven the movement for 20 years. It is the only global network whose members represent the Fair Trade chain from production to sale.” As of 2013, Threads of Life has withdrawn its membership of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO). Nothing has changed in terms of Threads of Life’s practices and values. We are still the same fair trade organization, but we feel that the WFTO has changed and no longer properly represents our participation in the full fair trade chain.

As a member-driven organization, the WFTO has gone through a process of decentralization over recent years, moving auditing power to the national fair trade bodies from the global office. This has placed Threads of Life under the auspices of the Forum Fair Trade Indonesia (FFTI), an organization with which we have had a lively and good-natured debate over the years about the fair trade standard on the promotion of fair trade. While WFTO has certified our fair trade practices against this standard every two years, the FFTI has consistently held that we do not meet their interpretation of promoting fair trade. When the FFTI recently declined to commit to the inclusive interpretation applied by the global organization, Threads of Life felt its membership of WFTO was no longer tenable.

The fair trade movement is a broad and complex and embraces two general interpretations. These are sometimes described as “left” and “right” fairtrade, though this is perhaps too political. Another way of understanding this is in terms of membership. Most successful membership organizations have different kinds of members. There is usually an activist core and a more passive general membership. For the WFTO to be a credible and relevant voice for the fairtrade movement it must represent this entire spectrum. Up to now the WFTO has done this, and had both core members and general members (even if it has never described them as such).

What I am calling the core members see fairtrade as “FAIR trade”: justice in economics is their motivating principle, and they trade together under the banner and brand of WFTO. They define activism as participation and go to meetings, and they define advocacy as lobbying. The core members want to set the direction of the organization and are willing to invest a lot of time in this.

What I am calling the general members see fairtrade as “fair TRADE”: they are motivated by the practice of economics that is just and fair, and they trade under their own brands with the WFTO label as a certification of their values and practices. They define activism as membership, and they define advocacy as marketing. The general members are happy to let the core members run the organization, and are happy to pay their membership fees to support the work of the core members. I have identified Threads of Life as a general member.

WFTO’s Standard Nine on the promotion of fair trade is where this issue comes to a head because core members and general members will participate in and promote fairtrade differently. The wording of Standard Nine explicitly recognizes this when it says: “The organization… advocates for the objectives and activities of Fair Trade according to the scope of the organization” (my italics).

Threads of Life has advocated for the values of fairtrade through our marketing practices. Each year we distribute 10,000 Threads of Life brochures that discuss the values behind our work. Our website, which goes into far more detail, took 426,000 hits in 2012 and converted 35% of those into clicks that led people to read our website. Our retail staff documented a further 3,200 conversations with customers who came into the store. These people came to us because they are interested in traditional textiles. Very few of these people came to us because we are a fair trade organization, but all of them were exposed to the values of fair trade by engaging with our work. The WFTO standard says we must raise awareness of the aims of fair trade and we feel we are doing this, though FFTI has seen this differently.

Most of WFTO’s seven Indonesian members, and the majority of WFTO’s worldwide members are core members. However, the WFTO will struggle to survive financially or become relevant politically if it doesn’t expand its general membership. The danger of the decentralization process that WFTO is undergoing is that the global organization becomes more responsive to regional needs without the regional becoming inclusive of the global. This leads to localism and will be another source of decline for WFTO, unless it is consciously addressed by each regional and national organization.

Our hope is that FFTI and WFTO work out how to balance the need for unity while honoring difference and that they will thrive while continuing to promote and practice fair trade. We wish them much success in their future work.

7 thoughts on “Threads of Life withdraws from the WFTO

    • Yes. We withdrew because FFTI, as our new WFTO auditor, would not commit to evaluating our Self-Assessment Reports against the interpretation of fair trade that the global WFTO body has used up to now. I was assured by WFTO-Asia and WFTO globally that we had the right to challenge FFTI’s audit if it failed Threads of Life on the self-assessment, but proceeding in this way seemed it would be very divisive. Either I would be asking FFTI to compromise its principles, or I would disregarding their independence within a decentralized WFTO by constantly going over their heads. The FFTI and its members do good work and have the right to be empowered in pursuit of their values. In this context, unfortunately, withdrawal of Threads of Life’s membership of WFTO became the least worst option.

  1. it is a very sad outcome . Trying to promote the beauty of balinese traditional textiles through our business Anjel Ms so that communities reap the rewards and realise the values of protecting their heritage has been our mission for the last 5 years.Your business has been an inspiration for many years and is a national treasure on an island so threatened by the demands of cheap tourism.

  2. How interesting! I really like how you defined the FAIR trade versus fair TRADE. I was active with the Fair Trade Federation here in the US in the late 1980’s when I worked for a non-profit that sent me to the yearly conferences. After my job ended, I struck out on my own and had a retail gallery in Chicago for 20 years and now run a textile organization that focuses on the business end of what we do (marketing, social media, etc.). All along, I’ve “preached” fair trade and encouraged people in that direction in any ways that I could. I worked with many small importers when I was in Chicago and that was always an opportunity to talk about economic development and how working with functional or decorative crafts and textiles could impact the lives of the people they represented.

    Now it’s been almost 30 years since those conferences and it’s been disappointing to see the movement still remain on the fringes. Even back then, the divisions you speak about were clear. Here the leadership was made up of non-profits, religious or social organizations that had program funding and an institutional approach that is very similar to NGO efforts around the world. Many of the general members, as you describer them, were and are small businesses that are run by one person or a family and are much more flexible in changing products and in what kinds of contracts or relationships they have with their suppliers. These smaller groups have always been much more in tune with design concepts, often working with interior decorators, the fashion industry, etc. In the last ten years, I have seen wonderful partnerships happen between designers and artists/producers which are balanced, have indigenous control, would definitely qualify as fair trade and yet the fair trade organizations are so rigid and unwelcoming that most of these avant-guarde types go solo.

    It also seems like every few years there is a new labeling of what is green, good, fair, sustainable, etc. I see all of these things as pieces of the larger puzzle that should work together, but each group seems to be a reactive force against the “old guard” so that now we have hundreds of splinter groups that are basically trying to do the same thing (have environmental responsibility, pay people fairly, provide the poor with access to define their own destiny, preserve cultural identity and ancient techniques and so on…). I think that fair trade should have a tier system where newbies are given much more leniency and guidance, access to information, training, etc., then after a number of years, receive certification, and then after more years, become a part of that core group as mentors. There are many different models that can work, yet very little information is out there to the general public on how choices can be made to effect change. One would think that after a fair trade group has been around for fifteen or twenty years, specific things could be measured: Are there any new health clinics, schools, infrastructure, access to the internet? Is the next generation of children healthier, happier, and better able to have self-determination? Are the products being made relevant to the mainstream market? And, so on…

    Anyway, it was interesting to read of your experience. I haven’t followed the inside politics of these groups for quite some time now and it just brought back discussions, arguments, and frustration from all of those years ago. I do think there is a lot of wonderful work happening out there that is dynamic and exciting, both within groups that are officially a part of the Fair Trade orgs and those who are out there on their own. I guess you will just be one more of the good guys who is flying solo……………. Best wishes to you!

    Rachel Biel

    (By the way, I am pretty sure that I have invited you guys to join TAFA in the past and I would still love to have you on board! Info is here:

    • Dear Rachel,

      Thank you for your considered response and for sharing your long experience in the field of fair trade. The tiered system which you suggest is actually how the WFTO operates in practice: as long as an organization shows continual improvement against the standards, certification is maintained. Of course, the measures of achievement against these standards cannot all be quantitative; there is always going to be a subjective aspect to a structure like this that attempts to address a social problem. And it was on just such a subjective difference that our membership of WFTO became untenable.

      As you say, the fair trade movement, despite its flaws and its insiders and outsiders, continues to raise awareness of exploitative trade practices and give people a way to buy in alignment with their values. And all of this is good.

      You’re TAFA List is very interesting. I’ve mentioned in the newsletter that we are building an e-commerce store, and we will look to be on your site once we are online with this.


      • Great! I’m setting up a forum for the members ( where I am hoping that we can gather around topics that we have in common, whether by product, location, technical issues, etc. There are quite a few fair traders now and hopefully some of these issues can be discussed there, too.

        Nice to meet you, William! If you know of others who would be interested in TAFA, please spread the word. You don’t have to have an online shop to be a member, but you do have to have a developed web presence (which can be a challenge to some groups, depending on their internet access, language capabilities, etc.). It’s outlined on that membership page. Be well!


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