Working directly with weavers empowers women to maintain their own enterprises without interference by a community’s men, and putting money directly into the hands of women is the best way to ensure the welfare of a household. Culturally, weavers now live in a cash economy and textile production can no longer be supported by ritual exchange. In fact, the reverse is now true: maintaining a vital textile tradition supports cultural continuity and the ritual exchanges that form the bonds of community. Ecologically, natural dye plants are often cultural keystone species with associated rituals and mythology that perpetuate sustainable relationships with an entire watershed. Working on the responsible cultivation, harvesting and use of dye plants becomes a proxy for addressing issues within a community’s wider environment.
1. Creating Opportunities for Economically Disadvantaged Producer
Traditional weavers often live in villages too remote to enjoy the benefits of mainstream economic development. Many earn less than 50 cents a day, or migrate in search of work. Government services and social safety nets do not reach the neediest communities. Instead, villagers depend on traditional communal systems, reinforced in part by the use of traditional textiles. The support of Threads of Life can turn this poverty trap on its head. As incomes rise above the $2-a-day poverty line, young women choose to remain in the village and weave, rather than leave in search of work. As the community prospers, pride in local traditions swells and the communal support system grows stronger.
2. Transparency and Accountability
As a rule-of-thumb, Threads of Life’s retail prices represent a markup of 275% from what we pay a weaver. For textiles from some of the more remote areas, we raise the markup to cover travel costs. Where there is a high production volume, we sometimes lower the markup to promote sales and enable further orders. Our staff explains this system to weavers during field visits. We also bring weavers to visit our gallery and office in Bali, show them how we work, and justify our markup. Weavers may talk freely with our accountants, who explain our finances with data or visual materials.
3. Capacity Building
Many weavers grew up in rural barter economies. To achieve independent access to the marketplace—a goal of Fair Trade—they must adopt new business habits appropriate to a cash system. They need to manage natural resources sustainably, and to analyze and solve organizational problems. They also need to learn how to satisfy customers from very different cultures. These are changes that took western societies centuries to achieve. With good leadership and consistent support, we believe a group of Indonesian women can become an independent weavers’ cooperative in twenty years.
Threads of Life measures its business commitments in decades. With workshops and trainings, Threads of Life and its partner organization, the Bebali Foundation, help our partner cooperatives build their capacity for the long term. We continually train our staff in educational techniques and rural development; the staff passes their knowledge along through long, informal conversations on our field visits. This kind of change is incremental and difficult to evaluate, but effective over time.
4. Promoting Fair Trade
Threads of Life promotes Fair Trade as a part of our overall marketing strategy. Our marketing and advertising provides information about our organization, the weavers we work with, the lives they lead, and the products they make. We make sure that visitors to our website and gallery know we are a Fair Trade organization, and let them know what that entails. Then, we let the integrity of our work speak for itself, and trust our clients to draw their own conclusions.
5. Payment of a Fair Price
A fair price is one that has been agreed upon through open dialogue and full participation. Threads of Life requires our partner cooperatives to set a fair price collectively. We avoid deals with individual weavers, which undermine the cohesion and bargaining position of the cooperative.
The terms of that dialogue are always constrained by the local and international markets. Each textile and handicraft bought by Threads of Life has a local use. Quick inflation of the price undermines the local market, causing production to stall, or leading cooperative members to hire other women to weave at the local rate. In addition, the retail price after markup is limited by what tourists and international buyers are willing to pay.
The Fair Trade question is how to divide income equitably, so that nobody makes exploitative profits. In practice, this means that our field staff often starts the fair price discussion from the potential retail price of a textile or craft, and work backwards to a fair price for the producers.
6. Gender Equity
Fair Trade stresses an equitable role for women. Women lead nearly every cooperative Threads of Life works with, and women make up more than 90% of membership in weaving cooperatives. In fact, we actively encourage men to participate, particularly by cultivating and harvesting dye plants. Threads of Life knows that if husbands have no sense of ownership of the process, a rapid shift in the household economic balance towards wives can lead to social problems.
7. Working Conditions
Fair Trade means a safe and healthy working environment for producers. All weavers work at home, and set their own schedules to accommodate household, family, and agricultural needs. All of their natural dyes are non-toxic. We do not set production deadlines, and always stress high quality over speed of production.
8. Child Labor
None of our products is made with child labor. The vast majority of weavers who work with Threads of Life place strong emphasis on educating their children. Weaving incomes pay for school fees and children’s health care. Some daughters participate in production to the extent necessary to learn their mother’s trade.
9. The Environment
Sustainable dye resource management is one of our highest priorities. We teach cooperatives to manage their dye plants, and to extend those lessons to their wider environment, especially to their remaining forests. Where communities rely on subsistence agriculture for physical survival, degraded watersheds and diminished biodiversity are life and death issues. Threads of Life shows communities that a sustainable approach to forest management can improve long-term incomes, a true incentive for better conservation.
In Threads of Life’s early years, the broad scale of our environmental work threatened to overwhelm the business. So in 2002, our senior Indonesian staff founded the Bebali Foundation, a non-profit organization funded by private and institutional donors. Together, the Bebali Foundation and Threads of Life continue to tackle environmental issues with our partners.
10. Trade Relations
The Trade Relations standard requires an organization to trade with concern for the social, economic and environmental well-being of marginalized small producers. To Threads of Life, cultural well-being is equally important. Culture affects every social, economic, and environmental decision a community makes. Sensitivity to customs, language, rituals, norms of behavior, aspirations, and acceptable forms of innovation is a prerequisite for mutually profitable business with traditional communities. We have taken care to assemble an intelligent and compassionate staff, and to train them in cross-cultural exchange.
In accordance with Fair Trade standards, we offer 25% deposits on advance orders. We pay cash on receipt to cooperatives that produce textiles regularly, with the understanding that we will supply significant advances in times of need. Groups request advances for individuals or entire communities, to pay medical or educational fees, or to conduct important ceremonies.