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 As of 2013, Threads of Life has withdrawn its membership of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO).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.