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 As of 2013, Threads of Life has withdrawn its membership of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO).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

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Challenging Times in Kalumpang, Sulawesi

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Mapping dye plant resources in Sulawesi

In December 2012 we received a shipment of three bales containing 84 textiles from the most remote communities we work with in the Kalumpang region of West Sulawesi. (See the May 2011 Field Notes). The shipment included 57 of the large 150 x 200 cm (60 x 80 inch) Sekomandi and Marilotong textiles, and 27 smaller Selendangs. This seemed like yet another triumph for our work with a group of weavers that has grown from two to 54 women over the course of ten years. The weavers’ isolation means our field staff get to visit them at most once a year. So to help the weavers gain access to Threads of Life and other potential buyers, we have been facilitating the development of seven weavers’ cooperatives. In this way, weavers work together, combining their efforts and pooling resources so that they can ship textiles to us when we are unable to visit them. This process had been going well since 2009, but suddenly with the most recent shipment, something appeared to be wrong.

The colors were not right. The red was too bright and too uniform in some cloths; natural dyes would show more depth and more variation. We became suspicious that the weavers were mixing synthetic dyes into their natural dye work. The end-of-year planning and reporting work in the office was put on hold as we spent two weeks examining each textile, spot testing for color fastness, and burn testing fringe threads for indigo. The results were discouraging, and led us back into our archive of benchmark textiles from recent years from the Sulawesi weavers.

When laid out as a timeline, one next to the other, we were reminded that the weavers had been struggling to produce good colors with natural dyes for some years. We had attributed recent improvements in color to improved skills, but the improvements had gone too far and suddenly we were suspicious. Not wanting to put the women on the defensive, our first response was circumspect. There is no cell phone signal in the villages, so we must wait for someone to make the full-day journey to the nearest coastal town for communications to be possible. Text messages were sent to several women for someone to receive when they came to market, and it was one of the head weavers who responded first. Pung called her back and said we were having some problems with the colorfastness of their work. He said we were confused as to why this was happening, and that we needed to understand the problem before we could pay for the shipment we had just received. He asked her, could she think what the problem was? Several explanations were given, but the one that rang true was her suspicion that some weavers were mixing synthetic dyes with their natural colors.

Again, we held our tongues. This was especially hard for Pung as he had spent a decade building trust with the weavers in the area. But our mission is to support marginalized producers, and to educate them about how to build and maintain markets. Writing any of them off would not have served this end. Instead, we planned a workshop with the women to discuss the problem and design a solution. We felt it important enough that we spent a week designing the facilitation and sent four of our most senior staff for the meeting. The meeting was held over three days during the third week of January in the West Sulawesi regency town of Mamuju; a day’s travel for us from Bali, and a day’s travel from the villages for the weavers. We paid for nineteen women to attend.

We wanted the women to know this was important to us and sent Pung as our ethnobotanist, Sujata as our best dyer, Wenten as our senior facilitator, and Jean as our chief buyer and marketer. For the weavers also, joining the meeting showed a serious commitment. January is not a time of year they usually leave home. The monsoon wreaks havoc on the regions unpaved roads and few would attempt travel until April if there were not a very good reason. In fact, the representatives of one co-op were late to the workshop because their bus was mired in a landslide for a whole day.

At the start of the first morning of the workshop we brought out all the textiles they had sent, so we could show the weavers the problems we had with each piece. We also showed them textiles from weavers on other islands that we work with, so they could see the differences. Next we asked them to explain the reasons for the problems with their work. It took nearly two hours of discussion of dye plant supply problems before one of the women acknowledged she had used synthetic dyes. Her admission opened the floodgates and the whole story came out: one weaver had mixed synthetic dyes in a textile in a recent shipment; we did not notice it and did not reject it; and so everyone felt it was acceptable to do the same.

Only one woman was still making 100% natural dyed cloth for us. For the rest, having done 95% of the work using natural dyes, including a complex oiling process and a full Morinda red process, the application of a half-teaspoon of synthetic red as an over-dye at the very end devalued their work by more than half.

I should note here that it is very difficult to prove the difference between synthetic and natural dyes in a finished cloth without expensive chromatographic lab tests. In the field, we rely on our eyes and experience for judging color, on our long-term relationships with the weavers for their honesty, and audits of the local abundance of dye plants to judge whether dye plant supply matches production volumes.

In the afternoon of the first day of the workshop, we held a hands-on session during which weavers performed their red natural dye work, and we weighed and quantified their dye recipes. The second day was spent with the weavers drawing maps of their dye plant resources, and us totaling their supplies and checking for double counting. Comparing the amount of dyestuff needed to make the textiles produced with the acknowledged supply gave us a measure of the dye plant supply problem. The results showed that there were not enough Morinda trees for the red dye work.

The weavers disputed this, and from the ensuing discussion it emerged that of the 54 weavers listed as members of the co-ops, only thirty were active, and that for these weavers there were enough Morinda trees. The weavers that left had not given up weaving. A man from Mamuju, with family in one of the weaving villages and business ties in Bali, had been bringing synthetic dyes to the villages and buying textiles. He was paying a third of our prices, but for those without Morinda trees it became the only option. At last, we understood the source of the synthetic dyes that the cooperative weavers had used on the pieces they made for Threads of Life.

On the final day of the workshop, plans were made to address the problems. We recognized that Threads of Life had to increase its buying prices for natural dyed work, to maintain its economic viability in the face of the new market now available to the weavers. We agreed that prices could increase by as much as 25% if there was an improvement in dye quality, and if our market proved capable of bearing such an increase. The women agreed to plant more Morinda trees and harvest them sustainably, to try Symplocos leaves as a mordant, and to work to improve their oiling process.

The final act was to buy 39 of the original textiles that we felt would be colorfast, though at a price appropriate for mixed natural- and synthetic-dyed work. (These are currently on sale in the gallery, labeled as “Natural and synthetic dyes.”) Though many were disappointed to have received less money than they were expecting, most acknowledged their mistake and were relieved that their business relationship with us had been saved.

As is often the case in Indonesia, the emotionally difficult negotiations of the week were concluded with a party. Dinner on the last evening was followed by three hours of line dancing. Pung, who claims to have two left feet, said he was just starting to learn the steps by the end of the night!

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Behind Being

I met filmmaker Quincy Davis in March, when he asked to interview me for a documentary he was planning to make about the importance of culture and community. I said yes and we spent a couple of hours talking in front of his camera. He just sent me the trailer for his film, and it is amazingly beautiful, both visually and in the way the images expand the narrative.

Please have a look at his trailer on Kickstarter, where he is raising money to fund the production of the full 20-minute documentary. This is a very worthwhile project.

During our interview I was immediately struck by the intelligence of Quincy’s questions. I do a lot of talking about what Threads of Life does, and have answers to most questions ready to hand. But with Quincy I had to pause often to consider my replies; he wasn’t putting me on the spot, he was just making me think, and drew out of me some answers I didn’t even know I had. He obviously did a lot of homework to come up with such insightful questions, and I am excited to see what he can say with 20 minutes of film.

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Lou Zeldis, In Memoriam

Upon entering the Threads of Life gallery, and looking to the left, a strikingly modern batik is usually hanging full-length on the far wall. Made in the traditional natural-dye colors of central Java by the artisans at a batik studio in the city of Solo, the designs being employed have taken tradition and spun it on its head! The force behind all this creativity, intended to keep a traditional batik studio going in between orders from the Surakarta palace’s royal family, was Lou Zeldis, an American artist of exceptional talent and a human of unusual kindness.

Lou loved playing with the intersection of circles and lines: starbursts were a motif he often explored. And he liked expressing the ordinary in thought provoking ways: a field of black-and-white checks, but with one white square missing somewhere, so that you only noticed it the third or fourth time you looked at the cloth. A series of pieces I admired (as a mathematics graduate) was his Pi works. Starting in the top left corner in tightly spaced but neat rows, the decimal numerals for the esoteric number Pi filled the cloth: 3.14159265358979323846… You get the idea. And Lou would check the work for the batik artists’ cellphone numbers, suspecting them of including the kind of visual surprise he so loved. At the foot of each cloth in the curling traditional script of Java, the names of all the batik artists were listed, followed by Lou’s name and the year. He always gave credit where credit was due.

Lou died of cancer earlier this month. His zest for life, his generosity, and his way of making you see the beauty in things you’d never noticed before, will all be sadly missed.

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Marketing for Traditional Weavers: A Question of Values

The following is the text of a presentation for the First Asian Ikat Weavers Conference held by the Lake Sebu Indigenous Women Weavers’ Association (LASIWWAI) in the Philippines between April 17-19, 2012. I could not make the conference in person, but the presentation was made on my behalf by the organizers.

Threads of Life is a fairtrade-certified business that works with over 600 women weavers and their families on 11 Indonesian islands. These women are organized into 55 cooperatives and make high-quality natural-dyed traditional textiles that we sell through our gallery in Bali. We have been operating since 1998, and can sell everything these women make that meets our high quality control standards. We do not sell anywhere else. We have tried selling in the US and the UK, but have found that Bali is the best market. This is where we get the most customers.

We are sometimes asked to help other traditional textile organizations address marketing issues. One problem we frequently see is NGOs and community-based organizations that operate their businesses at a loss. In one extreme case, they paid the weavers more than they could re-sell the textiles for. I can understand how this happens. A community organization is focused on the welfare of its members. However, marketing success requires a focus on the needs of the customer. By contrast, when companies try to do community work, they usually get it wrong. This is because their primary concern is their customers and shareholders. So, for a business with a social mission, or a non-profit with a need to do business, there is a need to do something out of the ordinary.

Making a Profit

The first rule of business is to make a profit. A profit is needed to keep a business growing. In order to sell more textiles next year than this year, we have to buy more textiles from our weavers. To do this, more cash is needed. In the NGO world, “profit” can be almost a swear word. This is because in marginalized communities profit is often associated with exploitation. But the real question is about how to share profits fairly.

In the fairtrade movement profit sharing is often discussed. I have seen organizations calculate the hours taken to make a textile, and then work out a fair wage for their weavers’ work. The price is then decided by adding a “fair” profit onto these costs. This certainly leads to a good way of calculating operating costs, but is a poor way of setting a price. The calculated price can be so high that nobody buys the product and the project fails.

In reality, markets set prices. The price of a textile is whatever the market will bare for the quantity you are making. Working out what the market price is requires market research. What is the price of similar textiles with similar stories from elsewhere? The issue is then about how to share the sales income amongst everyone who worked to make and distribute the textile. If the weaver makes a low wage from this, then everyone in the marketing chain must work together to increase the value of the final product so that there is more money to share around.

Adding Value to Traditional Textiles

One of the aims of marketing is to add value to a product. For traditional textiles, and the marketing of other material expressions of traditional culture, I think adding value is a matter of adding values.

A defining aspect of the network of weavers’ cooperatives Threads of Life works with is a shared question. The weavers normally state it something like this: “We are told we are backwards and primitive because we want to keep our traditions and way of life. We are told that we must chose between keeping these traditions and joining modern society and the global economy. Why must we make this choice? Why can’t we do both? How do we express our culture and identity and make a living while doing so?”

I believe it is this question – How do we express our culture and identity and make a living while doing so? – that is the key to our marketing success because it communicates the values of the weavers in a way that potential customers can identify with.

Marketing

A useful definition of marketing is “fulfilling your customers’ needs at a profit.” In order to do this we must first know what our customers needs are. Beyond the need for a good product at a marketable price, I suggest that the simplest need of all our customers is to participate in a meaningful story that makes them feel good about themselves. We therefore redefine marketing like this.

The weavers’ cooperatives’ definition of marketing becomes: “Profitably demonstrating that your cooperative’s values are aligned with and connected to those of your intermediaries and end customers.”

We become storytellers, and the products we sell are symbolic to our buyers of their desire to participate in our story. The weavers’ question – How do we express our culture and identity and make a living while doing so? – becomes our customers’ question, too.

For this to work it must be a conversation between equals. We are not selling the weavers’ poverty, or their illiteracy, or their poor health. Weaver, retailer and consumer must see each other as equals. We are all struggling to discover our identity and community in a rapidly changing world. We all feel that through mutual understanding and respect for each other’s needs and aspirations we can create a just and sustainable world. I think one way of establishing this conversation is through brand identity.

Branding

Here are a couple of definitions of branding from the Internet:

“The word brand has evolved to encompass identity — it affects the personality of a product, company or service. It is defined by a perception that your customers have about you.” [Wikipedia]

“Simply put, your brand is your promise to your customer. It tells them what they can expect from your products and services, and it differentiates you from your competitors. Your brand is about who you are, who you want to be, and who people perceive you to be.” [entrepreneur.com]

The key word for the purposes of our discussion is “identity”. A brand is a means of communicating identity and story. It is a way of communicating values so that others can chose to participate with us in expressing those values. It is how we do our marketing. Anyone who looks through Threads of Life’s website or visits our gallery leaves with a story about our brand. There are several threads to this story, and different themes will be of interest to different people. Some are interested in culture, others in livelihoods and fairtrade, some in the environmental aspect of the work. In each case we are inviting participation from potential customers.

The website passionbrand.com is well worth looking at. The book by the site’s authors is also excellent. The website starts out by saying:

“It’s a cynical world out there. Yet some brands inspire passionate advocacy in consumers and employees. These ‘Passion Brands’ have 5 things in common:

  1. They have something important to say about contemporary life
  2. They act out of beliefs, not just the latest focus group findings
  3. They are good at something that’s good for people – and stick to it
  4. They make sure the brand is understood throughout the business
  5. They are never self-righteous, boastful or dull”

Let’s look at these points one by one:

1. What is the important thing we have to say about contemporary life?

By supporting the contemporary expression of traditional culture through the textile arts we are also saying that the way contemporary life is eroding traditional culture is a problem. We are saying cultural diversity is valuable for all of humanity, not just the custodians of a particular tradition. We are saying that people are important.

2. Do we act out of our values? Do we hold our values even when that is not the easiest thing to do?

There was a measles epidemic in the Kalumpang region of West Sulawesi in 2010. When our field staff where there, a man came up to them asking for help. One of his daughters had just died of measles and the other was sick. His community had formed a team of stretcher-bearers to carry her on the 6-hour walk to the nearest doctor. He needed money for the doctor and medicine and asked Pung to buy one of his wife’s textiles. The textile was of poor quality and didn’t meet our quality control standards. With a heavy heart, Pung said, “I can’t buy the textile. But I know your wife. She is a good weaver. So I’ll give you an advance on her next cloth instead.” Pung found a solution that balanced our social and business values, and maintained the weaver’s dignity.

3. What are we good at that is good for people?

Exploring this idea in depth is one of the keys to marketing success. This is where we find our competitive advantage. We need to ask, what is it that our producers’ are good at? What is it that they are better at than others? What do we have to offer that no one else can offer in the marketplace?Most of the weavers we all work with live in remote areas with poor infrastructure. Fulfilling detailed orders for hundreds of items is often beyond our capacities. If we could fulfill the orders, we would have problems with shipping. And if there is demand, someone with better access to the infrastructure usually would take our business in the end. Our competitive advantage will seldom lie in high-volume, low-value markets.

Turning this problem on its head, we can ask, How do we make our weavers’ remoteness into an advantage? What nobody else can copy or do better than our producers, is our producers’ cultural integrity. Their ethnic identity differentiates them from other people. What they are really good at is being themselves! When the weavers’ textiles become a way of telling their stories they are doing something nobody else can do.

At Threads of Life the majority of our customers are from the USA, Australia, and Europe. There are many shops selling Indonesian textiles in Ubud, but people walk past them all to our gallery, which is at the end of a small side street. We are among the most expensive places they could shop. But they still come to see us because they want to hear the weavers’ stories and be part of those stories.

4. Is the brand – that is, our promise to our customers – understood by everyone in the organization? Are our values so important that we are trying to express them in every detail of what we do?

Our brand says that people are important, and that we all have the right to express our culture and identity. Our promise to our customers is that we will work together with our staff and producers towards making this happen.

A small example of this is how we organize our staff’s holidays. Most are Balinese and have complex and frequent ceremonial obligations. When there is a big ceremony, people take lots of time off but also need lots of money. Instead of cutting monthly wages for people who under-work because they have ceremonies, we only reconcile over- and under-time at the end of each year. We are open on national holidays too, so that staff can keep the holidays for when they need them. In this we express our value that culture is important.

5. Are we humble enough to recognize that truly embodying our values is difficult?

There is a line in Threads of Life’s mission statement that says, “Addressing shared challenges though a peer-to-peer process”. In this, we are again talking about our brand promise.At its core, Threads of Life is a learning organization. As weavers, as business owners and employees, and as retail customers – everyone involved in Threads of Life is learning how to respect each other’s needs and aspirations so that we can create a just and sustainable world. Our work is defined by shared questions about our common challenges, not by one group having answers to the other’s problems.

Take-Home Lessons

Some of what I’ve been sharing is just my opinion and what we have learned from experience in our business over the past fifteen years. It may or may not apply to other organizations. But there are perhaps three basic principles that I think are useful to everyone:

1. Work out what your values are, and which values connect you to your producers and customers.

2. Work out how to express those values in a way that invites enthusiastic participation from your producers and customers. If you do this well, people will seek you out. People are hungry for integrity.

3. And make sure you are making a profit, so that you can keep the vision growing.

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Connected and Aligned

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Agustina Soly lives 2 days travel from the nearest surfaced road. Her community in the remote highlands of West Sulawesi is beyond the reach of most Indonesian government services. People are very self-reliant here. Agustina is the school teacher and the coordinator for 7 weavers’ cooperatives with a total membership of 56 women. Weaving is an important source of income, and making traditional textiles is a huge source of cultural pride.

Last year, Agustina and six other weavers joined thirty other participants from across Indonesia for a four-day workshop in Bali. Several sessions explored the shared values across our network. We often do this, but it is always worth re-exploring. The common themes were: improving family welfare, strengthening cultural values, increasing cooperation, and enhancing mutual respect. Agustina made an insightful observation. She compared the weavers’ values to those in the mission statements of Threads of Life and the YPBB Foundation, noting that “Our values are not the same, but they are aligned and connected.”

We then explored weavers’ ideas about the values of Threads of Life’s customers, to whom they are ultimately marketing their work. This generated some powerfully unguarded comments. The majority of responses were a variation of, “They buy our work because they feel sorry for us.”

I can imagine where this idea might have come from. Development work is often performed by organizations with a particular focus, looking for communities with matching problems. When the problem is solved, the organization moves on. Communities’ defining relationships with the outside world are then those of being the recipients of help. Perhaps this unintended consequence leaves people feeling that the outside world feels sorry for them. Whatever the reason, it’s a disempowering self-image. In the case of Threads of Life’s customers, I think it’s also largely inaccurate: Our marketing is based on the assumption that our customers’ values are also “aligned and connected” with the weavers’.

The weavers’ textiles, baskets and other expressions eloquently convey their values to our customers. It seems, the act of buying has not been enough on its own to convey our customers’ values and aspirations to the weavers. We could tell the weavers they are wrong, but this would be nowhere near as powerful or convincing as you telling them. Overturning the weavers’ misconceptions could be achieved by some kind of meeting and respectful conversation about shared values between weaver and buyer. Impractical as this sounds, could there be a very simple way of achieving the same end?

Imagine if you could send the weaver a photo portrait of yourself printed with an accompanying 150-word translation of why you bought their work. Imagine each weaver getting one or two such cards per year; each cooperative getting a dozen or more. Everyone’s reasons would be different, but together and over time could build for the weavers an informed image of who their buyers really are, and what they value. The portraits could make this new intellectual understanding into a heartfelt connection. Imagine if this unleashed the potential in the weavers’ shared values: improving family welfare, strengthening cultural values, increasing cooperation, and enhancing mutual respect.

Further imagine that you could chose to have your image and text posted on Threads of Life’s website, so each new image and message could be informed by and dialogue with the previous messages. Might a conversation emerge that helps us refine and express our deepest values too? What power might that unleash within us?

There may be a better way of achieving this than the portrait-and-text idea, but I feel there is a deep reservoir of potential in sharing our values more explicitly. So this post is an invitation, too. If you think the direction of these ideas has merit, or you can see another way to do it, we’d like to hear from you. Please leave a comment on this blog. If this idea has merit, you will hear more about it in the future.

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