By Carol Wills                                                                                                                                                                         Photo: SERRV International



In the 1970s alternative trade buying organisations had been meeting informally in conference every few years to talk about issues that concerned them all. At the Berlin Conference in 1987, Alternative Trade Organisations (ATOs) decided they needed something more formal, and a steering committee was set up to plan for the creation of a Federation for Alternative Trade.  They worked on a draft of a constitution which was presented to 38 ATOs meeting in Nordwijk aan Zee, Netherlands in May 1989. The steering committee envisaged a federation of northern ATOs.  On 12 May 1989, after a great deal of argument and discussion – particularly about the inclusion of producers as members of the new organization -  the constitution was approved, an executive committee was elected and International Federation of Alternative Trade (IFAT) was born.  In 1990, producer representatives joined the executive committee in the Netherlands to discuss the issue of producer participation in IFAT.  They were tasked with initiating discussions in their regions and to bring proposals to the 1991 Conference in Kilkenny, Ireland. This Conference theme was “International Partnerships, ATOs in the 1990s.”  It was agreed that producer organizations should be invited to join IFAT as full members.

See images of WFTO's 25 years of Fair Trade.

The 1993 Conference was held in Manila, Philippines, hosted by PREDA. A work plan was develop which stated that the aim of IFAT was to “improve living conditions for the poor” through “promoting fair trade internally/ externally” with the “anticipated result” of “a higher level of trust and cooperative among members thus achieving the aim of IFAT.”

In 1995 SERRV hosted the Conference in New Windsor, Maryland. The new draft Code of Practice was adopted along with a Strategic Plan.  Membership grew to 87. The Annual Report for the year notes that 25 members have “e-mail capability!” The 1996 annual report notes that 42 members have e-mail and that IFAT has its first website.  Declining handcraft sales are reported along with a growth in sale of coffee and other food and beverages.  

The 1997 Conference was hosted by SIPA and held in Ooty, India, with 133 people attending from 37 countries. With a theme “The Changing Face of Fair Trade; The Challenges Ahead,” the conference AGM adopted a new IFAT Mission and Vision statement. By 1998 IFAT had 111 members and 45 observers.  “IFAT brings people together in partnership, as equals, to discuss Fair Trade issues, to share experiences, to learn from each other, and to get to know each other better,” states the annual report for the year in which 160 representatives of member and observer organizations in 34 countries met at 5 regional meetings held in Austria, South Africa, USA, Nepal and Peru.  In Nepal, the committee had the great honour of being received in audience by Her Majesty the Queen. The 1999 Milan Conference resolved that IFAT should develop a three part monitoring system for Fair Trade.  Gerd Nickoleit  (GEPA) said:  “Monitoring is more than just giving answers to critical consumers’ questions.  It should guide both development and capacity building, both of which we need.”  1999 was the year in which Bob Chase, Carol Wills and Moctar Fall represented IFAT at the World Trade Organization Conference in Seattle.


The year 2000 saw the formation of FINE which brought together FLO, IFAT, NEWS and EFTA who decided to work together on common issues and develop terms of reference for future collaboration, primarily on a harmonised and integrated monitoring system for Fair Trade. A highlight of 2001, at the Arusha Conference,  was the adoption of a  definition of Fair Trade: 

“Fair Trade is a trading partnership, based on dialogue, transparency and respect, that seeks  greater equity in international trade.  It contributes to sustainable development by offering better trading conditions to, and securing the rights of, marginalised producers and workers, especially in the South.  Fair Trade Organizations (backed by consumers) are engaged actively in supporting producers, awareness raising and in campaigning for changes in the rules and practice of conventional international trade.”

2001 saw an IFAT presence at the World Trade Organization Doha Conference to add our voice to the call for reform and change, and a strengthening of FINE to enable us to respond faster to opportunities for dialogue with the European Commission and other international bodies  Membership grew to 159 organizations in 48 countries.  


By 2002 membership had grown to 180 organizations in 55 countries.  IFAT, with a grant from Christian Aid, produced a handbook on advocacy and communications in 9 languages.  The first World Fair Trade Day was celebrated.  Work on a monitoring and accreditation system continued.  Standards for Fair Trading Organizations were approved at the AGM.  Regional meetings were held in Asia, Africa, Europe, Latin America and North America and Pacific Rim.  

“Speaking out for Fair Trade” was the theme of the Newcastle Conference, hosted by Traidcraft and Shared Interest  in 2003. A new Strategic Plan “The whole world of Fair Trade” was developed.  IFAT members expressed interest in a Fair Trade Product Label for Handicrafts.  Addressing the conference, Franciso Vander Hof Boersma said:

“We must re-emphasise the importance of empowerment through Fair Trade as well as improvements to income and welfare ……………..  We must continue to challenge the unfair structures of world trade and to propose new ones:  the Fair Trade formula of ‘protesta y propuesta.’”

There was a strong IFAT presence at the WTO Conference in Cancun.  FINE cooperation continued with plans developed for a joint Fair Trade Advocacy Office in Brussels.  IFAT and FLOW continued to discuss the possibility of a harmonised Fair Trade monitoring system.  Membership climbed to 207 organizations.  
A new mark for Fair Trade Organizations was launched at the World Social Forum held in Mumbai, India, in January 2004. That was also the start of IFAT’s Global Journey for Fair Trade and Trade Justice.  During the year the Global Fair Trade Banner crisscrossed Asia and by December it had reached Rio de Janiero, Brazil. Everywhere it stopped the Global Fair Trade Message was read out at a public event:

“We are on a journey.  A journey for Fair Trade and Trade Justice. Not justice for the few. Justice for all.  At the moment, international trade far, far too often allows the strong to exploit the weak and the rich to become richer at the expense of the poor. Profits for multinational corporations are considered more important that decent working conditions and fair pay for people. The result is poverty and suffering on a huge scale. That must change. That’s why we are here!  We, Fair Trade Organizations, are united in our fight against poverty and for fairer world trading rules. We work together, determined to overcome the injustice that threatens the very future of our planet.  We are taking this message around the world to tell everyone, everywhere that we truly believe that another world is possible. Be with us! Speak out for trade justice! Support Fair Trade!”

In January 2005,the 8th Biennial Conference took place in Quito, Ecuador, hosted by Fundacion Sinchi Sacha. Membership grew to 260 organizations in 60 countries. The three Southern regions – Asia, Africa and Latin America – had operational regional structures and offices. A project on “Improved Access to Fair Trade Markets” was implemented.  Five supply chain studies were produced forming the basis for a joint IFAT/ FLO Fair Trade Quality Management System for Fair Trade (with much appreciated financial support from HIVOS).  

By 2006 there were nearly 300 IFAT members. IFAT Europe was established and regional meetings held.  A survey was conducted on the need for a product label for crafts. The FTO Mark was being used by a growing number of members keen to demonstrate that they truly aspired to including Fair Trade principles in everything they do.  The Global Journey continued through another 12 countries.  


In 2007, by now calling ourselves the International Fair Trade Association and responding to the challenges facing Fair Trade, an Agenda for Change was prepared by Honorary Members Paul Myers and Carol Wills and adopted at the AGM held at the Blankenberge Conference in the Netherlands. Key decisions taken were:

  • To develop a credible 3rd party certified label
  • To strengthen the membership and monitoring systems
  • To delegate more responsibility to the regions
  • To broaden the governance structure


At its 2008 AGM held in Sri Lanka IFAT agreed a new name – World Fair Trade Organization – to reflect the breadth and impact of the organization. It also adopted a new mission statement:

“WFTO aims to improve the livelihoods of marginalised producers and workers, especially in the South.  

“WFTO aims to change unfair structures of international trade, mainly by means of Fair Trade, to improve and co-ordinate the cooperation of its member organizations and to promote the interests of  and provide services to its member organisations and individuals.”

Following the 2009 Conference in Nepal the full force of the global economic downturn affected many WFTO members South and North with purchase orders falling by as much as 40% for many members in the South. Later in the year it became apparent that expenditure had been made without proper funding which put the future of the WFTO in jeopardy. Membership grew to 441. On World Fair Trade Day 1000 events were registered in 70 countries.

2009 also saw the signing of the Charter of Fair Trade Principles by WFTO and Fairtrade Labelling Organizations (now Fairtrade International). The charter is a single international reference point for Fair Trade, which provides concise explanation of Fair Trade principles and the two main routes by which these principles are implemented. It also sets out our common vision, definition of Fair Trade, and core principles.

In 2010 WFTO revised its mission and vision once again:
“Vision:  WFTO, the World Fair Trade organization, has a vision of a world in which trade structures and practices have been transformed to work in favour of the poor and promote sustainable development and justice.

“Mission:  WFTO’s mission is to enable producers to improve their livelihoods and communities through Fair Trade.  WFTO will be the global network  and advocate for Fair Trade, ensuring producer voices are heard.  The interests of producers, especially small farmers and artisans, should be the main focus in all the policies, governance, structures and decision-making within the WFTO.”


The 2011 Conference was held in Mombasa, Kenya, hosted jointly by KEFAT and COFTA (Now WFTO Africa). Rudi Dalvai WFTO President at the time wrote:

“In the end, the final test for Fair Trade is the genuine improvement, the dent we make in the lives of marginalised producers who are struggling in the still worsening poverty by continuing in addressing the unjust practices and structures that perpetuate these.”

The AGM agreed key resolutions for the WFTO Fair Trade System and Standard and the basis for a new governance structure. The financial health of the organization improved. At the end of the year there were 442 member organizations.

During 2012 the new Guarantee System was developed to guarantee the compliance of WFTO Members with the WFTO Standard. The financial recovery of the organization was proceeding well.  


Following the Rio Conference in 2013, Natalia Leal replaced Carola Reintjes as Chief Executive. At the Rio AGM, the WFTO product label was introduced, a new Strategic Plan was approved, a Retailer Standard was adopted, the Board was authorised to look for the best solution for Third Party Certification of the Guarantee System and a gender policy was introduced unanimously to a standing ovation!  

As WFTO moves into its second quarter century, electronic voting is becoming the norm and the website becomes our key vehicle for sharing information with members. Working Groups communicate through the WFTO Network, an online community platform.  Some meetings at every level take place virtually. The challenges for Fair Trade remain huge. Poverty and suffering are still with us.  We continue to call out for change. Supported by millions of consumers all over the world, we carry on working together to raise the visibility and voice of poor workers and producers and to make the world a better place.