If it Takes a Village to Raise a Child...Just Imagine What “Ten Thousand Villages” Can Do!

fair trade artisanal craft bag
© Can Stock Photo / tan4ikk

On a rainy September day in Stockholm, I sat in front of my laptop and clicked through the crafts of artisans from India, El Salvador, Haiti, Vietnam, Peru, and more. This early Christmas shopping for my family in Canada led me to the Ten Thousand Villages Canada website, where I immediately felt the same connection that I experienced seven years ago when I stepped into a Ten Thousand Villages store on an unassuming side street in Brandon, Manitoba. It was the first shopping experience where I remember swapping the feeling of instant gratification for a lasting satisfaction. As I continued to search the website for something special for my niece and nephew, I read the story behind what might become one of their holiday gifts. I learned that the natural gourd (hollowed and dried skin of fruit) piggy bank I was considering was a product of Lima’s Manos Amigas - or “hands of friendship”- artisan group, a community outreach program aiming to raise funds for a breakfast program for disadvantaged children. Light bulb moment: the joy this gift would bring to the two children for whom it was intended was really just the beginning.

In a marketplace saturated with companies that rely on ethically poor processes to bring their products to market, there are an increasing number of game-changing organizations that offer more ethical options to consumers. Greater transparency of product procurement has caused a slow ripple effect and shady corporate ethics are being exposed – and judged – more frequently. It is an exciting time of awareness for consumers. We are being offered the opportunity for a greater attachment to the products we purchase when we choose to consume with a conscience.

The oldest and largest Fair Trade organization in North America, Ten Thousand Villages, has been practicing ethical commerce for over six decades. Like their products, there is an inspiring story behind Ten Thousand Villages. In 1946, Edna Ruth Byler took a trip to Puerto Rico to visit volunteers, who were teaching sewing classes to women living in poverty, and brought the unique handcrafts of these local artisans back home to sell in her town of Akron, Pennsylvania. Realizing the demand for such items and the potential aid-value in offering them to a wider market, she began selling products from a shop set up in the basement of her home. Byler’s charitable vision would eventually grow into the Ten Thousand Villages organization, with stores in both the United States and Canada. Currently there are 47 stores in 35 cities in Canada with plans for further expansion. Select handcrafts can also be purchased online or at one of several festival sales held every year. Through their stores, festivals and online sales, the organization brings customers the handcrafts from more than 100 artisan groups in over 35 countries.

“Fair Trade is much more than a monetary transaction,” Jeanette Ewert, Canada’s Ten Thousand Villages Manager of Marketing and Communications told me during a telephone conversation. Soon after, she e-mailed me information about Fair Trade and the role that Ten Thousand Villages plays in creating opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn a fair wage, increase their community resources, and promote environmental practices. Jeanette explains the process to me:

“A local artisan group decides what the fair living wage is for their workers. This amount is non-negotiable with the Fair Trade organization. Ten Thousand Villages ensures the wages are fair by comparing them to other local wages and the cost of living. When the order is placed, 50 percent of the payment is made to the artisan group. This allows the local group to finance materials and pay for labour without getting caught in the cycle of poverty – relying on money lenders and racking up large debts to start a business. The remaining 50 percent is paid when the order is shipped from the country. This means that Ten Thousand Villages takes the risk of anything happening to the products from that point on.”

As I read later, Fair Trade organizations work on the premise of people first, product second.

In addition to paying fair wages, creating market access, and building the artisan group’s capacity, Fair Trade organizations assist in the implementation of community needs: developing healthcare facilities and practices, schools and education resources, and old age pension programs. Once the unique needs of a community are identified, the local artisan group works with the organization to build into the payment the ability to establish programs and services for their workers. As an educator myself, it struck a chord when Jeanette told me that a lot of the groups that Ten Thousand Villages work with focus on schooling and the lack educational opportunities. For this reason, many groups invest portions of what they earn into developing schools. It is difficult for Jeanette to generalize what relationships with artisanal groups look like however, as each one has the freedom to determine their own individual initiatives.

By working with local groups that employ local artisans, Fair Trade organizations often allow people to stay in their communities with their families. Women are able to produce a lot of their craftwork in the community, empowered by earning the money to move out of poverty, while still being able to be present, maintain bonds with family, and care for their children.

Ten Thousand Villages is eager to share the stories behind their products. Their stores are wonderful places to explore and learn about the world through their ethical business efforts. Despite having been part of the organization for fifteen years, Jeanette excitedly talks about the experience as though she is a first-timer: “You can pick up the products and there is a whole ambience that is hard to replicate.” She believes that what makes the experience so unique is partly the unique handcrafts, but more so the feeling of being connected to where your products are coming from. “We are a global world and we are connected to each other, and yet we often don’t know anything about how our products are made or where they come from,” she explains. One of the resources they have developed is a database that has information about each artisan group. Any product in the store can be taken to the shop manager for them to scan and print off an information sheet or e-mail it to you. If you are shopping online you can also access information sheets for any of the products. “We know where the products come from, we know the group who made it, we know the workshop it was made in, and we can tell you the impact that your purchase is making,” says Jeanette.

One of the very personal stories you may come across in their database is that of Bella Roy. Bella’s story is just one example of the history behind the products promoted by Ten Thousand Villages.

Bella Roy was married at the age of 16, but shortly after the birth of their first son, her husband abandoned her. Bella and her baby had no place to stay. She had no income, no job experience, and was illiterate. Her own family was so poor that they could offer little help. Trying to survive, Bella began begging on the streets. She and her son often did not have enough to eat.

When Bella was about 20, she noticed one of her neighbours had a regular job. She approached the neighbour, wondering if more workers might be needed. In this way she was introduced to Biborton Handmade Paper. When told that Biborton made products for the export market, Bella was sure that they would never hire her. Nevertheless, her neighbour encouraged her to apply. At the interview, the managers seemed mostly concerned about her circumstances. She could barely believe it when she was told she could begin the very next day.

Bella started by learning how to make small paper boxes. She is now one of the most experienced and productive box and photo album artisans at Biborton. She has taken numerous courses and has an average monthly income of Taka 2200, (Cdn$80). In comparison, a local farm or construction worker would only earn about Taka 1000 (Cdn$36) per month.

Life has improved greatly for Bella. She has taken out a low-interest loan to rebuild her parents’ home after a devastating flood. The old house had only one room, a dirt floor, bamboo walls and a grass thatch roof. The new house has a raised concrete floor, a wooden frame, three rooms and a corrugated metal roof. She is obviously very proud of her new home. Her young son, Shodesh Modal, has been able to attend the local catholic missionary school. She is hopeful that one day he can go on to college. She says that a good education for Shodesh will help to ensure a secure future for herself, her parents and her son.

In a phone discussion about Bella’s story, Doug Dirks, CEO of Ten Thousand Villages America, shared with me that “the organization concentrates specifically on looking for artisans like this. So many of the artisans that we work with, whether they are women or men, come from circumstances that most of us would consider to be pretty horrendous.” Doug believes that telling consumers the story behind a product helps them connect to the idea of helping other people to improve their difficult situation. “There is a growing interest in the work we do. People are interested in spending their money responsibly and in a positive way influencing others – crucial things, like earning a fair income and regaining dignity and self-worth.”

A popular tagline that Ten Thousand Villages has used is “Gifts that give twice.” It could even be argued that their gifts “give thrice.” One gift for the recipient, a second being a fair wage for the artisans and funding for their community initiatives, and a third for the environment. Environmental sustainability is one of the central tenets of Fair Trade. Jeanette tells me that Fair Trade organizations have to look at how artisan groups are impacting their environment. Ten Thousand Villages not only investigates worker health and safety and whether the workers are being compromised, but they also take into account the environmental impact of the production process. For example, many Fair Trade products are made from locally abundant, sustainable materials like banana leaves, bamboo, and hemp. Reclaimed and recycled materials are also popular in the creation of unique products. The number of handmade, upcycled products limits the need for new materials, ultimately reducing the carbon footprint associated with more conventional production practices. Ten Thousand Villages prides itself on procuring high quality products, and in doing so they offer products that last. This limits the need to re-purchase and create waste with products that wear out or break easily. “All of these initiatives also force the [artisan] groups to look at doing business in a different, healthier way” says Jeanette.

In addition to the natural gourd piggy bank, a few of the many eco-friendly products that caught my eye were ingenious creations made by coiling recycled paper. Groups from the Philippines and Thailand have each developed their own unique products along these lines. Having visited both of these groups during a purchasing trip, Jeanette was amazed by what the artisans could create from waste paper: “In the Philippines they would wind newspaper and paper from phonebooks tightly around simple objects like bicycle spokes and then fashion them into beautiful placemats, jewelry, hot mats, and coasters. In Thailand artisans produced ornaments, picture frames, and all sorts of other decorative products.” Apparently these coiled paper products have sold better than the organization had ever expected. With the holiday season in mind, a group from Vietnam has even produced a coiled paper nativity set. From gift baskets filled with food and handcrafted products, to wall hangings from Cambodia, hand knit finger puppets from Peru, and hammocks from Nicaragua, Ten Thousand Villages carries products suitable for a diverse range of interests.

When asked about Ten Thousand Villages’ plans for the future, I was told that they will continue to expand, and have recently opened a store in Victoria, British Columbia. A newly designed website will arrive soon to further promote their online shopping option.

A focus will continue to be placed on consulting with artisan groups in an effort to balance design trends of the North American market with the handmade, artistic inspiration that comes from the many years of producing traditional crafts. Successfully promoting the cultural integrity of the inspiration behind the product, in addition to making it something that works with the North American lifestyle, is something that Ten Thousand Villages prides itself on. “We are careful to sell products that customers like and want, and products that they feel are good value for their money. If it is solely based on the feeling of supporting the artisan and we sell an inferior product in the process we are going to have a very disappointed customer that won’t come back,” says Doug.

Through a dedicated consumer base that continues to grow, Ten Thousand Villages is providing evidence that ethical commerce can succeed. Jeanette sounds confident about the impact that Ten Thousand Villages and similar alternative trade organizations are making: “In many ways Fair Trade has been the inspiration for companies in the mainstream market to start investigating ethical purchasing.”

An e-mail update from Doug delivered inspiring news about Bella and her son. She is now a production supervisor and is often asked to make the new prototype products that are sent out as samples to their export customers around the world. She supervises six other women at Biborton. Her son recently graduated from an electrician apprenticeship program and is starting up his own electrician business. He’s saving money to buy his own house and is starting to think about getting married. Doug’s pride in Bella and in the ability of Ten Thousand Villages to dramatically impact lives is obvious in the last line of the message: “With her son now grown up and having a good professional job, it feels like Bella’s life is well on the road to a happy ending.”