Fair trade, according to the Fair Trade Federation, is “a system of exchange that seeks to create greater equity and partnership in international trading.” At its heart, fair trade facilitates the sale of goods from inhabitants of developing countries to the general public—but with the underlying belief that the producers should be paid a fair wage and the goods should support environmental sustainability.
Ten Thousand Villages is the outgrowth of a 1946 idea that was, in effect, the start of the global fair trade movement. During a trip to Puerto Rico, Edna Ruth Byler, a pioneering Mennonite, was struck by the local poverty and bought needlework from women on the island. She sold the handcrafts when she returned to her home in Pennsylvania. Her vision: to create a North American marketplace for artisans in developing countries while compensating them fairly for their work.
Byler’s notion became the founding principle of the “Overseas Needlepoint and Crafts Project,” supported by the Mennonite Central Committee. The project was renamed SELFHELP Crafts in 1962 and Ten Thousand Villages in 1996.
Ten Thousand Villages is today an independent, nonprofit, charitable group—one of the world’s largest fair trade organizations. Its mission is to provide “fair income to Third World people by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America. Ten Thousand Villages works with artisans who would otherwise be unemployed or underemployed. This income helps pay for food, education, health care and housing.”
The current brand name is derived from Mahatma Ghandi, who said India is found not in its cities “but in the 700,000 villages” of the country that house its poor. The brand logo, says the organization, is formed from a continuous line of rooftops, suggesting the linkage of all people on earth. It is set on a warm red background with a rough edge, representing “the materials and methods used to make the quality handcrafts” sold by Ten Thousand Villages in more than 155 stores in US and Canada and at crafts festivals.
Walk into a Ten Thousand Villages store and you are transported to an exotic world that draws from over 130 artisan groups in 38 countries. Africa, Asia, Latin America and the Middle East are represented. You are sure to find inexpensive dishes, baskets and candleholders alongside finely crafted jewelry, ceramics and textiles. You will probably see handcrafts you have never seen anywhere else. You might partake of fairly traded gourmet coffee or indulge in chocolate made from fairly traded cocoa beans. The people who work in the Ten Thousand Villages store are likely to be volunteers.
Every item in the store adheres to the fair trade principle. Ten Thousand Villages says it “ensures a fair wage for artisans by purchasing completed crafts at a price that fairly compensates the workers involved in each aspect of production. In most cases, this price is set by the artisans and the organizations with which they work.” The organization’s purchasing philosophy is a sophisticated formula that involves such factors as the global economic position of a country, market access and product marketability. Fundamentally, Ten Thousand Villages will only buy from groups who produce marketable products that North American consumers want to buy. The organization works to build and maintain relationships that can be sustained for at least several years so it can provide maximum economic security to the artisans.
There are other fair trade organizations similar to Ten Thousand Villages. WorldCrafts, for example, sells fair trade items from more than 70 artisan groups through a catalog and an online store. Unlike Ten Thousand Villages, however, WorldCrafts does not have traditional retail stores; instead, it encourages volunteers to hold WorldCrafts “events” in local neighborhoods.
An increasing number of retailers sell fair trade products. There was a 47 percent increase in the sale of fair trade products between 2004 and 2007, according to the Fairtrade Labelling Organization. In 2006, US$ 2.6 billion worth of fair trade goods were sold, the latest figure available from the Fair Trade Federation. More than 350 fair trade organizations in 70 countries belong to the World Fair Trade Organization (formerly the International Fair Trade Association). The World Fair Trade Organization says there are as many as 3,000 grassroots fair trade organizations existing in over 50 countries.
Ten Thousand Villages operates stores, but it also recognizes the power of its brand. It has begun to place its branded merchandise in other fair trade and specialty shops. It also sponsors more than 280 festival sales across North America. These one- or two-day events bring the organization’s fair trade merchandise directly into communities. Ten Thousand Villages is one brand that believes the world is fair game.