Together we are a movement, creating life changing opportunities for 20,000 makers in 30 countries.
When Edna Ruth Byler began buying embroidery and needlework from artisans in developing countries and selling it out of the trunk of her car, she planted the seeds that would grow to be one of the oldest and largest fair trade organizations in the world.
Ten Thousand Villages started 70 years ago as a project that Byler led for the Mennonite Central Committee, which aimed to provide sustainable economic opportunities to artisans in developing countries by selling their products in the US. The craft items proved so popular that Byler eventually moved sales from her car to thrift stores, and in 1997, she opened the first Ten Thousand Villages shop.
Today, there over 70 Ten Thousand Villages stores across the US, and more than 300 allied specialty shops sell Ten Thousand Villages products. Forbes has named it as one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies.”
“From communities throughout the developing world, every inspired design is crafted with love using local materials (usually natural or recycled) and time honored skills by makers we have known and worked with for years. Every purchase improves the lives of makers by supporting their craft and providing a fair, stable income.”
—Ten Thousand Villages website
At Ten Thousand Villages shops, you can find handcrafted art, jewelry, and home goods and décor, much of which is made from recycled and repurposed materials. Products come from all over the world: East and South Asia, the Middle East, Africa, Latin America, and the Caribbean. As a fair trade organization, Ten Thousand Villages makes sure that its producers work in humane conditions and receive a living wage. Every product comes with a story card that details where and by whom it was made.
For example, some of the shop’s most popular products are throw pillows and baskets made out of recycled saris. These accent pieces are handmade by a fairtrade artisan co-op called Prokritee in Bangladesh. Prokitree is comprised of women who were able to give up working in the sex trade for sustainable, rewarding work.
“We buy products from a number of smaller, like minded groups that work directly with artisans to export and market the products they make,” says Ten Thousand Villages advertising coordinator Juanita Fox.
These locally based, fair trade companies are carefully vetted by Ten Thousand Villages staff and provide the artisans with fair loans, business counseling, and training in how to market and design their products. Like Ten Thousand Villages, many are members of the World Fair Trade Organization, an association of organizations that are 100 percent committed to fair trade in all of their business activities.
The company maintains long-term relationships with its artisans, giving them a stable income. Once its buyers decide to purchase a product, Ten Thousand Villages pays the artisans a cash advance of 50 percent, which allows them to buy supplies without going into debt. The remaining 50 percent comes promptly when the order is complete. If a product doesn’t sell, Ten Thousand Villages absorbs the loss. (Although the company doesn’t lose much—in 2015, it reached $27.6 million in annual retail and online sales.)
“It becomes our burden to sell their work, to move products through the inventory chain,” says Fox. “We’re paying them a fair price for the products that they’re providing.”
In addition, Ten Thousand Villages encourages artisans to seek out sustainably sourced raw materials. For example, “many of the groups have reforestation projects happening in tandem with wood harvesting,” says Fox.
Many Ten Thousand Villages stores feature sustainable bamboo flooring and energy-efficient LED lighting, but what catches most shoppers’ eyes is the broad array of unique items from around the world. These gifts, accessories, useful home goods, furniture, and decor items offer fair wages and a stable living to more than 20,000 talented artisans in over 30 countries, rather than rock-bottom prices and exploitation.
“Every product has a story,” says Fox.