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10,000 Villages: shop for fair trade

Trading Fairly for 60 Years - Ten Thousand Villages and the International Fair Trade Association
By David Bowring, Toronto from files found on

The Ten Thousand Villages store in my part of Toronto is located in Carrot Common a cool shopping area with organic groceries, rocks and crystals, books, meditation and ayurveda medicines. This venture in Christian merchandising is filled with boxes, statuettes and bowls made from reclaimed teak, sun visors of plastic hand-sewn to flattened pop cans, shoulder bags, totebags and lunch bags woven from hemp, recycled paper coasters and drinking glasses from recycled window panes.  There are shelves of coffees, teas, chocolates and other nifty gifty things.
    Having studied the Mennonite movement I was not surprised to discover that the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) was behind this ministry in a trendy retail operation. Ten Thousand Villages, (how many stores?) works with over 100 agricultural and artisan groups in more than 30 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America to bring fair trade food, jewellery, home decor, gifts to the North American market. It is one of the world's oldest and largest fair trade organizations, building long-term relationships with artisans based on mutual understanding and respect.

What is Fair Trade?

Fair trade enables artisans to earn a fair wage and provides the opportunity for a better quality of life.
    Ten Thousand Villages is one of over 300 IFAT, the International Fair Trade Association members in 70 countries. IFAT members agree that fair trade is a sustainable alternative approach to conventional international trade. It is a trading partnership aimed at sustainable development for excluded and disadvantaged producers.
    A fair price in the regional or local context is one that has been agreed through dialogue and participation. It covers not only the costs of production but enables production that is socially just and environmentally sound. It provides fair pay to the producers and takes into account the principle of equal pay for equal work by women and men. Fair Traders ensure prompt payment to their partners and, whenever possible, help producers with access to pre-harvest or pre-production financing.
    Fair Trade means a safe and healthy working environment for producers. The participation of children (if any) does not adversely affect their well being, security, educational requirements and need for play and conforms to the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child as well as the law and norms in the local context.

Ten Thousand Villages adds its own principles of operation.

  • To honour the value of seeking to bring justice and hope to the poor.
  • To trade with artisan groups who pay fair wages and demonstrate concern for their members’ welfare.
  • To provide consistent purchases advances and prompt final payments to artisans.
  • To increase market share in North America for fairly traded handicrafts.
  • To market quality products that are crafted by underemployed artisans.
  • To build sustainable operations using a variety of sales channels, including a network of stores with a common identity.
  • To choose handicrafts that reflect and reinforce rich cultural traditions, that are environmentally sensitive and which appeal to North American consumers.
  • To encourage North American customers to learn about fair trade and to appreciate artisans’ cultural heritage and life circumstances with joy and respect.
  • To use resources carefully and value volunteers who work in our North American operations. 

Connection with Artisans and their Communities

Being a program of Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) 10,000 Villages has a world-wide network of volunteers and like-minded organizations that enable it to be in touch with and know the artisans and groups with whom it works. In addition, they seek out artisans who are particularly disadvantaged and without ready access to resources or assistance.

“In the end though, the real definition of our fair trading, and the proof of its effectiveness, is demonstrated in the stories of the artisans we get to know.”

“Maya Halder, a woman who lives in Agailjhara, Bangladesh and makes palm leaf star garlands for Ten Thousand Villages, is a good example of what we strive to accomplish through alternative fair trade. She said this to Anita Fieguth, an MCC volunteer living and working in Bangladesh at the time:
“’We are poor distressed women working at Keya Palm to build our lives. By working together we are able to overcome our problems. We become united in one mind. We will send our children to school with our earnings. Also, we are able to purchase our food and clothing. From our profits, we plow our gardens and cultivate crops, we repair our houses and plant trees.’
“At Ten Thousand Villages we want our fair trade to enable artisans like Maya Halder to overcome their problems, to send their children to school, to afford adequate food and clothing and to improve the quality of their lives and their communities. Fair trade gives Maya hope for the future.”

International Fair Trade Association (IFAT) partners

Sharing brings hope to Shantha Lakshmi, a palm leaf artisan who is a member of the artisan group called SHARE near the town of Vellore in Tamale Nadu, southern India. Many families living near Vellore do not earn enough income to be able to afford the good medical care provided by the local Christian Medical Hospital. As part of its community outreach program the hospital started the SHARE program as an effort to provide income earning opportunities for women who can not afford medical care for themselves and their children. Over the last 25 years SHARE has grown to include more than 500 women making palm leaf products ranging from baskets to decorative streamers. Palm leaf streamers have become one of Ten Thousand Villages best sellers in Canada and the USA. As a result many of the women, including Shantha, now have regular work most of the year and are now able to afford medical care and education for their children.
    One of Shantha’s colleagues at SHARE, Rani Kempu, said: “This income (from Fair Trade) lets me take my own decisions and helps me care for my children and family. I don’t ask my husband or parents to help me meet my basic needs, I cover them myself.”
    Ten Thousand Villages provides vital, fair income to artisans like Shantha Lakshmi by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America. Your purchase makes a difference and brings hope to artisans around the world.

Lucio Malhue participates. He is a potter in his brother Orlando’s workshop in Pomaire, Chile. Pomaire is famous throughout Chile for its clay pottery made from the distinctive dark brown clay dug from the surrounding hills. The town is full of small pottery workshops like Orlando Malhue’s. However, in the past few years Pomaire pottery has been slowly replaced by less expensive plastic and factory produced products leaving many workshops without enough work to keep all the potters employed. This now makes it doubly hard for people like Lucio to find employment since he is slightly disabled mentally.
    Comparte (means share in English), the nonprofit handicraft organization Ten Thousand Villages works with in Chile, emphasizes that it is important to find markets for workshops like the Malhue workshop since they provide some of the very few opportunities for disabled people like Lucio to work and lead a productive life. Lucio’s work gives him self-confidence and satisfaction. The beautiful work he is able to do with his hands gives him dignity which he might not otherwise have.
    Ten Thousand Villages provides vital, fair income to artisans like Lucio Malhue by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America. Your purchase makes a difference and brings dignity to artisans around the world.

Making kaisa grass baskets brings joy to Kalpana Rani in Hazigonj, Bangladesh. Hazigonj is a small village in a very rural, chronically poor part of north-western Bangladesh. Most people like Kalpana can only find poorly paid seasonal work during rice planting and harvesting times. They can sometimes earn a little more money by collecting firewood and carrying it for many kilometres in the hope of selling it for a few pennies.
    In 1999 Mennonite Central Committee encouraged a group of women including Kalpana Rani to organize into a basket making artisan group using local wild kaisa grass and their traditional basket making skills. These baskets are now sold locally and exported to Ten Thousand Villages in Canada and the USA. The income from basket making is greater than rice paddy work and it is steadier and more consistent throughout the year. Kalpana says that she can now afford basic healthcare for her family, a good steady diet of nutritious food, decent clothing. She smiles broadly when she says she can now afford to send her children to school since she can afford to pay for school fees, books and supplies.

Your purchase of fair-traded goods at 10,000 Villages makes a difference and brings joy to artisans around the world.