An editor’s note has been appended to this article
Nestled between fine eateries and other distinctive boutiques, Ten Thousand Villages is a fair-trade retailer that sells artisan-crafted home décor, personal accessories and gift items from across the globe. Featuring products from more than 130 artisan groups in some 38 countries, the Main Street store is part of a network of over 390 retail outlets throughout the United States selling fairly-traded products.
Ten Thousand Villages, which stems from a project birthed in the basements of churches, has a title that doesn’t always resonate at first encounter. But if one has any background knowledge about fair trade, Ten Thousand Villages, the oldest fair trade retailer in North America, may inspire a compelling visit.
Fair trade is an organized social movement and market-based technique that aims to help producers in developing countries create better trading conditions and promote sustainability, advocating the payment of a higher price to exporters as well as the establishment of higher social and environmental standards. Most notable fairly-traded items found in the United States are handicrafts, coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fresh fruit, chocolate, flowers and gold.
Now in its 66th year, the company still attempts to uphold these values. In 1946, while traveling in Puerto Rico, Mennonite Missionaries encountered women weaving elaborate table linens and inquired about where they could be bought and sold. They returned to eastern Pennsylvania with these treasures in hand, and friends of the missionaries were captivated and wanted to place their orders for the next visit. These missionaries later founded the first Ten Thousand Villages location in Bluffton, Ohio.
“At that moment, a light bulb went (on),” said Bill Henderson, the Main Street store manager. “These people could become a direct conduit from artisan to consumer and cut out the middleman, allowing the artisan to make more money for the delicate work they put in.”
Ten Thousand Villages has cultivated trading relationships in which artisans receive a fair price for their work and consumers gain access to distinctive handcrafted items. Seeking to establish long-term buying relationships in places where skilled artisans who are under- or unemployed lack other opportunities for income, their network helps struggling artisan groups who are in need of assistance.
In Cambodia, for example, people are shunned for their imperfections, even those resulting from being maimed by land mines or other such types of devices. Artisans who belong to this maligned group compose jewelry and accessories out of the bombshells and materials that brought about their disfiguration. Other artisan groups, such as those in India, consist of women rescued from human trafficking who make recycled saris as an outlet to help them cope with their trauma.
Despite this solemn background to certain kinds of fairly-traded items, when a customer enters the Ten Thousand Villages in Ann Arbor, the background music and clamor of customers evoke worldly vibes of serenity, and the message is digested: “Our mission is to promote dignity, hope and a living wage for artisans around the world by selling their handicrafts, by telling their stories and by educating locally about Fair Trade,” reads the company’s mission statement.
Henderson explained that the aim is not to bombard the client with fair trade information, but instead to whet their appetite with the sounds and colors that greet them. The direction is to educate the community about what it means to sell fairly-traded products, but it is important that the customer seeks this education out first.
“We like to combine the process of selling and telling, connecting stories with the products,” Henderson said.
In that vein, goods found throughout the venue have explanations above them stating messages such as “fair trade means Guillermina Salome and Eulogio Medina can share their cultural heritage.”
Wind-chime mobiles from Cambodia prove a popular seller, utilizing only wood scraps so that no living trees are harmed in their composition. Pieced together through recycling, flowerpots are sculpted using pre-consumer waste of candy-wrapper excess from factory floors.
Henderson’s favorite gift idea involves recycled paper placemats used to satisfy the traditional first-anniversary gift of “paper,” once again telling and selling more than one story.
Though students are not a large part of the foot traffic through the store, Ten Thousand Villages has participated in fair trade fashion shows on the Diag and has associated with the ethnic restaurants during Taste of Ann Arbor.
The Ann Arbor location, entering its eighth year of residency this fall, was developed by local individuals who wanted to help support the fair trade movement and began to raise money through festival sales and various startup committees. Other Ten Thousand Villages locations across the country supported the hunt for a retail space by donating money until the location could stand on its own. The Ann Arbor shop does the same for burgeoning locations, and it donates to other non-profit retailers throughout the city.
Henderson began as a volunteer, as most employees do, but decided to put his extensive retail background to use, attaining the position of event coordinator. This allowed him to educate the community about fair trade, before rising to his current managerial status.
“The important thing is to find something you’re passionate about and turn that passion into an opportunity,” Henderson said.
Deeply rooted interests in crafting are not necessary in order to find meaning in this business. Before joining Ten Thousand Villages, Henderson attended workshops about transforming one’s interests into business opportunities. Starting a new business can be a daunting task, but with his love of retail, Henderson essentially became a business coach, helping developing countries turn their lifestyles into a source of income.
The items on sale at Ten Thousand Villages demonstrates how crafting can reflect the culture, tradition and history of a place, existent long after the culture has undergone contemporary transformations. Though it gives expression to imagination and creativity, the art of crafting may appear to be fading away because it entails a painstaking amount of handiwork and devotion — however, new media affirms that handcrafting is growing in popularity.
Websites like Etsy.com attempt to empower people to change the way the global economy works, building relationships in a virtual handmade marketplace that reconnects producers with consumers. Attempting to take the antiquated aspect out of crafting, Etsy recognizes that people value authorship and provenance as much as price and convenience, thereby “bringing heart to commerce and making the world more fair, more sustainable and more fun,” according to the Etsy.com website.
“It’s all new to me, but it seems like (Etsy shares) a common goal — we both want to connect buyers with sellers, but we also hope to improve that seller’s standard of living,” Henderson said.
Social media and the Internet succeed in spreading awareness about the products that Ten Thousand Villages houses, but Henderson remains firm that the physical stores aren’t going anywhere. People want to touch, feel and look at the product, so he only keeps two of everything, presenting the customer with a personal choice: “It’s all handmade, so which one do you want?” Henderson said.
Art fairs and other exhibitors will often seek involvement with the store, but they must be certified fair trade. Fair trade in the North American marketplace is still small, however, so there is a window for further education. Ten Thousand Villages’ next project aims to organize a coalition with the Ann Arbor City Council, proposing to declare Ann Arbor as a fair trade city. Not only will this bring Ten Thousand Villages to the forefront of the leading fair trade retailers, but it will also raise awareness of what — in addition to the artwork it houses — is currently available in the community that is also fairly traded.