Villages Goods
By Gene Kosowan

Filling An Inequity Gap

Talk about being ahead of the times. Decades before fair trade became a trendy buzz phrase, Ten Thousand Villages had been practicing that form of commercial exchange, dealing with independent artisans from developing countries and making their wares available in North America.

“It took quite a while for it to be called fair trade,” said Roberta Taylor, manager of the Edmonton location of Ten Thousand Villages, one of 37 stores across Canada. “One of the big things was the recognition of inequality; that larger growth in difference between the extremely rich and the extremely poor.”

It was a gap that was recognized as early as 1946, when a Kansas-based Mennonite volunteer started selling wares made by artisans in Puerto Rico out of the trunk of her car. Over the years, the suppliers grew internationally and so did her Ten Thousand Villages operation. After forming a partnership with the Mennonite Central Committee, the company sold more than $25 million in goods annually by 2008. It now has more than 100 stores across North America selling products from artisans in 35 countries.

Everything is handmade so each item is slightly different. - Roberta Taylor, store manager
Fair trade coffee, scarves, jewellery, books, glassware and holiday trinkets
The showroom resembles an international bazaar.

Competitive Pricing

The Edmonton store has been operating for nearly 30 years, selling products like fair trade coffee, scarves, jewellery, books, glassware and holiday trinkets. The vast showroom resembles a global bazaar with walls and aisles replete with several exotic items. Accordingly, customers provide different reactions to the items especially with the price.

“It’s funny, people will come in look at our stuff and will say ‘This is really expensive,’” she says. “And then someone will walk in and say ‘Are you sure this is fair trade? It’s so cheap!’ A lot of that is expectations. But because we’re a not-for-profit group and our margins are lower, we are actually quite competitive with our pricing.”

One ethic Ten Thousand Villages sticks to is its long-term relationship with its artisans, many of whom are still developing their skills to improve their wares.

“Everything is handmade so each item is slightly different,” says Roberta.

“What we will actually see is an increase in quality over time of the same product. Early on we had some carvings come in from Kenya and they were very rough. As years went by, we began to see them become more and more refined. In conventional trade, that may have been the last order they ever got. If the product came back with a problem, the buyer may never go back to them.”

Fair trade coffee, scarves, jewellery, books, glassware and holiday trinkets
Everything at Ten Thousand Villages is hand-made.

Volunteer Staff

Roberta is also proud of her volunteer staff, motivated by the need to support third-world artisans and to that end are diligent in supporting the company’s cause.

“Many of our volunteers have been here a long time,” she says. “With our staff, there’s a lot of depth in commitment and compassion for the products and people behind them, so that shows.”

Fair trade coffee, scarves, jewellery, books, glassware and holiday trinkets
The Edmonton store is one of nearly 40 Ten Thousand Villages shops in Canada.
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