An Interview With Ten Thousand Villages

By now you probably know that we are obsessed with Ten Thousand Villages. Their mission, their practices, and their heart blew us away, so we were thrilled to have the opportunity to dive into their mind a bit with this interview! If you want to be inspired, read on!

What led to the creation of Ten Thousand Villages?

Ten Thousand Villages was created by a woman named Edna Ruth Byler, who was a volunteer for an international aid organization. In 1946, she traveled to Puerto Rico and met women there who were struggling to feed their children. She understood their desire to have meaningful work so they could provide for their families, because she had lived through the Great Depression. The women made gorgeous embroideries, but had no place to sell them, so Edna decided she’d take them back to America and sell them on their behalf to her friends and family. She drove the textiles around to sell to her community while sharing the story of each piece, as well as the stories of the women who made them. Over the decades the business expanded into other countries, and grew into a network of retail stores. The fair trade movement was basically started in her car over 70 years ago! 

Tell us a little about your mission.

We create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term, fair trading relationships. Our vision is that one day all artisans in developing countries will earn a fair wage, be treated with dignity and respect, and be able to live a life of quality.

Tell us how you and the artisans choose the products to create?

All of our products are made with locally available materials (that are also usually sustainable or recycled) and time-honored craftsmanship. We work closely with each group to create modern designs that preserve their traditional skills that have been passed down through the generations. So, choosing product is a long and collaborative process where we share ideas and trends.  

How do you ensure ethical practices?

Ten Thousand Villages is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization which monitors and audits fair trade workshops and businesses to ensure that they are meeting ethical standards. Furthermore, our buyers visit the groups we work with so they can collaborate on designs and see for themselves that workplaces are safe, artisans are being paid fairly, and that their communities are thriving.

Why is your cause important?

Fair Trade is important, because nobody’s life should be in danger, or their livelihood at risk, for the sake of a T-shirt or piece of jewelry. Everybody should have a chance to make a fair wage in a safe environment so that they can put food on the table, send their kids to school, and invest in their own community.

What is the most meaningful part of your work?

I really love being able to share the stories behind each product with our community. In a world where so many things are mass-produced, it’s important to celebrate the people who make what we sell and how much skill is put into each and every piece.

What is the one thing you wish everyone knew about shopping consciously?

It’s important to keep in mind that we are not just consumers. We are community. When we think and act like a global community, we start making better choices about what we buy and how we live.

What has been the most rewarding part of your work?

I really love connecting with our artisan partners when they come to our home office in Pennsylvania. It’s such an honor to be able to meet with world-changers who have real drive to make their communities stronger through fair trade.

Can you share an awesome story with us about the artisans?

We have so many artisan partners that have incredible stories, it’s hard to choose! One of my favorites is about Betty Kinene, founder of Uganda Crafts. In 1983, she was a single mother with a physical disability and no income for herself. She teamed up with a UNICEF worker to help other women lacking opportunity. Together they started Uganda Crafts, a small craft shop run as nonprofit, employing and supporting women – including and especially single mothers, widows and people with disabilities. Ten Thousand Villages has partnered with Uganda Crafts for almost twenty years, and it has been incredible to see the women who weave such beautiful, vibrant baskets thrive. Betty is a polio survivor, and when she tells the story of her life and Uganda Crafts, she says, ‘Now, I stand on my own.’

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