SAN JUAN, Puerto Rico — Ten Thousand Villages is the United States’ first fair trade organization and retail fair trade store. It grew out of a grassroots campaign started by an enterprising, pioneering businesswoman who had a heart for the worlds’ poor.
In 1946, Mennonite volunteer Edna Ruth Byler traveled to Puerto Rico, where she saw first-hand the suffering of poverty and she wanted to do something about it. Byler saw that the artisans in Puerto Rico had a viable skill set and product to sell, but no profitable economic opportunities or ways to reach a consumer market. So Byler made a direct bridge for these people to get their products to consumers; she sold their handcrafted items out of the trunk of her car.
Starting with such humble grassroots beginnings, she worked for the following 30 years to create a sustainable economic system by which individual entrepreneurs in developing and poverty-stricken countries could develop skills, hone their crafts and be given market opportunities for the resulting products to be sold, all while ensuring that the profits went to those original artisans and not some greedy middleman or faceless corporation.
Ten Thousand Villages remains a staple of fair trade, even 60 years later, and by 2009, Ten Thousand Villages stores and online sales reached a record of $24 million and was named in 2013 to be one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by the Ethispehere Institute and Forbes Magazine.
Ten Thousand Villages works in 38 countries, including nations in Asia, Africa, Latin America and the Middle East. It operates by building sustainable, long-term buyer and seller relationships in countries where artisans lack the opportunity for a stable income or are unemployed or underemployed.
These artisans are given 50 percent in cash advances when an order comes through for their product and receive payment in full when the order is finally shipped. This method of providing a cash advance allows those artisans, with very little resources, both to create their product and to care for themselves and their families by giving them the ability to buy equipment and raw materials without becoming trapped into debt.
Ten Thousand Villages also believes in building and maintaining long-term relationships with its artisans and suppliers, many of whom have been working with them for 12 or more years. This not only gives them long-term employment, but also a sense of stability that they may never have had in their lives before.
Martin Luther King, Jr. said “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.” Byler saw the injustice of workers in Puerto Rico not receiving a fair wage, and decided to be their voice and advocate, resulting in the improvement of the livelihoods of tens of thousands of the worlds’ poor. Through her actions, she was able to bring a little more justice into the world.
You can help by visiting http://www.tenthousandvillages.com/.