For 65 years, Mennonites have been teaching North America to shop with a conscience.
In 1946, after visiting a Mennonite Central Committee (MCC) sewing class in Puerto Rico, volunteer Edna Ruth Byler returned to Akron, Pennsylvania with needlework to sell to friends and neighbours, using the proceeds to purchase more pieces at a fair price. In the early 1950s, Byler travelled to churches, schools, and homes, selling $30,000 in needlework from the trunk of her car. Women from churches across Canada and the U.S. wrote Byler, offering to sell crafts in their own churches.
MCC adopted Byler’s program in 1962. Known as SELFHELP Crafts from 1968–96, the current name was inspired by Gandhi’s words: “India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages.… We have hardly ever paused to inquire if these folks get sufficient to eat and clothe themselves with.”
Ten Thousand Villages partners with 100 artisan groups in some 35 countries. Artisans receive 50 percent of the negotiated price upfront and the remainder before their product leaves the country, enabling them to buy food and supplies. About 70 percent of artisans are women, often single mothers – widowed, abandoned, or divorced – outcasts in many societies.
Stories like Morium’s are common. By making paper for Ten Thousand Villages, the Bangladeshi widow went from begging and sleeping in a cowshed to owning her own home and sending her daughter to medical school. Ten Thousand Villages U.S. public relations director Doug Dirks says with the opportunity to earn their own living, artisans tell him, “This is the first time I’ve been able to think beyond tomorrow and have some hope for the future for my kids.”
Across Canada, more than 1,800 volunteers in 48 stores and 2,000 at festival sales (and the online shop TenThousandVillages.ca) sold $14.6 million in handcrafted jewelry, rugs, pottery, soaps, instruments, and toys in 2010. To mark their anniversary, Ten Thousand Villages is collecting stories and photos from SELFHELP supporters, holding events in all their stores across the country, and hosting two evenings of stories and celebrations – in Waterloo, Ont., Sept. 30, and in Toronto, Oct. 2.
From one woman selling needlework, the fair trade movement now encompasses 270 organizations in 60 countries.