Would you like an elegant alpaca shrug handmade in Peru or a singing bowl handmade in Nepal? Then you may want to stop by Ten Thousand Villages.
Ten Thousand Villages is a unique business, a nonprofit, fair trade organization affiliated with the Mennonite Central Committee and headquartered in Lancaster County.
“To us, fair trade means working with people in an ethical fashion,” said CEO Gordon Zook. “We honor the people who make our products and try to keep them first in the business decisions we make.”
It all started in 1946, when Edna Byler met women during her travels who were struggling to feed their children. So, she decided to help them sell their products. The Mennonite Central Committee, a relief and service agency, supported Byler’s efforts, seeing the long-term value that sustainable income could bring to impoverished villages.
Today, Ten Thousand Villages has 56 stores in the United States—18 company-owned and 38 run by nonprofit boards. It markets products from 75 artisan groups in 30 different countries, supporting 20,000 artisans overall.
Zook is proud of the fact that, over the past 16 years, the organization has purchased $99 million in products from its artisan partners.
He explained that the company pays for its goods upfront, a very unusual practice. Half is paid when the product is ordered and the other half when it’s shipped.
“That way, our producers will have the funds to pay a living wage to their employees and won’t get trapped in debt by moneylenders,” he said. “If products are lost at sea, trends change, tariffs rise, the artisans are not burdened with loss. They’ve already been paid in full.”
Zook took over his duties as CEO about nine months ago and leads from experience. He has spent a number of years overseas, most recently five years in Calcutta, India, as MCC co-country director.
“My experience has taught me the best way to address poverty is not through handouts, but by purchasing products from vendors then selling the products at reasonable prices, thereby conferring dignity on the producers,” he said.
Ten Thousand Villages was a pioneer in paying living wages to small producers. This may make it harder for them to compete, but they’re satisfied with the outcome.
“We are keenly aware of the ballooning market changes going on in the country,” Zook said. “We see increasing interest in treating producers fairly, but we remain the only brick-and-mortar organization dedicated to fair trade principles.”
Ten Thousand Villages distinguishes itself in other ways. While many other retailers are scaling back, the company is expanding. It recently opened three new stores in the Philadelphia area and is scouting for a fourth store site in Lancaster County.
It isn’t averse to technology, either. Ten Thousand Villages is increasing its emphasis on e-commerce, significantly expanding online sales.
Like any corporate CEO, Zook must keep an eye on the production cycle. For example, the director of purchasing is already addressing product needs for the next holiday season. They anticipate fielding some 600 new products by Christmas.
The company also believes in very long-term relationships, which distinguishes it further in the tough retail industry. The average relationship with an artisan group is a staggering 25 years, Zook said.
“That’s enough time to see their children grow into adulthood and enough time to see the positive impact this movement has created on the sons and daughters of our producers,” he said. “This is particularly important for women who often have problems competing because of cultural norms.”
Ten Thousand Villages is based in Akron, Pa. Locally, there are stores in Mechanicsburg and in Lancaster County. For more information and a complete list of stores, visit www.tenthousandvillages.com.