Everything has a story.
A beautiful purse, intricately woven from littered plastic bags that originated from Benin, Africa, helped convert an abundance of trash into a colorful treasure. Decorative jewelry formed from recycled soda cans and coiled wire is shipped from the outskirts of Kenya into the outlets of fair-trade shops in North America.
Ten Thousand Villages is an outlet for foreign made handicrafts with a mission to “provide vital, fair income to Third World people by marketing their handicrafts and telling their stories in North America.”
Jane Snyder, associate manager and volunteer director of Ten Thousand Villages, thinks she has the best job in the world – one she knows is making a tremendous difference and absent of the nagging doubt of working in corporate America.
“We provide fair trade for the least among us,” Snyder said. “Not that poverty doesn’t exist in the U.S., but even the poorest person has more than these people in the developing world. We have a social web to catch people who fall.”
The retailer was established by the members of the Fort Collins Mennonite Fellowship in the late 1980s and first opened its doors on Oct. 6, 2000, in Old Town Square.
Ten Thousand Villages grants jobs to more than 110 artisan groups in 32 countries in Africa, Asia and Latin America.
Ross Peterson, sophomore technical journalism major, encourages the store’s practices. The fair trade practice between Ten Thousand Villages buyers and the foreign artisans “is good if trade is from people in poverty stricken areas,” he said.
More than 180 volunteers assist in sales, committee work, community outreach and education at the Fort Collins retailer.
Volunteers are diverse in age and ethnicity. People from India, Indonesia, Italy and England assist in operating the store. High school students, retirees and CSU students make up a large portion of these volunteers. Samantha Senda-Cook, a graduate student studying speech communication, contributes her time behind the scenes, stocking product and taking inventory.
“The best experience is meeting people. Returning customers and the people who work there are informed citizens,” Senda-Cook said.
An exchange program is set up within the stores in which employees travel to work with artisans from the countries and the artisans are able to travel to the United States. The artisans can observe the sales of their products and teach classes based upon their skilled labor.
A Peruvian woman came to the United States through one of these exchange programs. When she returned to Peru she attempted to explain to her co-workers about volunteers.
“She had trouble explaining to others about volunteers, that people would have that kind of spare time. They spend their whole lives finding food, finding a place to sleep and giving their children an education,” Snyder said.
Globally, one in five people lives in extreme poverty, on less than $1 per day and the social gap between the haves and the have-nots grows increasingly larger year by year.
Ten Thousand Villages fair trade is based on International Federation for Alternative Trade (IFAT) principles. These principles consist of paying a fair wage in the context of the artisan, providing equal opportunities for all people, engaging in environmentally sustainable practices, building long term relationships, providing healthy and safe working conditions, and providing financial and technical assistance to workers whenever possible.
Workers can depend on the sustainability of their work because of the fair dealings of this small retailer. Buyers interact with the artisans directly and attempt to pay them with an equitable wage.
“Buyers visit all artisan groups throughout the year,” Snyder said. “They ask how the artisan would like to be paid. There is always something the buyers have to contend with. The hardest part they say is seeing the poverty.”
The employees attempt to educate the community about these operations and how people can participate.
“The biggest misconception people have about making a difference is that ‘I am only one person and I can’t make a difference.’ It’s not true,” Senda-Cook said. “We can influence behavior. People can make good choices about where they buy their products.”
Peterson thinks that handicrafts in the store may be worth the look.
He said: “There are just some things you can’t find at Kohl’s.”
Emily Lance can be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.
On the CSU campus, Ten Thousand Villages advocates have been educating the community about fair trade at events like the International Fest and World Unity Fair held in the fall. Volunteers will also be working at the upcoming International Children’s Carnival in the Lory Student Center April 2.