The quality of life in developing countries can keep one awake at night: Children working in sweatshops; women working 19 hours a day for 10 cents a week; little access to HIV/AIDS or malaria medication; chronic starvation and institutionalized poverty.
However, such inhumane conditions do not need to stay this way. Organizations like Seattle’s Ten Thousand Villages (www.tenthousandvillages.com) — a fair-trade retailer of artisan-crafted home décor, personal accessories and gift items — is making a difference every day.
Ten Thousand Villages, 6417 Roosevelt Way N.E., employs fair-trade standards to help impoverished individuals and communities and to make a difference on a global scale. More than 130 artisan groups in more than 38 developing countries produce items for Ten Thousand Villages’ 390 outlets across the U.S.
The company believes that by building long-term relationships with artisans that are based on mutual understanding and respect — as fair trade standards require — artisans are enabled to earn fair wages and have a better quality of life.
“A person in another world does not have the opportunity that we have in the United States,” said Tyi Esha, assistant manager at Ten Thousand Villages. “We give them the best life, like what we would want for our own life and our own family.”
‘Treating people right’
Ten Thousand Villages has spent more than 60 years cultivating trading relationships in which artisans receive a fair price for their work and consumers have access to unique, handcrafted items. The company establishes long-term buying relationships in places where skilled artisans are under- or unemployed and in which they lack opportunities for income.
The company is a founding member of the World Fair Trade Organization (WFTO), which slams institutions such as the World Trade Organization (WTO) to promote fair trade as an alternative approach to conventional trade.
“There is fair trade and free trade,” Esha said. “Free trade has an individual making a project for you, and the process is messed up and selfish. Fair trade is giving the artisans the whole profit back — not a penny more, not a penny less. It goes back to the workers.”
Fair trade starts with a vendor who oversees artisans in a developing country — such as Guiana, Pakistan, the Philippines or Vietnam — and hears about a fair-trade company like Ten Thousand Villages via networking and gains interest in selling his or her products to the company.
With Ten Thousand Villages, the vendor will then attend a three-day workshop. During the workshop, the vendor will learn how to treat workers well, clean work areas and have proper tools and the right types of clothing workers need to wear.
After the workshop, the vendor will be certified. A representative of Ten Thousand Villages will then fly out to the work site to make sure the vendor is treating the workers according the fair-trade standards, which involves good pay and high standard of living.
If the vendor gains approval, Ten Thousand Villages will purchase the merchandise.
“When you think about the economic impact on families when they are not paid properly and there is no health care, the children are not educated,” said Stacie Ford-Bonnelle, store manager of Ten Thousand Villages.
Or if the children are being exploited, it ends up being more expensive and economically regressive on a global scale, she said.
Ford-Bonelle noted that while a fair-trade item might be slightly more expensive for a U.S. consumer vs. a product produced by conventional trade, in the long run, it is not.
“The impact on the environment with conventional trade makes the cost actually higher, and that is not reflected in the price people pay,” she said.
The number of artisans in any particular group can vary from about 15 people to hundreds of families, Ford-Bonelle said, and translators are often needed.
Ten Thousand Villages is partly run by volunteers and has a volunteer-run board of directors.
“The board deals with keeping the store open. It’s volunteer-based, so you are getting people in the community who are helping every day,” Esha said. “We work with a board committee that is made up of people in the neighborhood who come to the store. Our store doesn’t have to have a big corporation overseeing it — people in the community are overseeing it.”
Ford-Bonnelle said that a few of the artisans who make items originally for Ten Thousand Villages also selling the products to conventional trade companies.
For instance, a family that made angel ornaments originally for Ten Thousand Villages, now also sells them to Pier 1 Imports, because that company likewise pays the artisans well.
Ford-Bonnelle said this was a testament to how conventional trade companies can also treat workers fairly without sacrificing revenue.
“It’s really great to see that the artisans still stick with fair-trade principles but then now sell to conventional trade stores,” Ford-Bonelle said. “It speaks to the possibility of [conventional trade] treating people right.”
Another local progressive group, Community Empowerment Network (CEN) also promotes global goodness.
CEN seeks to break the cycle of poverty in developing countries by aiming to help individuals strengthen life skills and habits, build entrepreneurial skills, create new markets for their products and collaborate with stakeholders to remove structural barriers that inhibit sustainable livelihoods.
According to CEN, more than 3 billion people worldwide earn less than $2 per day and lack many necessities such as clean water, education and health care. CEN partners with local nonprofits to offer educational opportunities to help communities overcome structural obstacles such as limited markets and limited access to capital and infrastructure.
“There are skills we are trying to promote,” such as IT, technical and finance-managing skills, said CEN development volunteer Sarah Sullivan. “We work with nonprofits in the area. Right now, we are focusing heavily on Brazil.”
As fair-trade awareness has grown in recent years, other products can be fair-trade-manufactured as well, such as coffee, cocoa, sugar, tea, bananas, honey, cotton, wine, fruit, chocolate, flowers and gold.
“Fair trade is taking a look at working conditions and transparency in business dealings, while also thinking about maintaining cultural sensibility,” Ford-Bonnelle said. “With fair trade, the welfare of the entire community is preserved.”