By Matthew Rodriguez
Pasadena Weekly Deputy Editor
As the oldest and largest fair-trade retailer, Ten Thousand Villages celebrates its 75th anniversary.
“It’s incredible to be a part of an organization with so much history and ties to the beginning of this movement,” Associate Director Hayley Chesshir said. “I think (the movement) is only going to get bigger. I think that there’s hope that one day, fair trade will be the norm.”
The nonprofit store Ten Thousand Villages began in 1946 after Edna Ruth Byler traveled to Puerto Rico and noticed the craftswomen in the area of La Plata Valley were struggling to survive. She noticed their remarkable handmade embroideries and decided to partner with them to help provide a steady and sustainable income to the ailing artisans. The organization has since grown from Byler and a handful of artisans to 50 stores and 20,000 artisans from 30 different countries. They have also partnered with more than 300 retailers and sell items through their website. One of the storefronts has called South Lake Avenue in Pasadena its home for the past 15 years.
Each store offers roughly the same products, all of which are from artisans in developing countries such as Ghana, Kenya, Cambodia and India.
Ten Thousand Villages derives its name from Mahatma Gandhi’s address to India’s congress. He says that the heart of India is found within the 700,000 villages, not from a few cities.
The nonprofit and Byler are credited with starting the fair trade movement, which has since grown into a worldwide phenomenon popular with many millennials and members of Gen Z. Fair trade is a business philosophy that promotes paying artisans, farmers and workers a fair wage for the goods they produce while also providing better working conditions.
“Fair trade is a trade principle in which the artists are centered,” Chesshir said. “It’s about coming to an agreement that’s comfortable for them to feel like it’s a living wage.”
Ten Thousand Villages fully pays its partners in advance with half of the payment upfront to cover the cost of the materials used by the artisans and the final half once the items ship.
“They don’t get a percentage of our profits,” Chesshir said. “We’re a nonprofit organization, and our mission is that we create opportunities for artisans in developing countries to earn income by bringing their products and stories to our markets through long-term, fair-trading relationships.”
The artisans do not exclusively work with the nonprofit. However, because of its longstanding in the business, Ten Thousand Villages often orders products from many groups that they have worked with for over 30 years.
“The artisans have control over their life,” Chesshir said. “There’s a freedom to it rather than them working in a factory where they don’t have control over how many hours they’re working in a day and are often incredibly exploited. Fair-trade workshops operate in a much more humane way.”