75 Years of Fair Trade
“I’m just a woman trying to help other women.”
75 years ago, Ten Thousand Villages founder Edna Ruth Byler introduced the idea now known as fair trade. At the time, she didn’t realize that she would become the pioneer of a global movement for ethical sourcing and human rights. She simply saw a need and she acted.
Byler had traveled with her husband to Puerto Rico, where she met women in La Plata Valley who were struggling to feed their children. Having lived through hard times herself during the Depression, she knew the face of poverty. She also knew the importance of dignity and the difference between charity and opportunity.
Byler was moved to do something. She saw the pieces of fine embroidery the women of La Plata created, but had no place to sell. If she, an American, was so struck by these unique textiles, perhaps other Americans would also appreciate their beauty. Byler brought the pieces home and began to sell to friends and neighbors, driving her Chevy II packed with global needlework to women’s sewing circles and parties of interested friends across the country. She shared the stories of the makers, describing how each purchase meant that a woman gained economic independence and a chance to give her family a brighter future.
That was 1946. What started with a dozen women in Puerto Rico has grown to 20,000 artisans across the developing world. What started in the trunk of Edna Ruth Byler’s car has become a retail network of more than seventy shops nationwide plus an E-Commerce site.
We ensure that makers receive fair wages and have safe working conditions.
We provide advance payments so artisan groups can operate their businesses, purchase materials and pay individuals without having to go into debt.
We consult on trends and design, helping artisans adapt their traditional skills to create goods that are relevant and appealing to customers in the United States.
We use sustainable, natural or recycled materials and environmentally responsible processes.
We partner with women and individuals who are often marginalized to offer opportunities to thrive.
We build long-term buying relationships to support the sustainability of artisan businesses and impact families generationally.
Long-Term Impact of Fair Trade
At Ten Thousand Villages, we strive to put people and planet first in everything we do. We remember that every person has a unique story – talents and interests, dreams and hopes for their future and their family. Fair trade opens the door for livelihoods and opportunities to flourish.
These stories of growth unfold over time and due to our long-term relationships with artisan groups and families, we have the privilege of playing a part in those stories.
Like the young woman in Guatemala whose success as a team leader in a jewelry workshop gave her the confidence – and the income – to pursue her law degree.
The family workshop in Nepal that, with the support of fair trade, was able to rebuild and return to work, finding routine and hope following a crippling earthquake.
The communities in Vietnam that have overcome, over decades, the devastating economic and emotional aftermath of war through job opportunities that use traditional skills, from sewing to ceramics.
The villages in Bangladesh, where the danger of starvation was painfully real only a generation ago, that now offer employment through social enterprises that teach women to create handicrafts from local materials.
The families in developing countries all over the world, where meaningful wages and jobs enable parents to send their children to school instead of sending them to work.
The artisans who were spared the experience of employment shortages during 2020-21’s COVID-19 pandemic because they were working in fair trade relationships like our’s. We continued to fulfill our purchase agreements even when our state-side stores were shuttered. Why? Because behind every product is a person counting on the income.
These are the stories we know because we have been around to watch – visiting the workshops and homes of makers, meeting their families and sharing meals, watching their businesses, their skills and their children grow – year after year.
As we celebrate 75 years of fair trade, we invite you to join us. We invite you to #LiveLifeFair, to choose consciously, to choose fair trade as often as you can. The choice to #LiveLifeFair affects communities around the globe. We are all in this together; so in the words and spirit of Edna Ruth Byler, may we all be people helping other people. That’s how to make a difference.