The road to Ten Thousand Villages

By on July 3, 2018

In 1946, Akron’s Edna Byler returned from a trip to Puerto Rico with her husband (a member of the Mennonite Central Committee) with handmade embroidery she purchased from a woman in LaPlata.

The crafters’ work was so good her friends purchased much of it from her.

It was the start of a personal mission for Byler to help local artists in a developing part of the world find markets for their work. The result, today, is Ten Thousand Villages, a company with annual sales of more than $21 million working with 120 artisan groups in 54 countries. Byler died in 1976 but her company and her vision live on.

Almost single-handedly, Byler gave rise to what is now referred to as the fair trade social movement. For nearly 73 years, Ten Thousand Villages has grown from its founder selling goods from the trunk of her car at churches and craft bazaars to a non-profit company with 56 retail stores in 24 states, (the first stores opened in the 1970s in Ohio and Canada), a strong wholesale division and an e-commerce website. It is supported by social media outreach with Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, and LinkedIn, and simple but moving marketing and advertising that showcases the TTV story through its artisan partners in short, documentary videos, moving still photography and bios that can be read and viewed on social media as well as on the company website (tenthousandvillages.com).

TTV has weathered recessions, changing buying habits, the growth of the Internet and on-line sales as well as new competition while remaining true to the principals of its Mennonite founder of treating artisans in developing countries fairly and providing them, many times, with their only outlet for sales in developed countries. Fair traded goods can bring as much as five-times more than what they could be sold to tourists in an artisan’s homeland. Since the company founding, artisans &tstr; who otherwise might be unemployed &tstr; have earned some $140 million dollars in revenue.

Today, Ten Thousand Villages is one of the world’s largest fair trade companies and proud to have been instrumental in the founding of the World Fair Trade Organization to promote ethical business practices worldwide. Carl Lundblad, the company CEO since 2016, is an attorney with a business and banking background. He understands that two decades into the 21st century, buying habits have changed with the growth of the Internet. But today, he explains, regardless of how they buy, consumers want quality merchandise for themselves and as gifts.

“Making the buying connection is a challenge for us and other retailers in 2018.” Lundblad says, “and one that is evolving with a combination of face-to-face and Internet sales.”

Lundblad does not believe that brick and mortar retail stores &tstr; the backbone of TTV’s growth &tstr; are destined for extinction. He feels consumers today are more likely to support small, unique stores in their hometown like the local shops in revitalized Lititz.

“Buyers recognize merchandise of good design and want it made by individuals in safe working conditions,” says Lundblad. “And, they are willing to pay a fair price knowing the artist also received fair value for his or her work.”

Jenni Lester (shown) and husband, Yousaf Chaman, own Bunyaad Rugs. They are a Ten Thousand Village partner in several stores. Lester, with her poodle, Amanda, greets customers in the 6,000 square foot carpet room holding 1,700 handmade rugs.

 

Although on-line sales are growing quickly for everyone, Lundblad says, “Some 85 percent of sales are still at retail establishments.” Added to a changing sales environment is a new wave of social responsibility and eco-buying where shoppers respond favorably to merchandise that uses recycled materials. It becomes a win-win for everyone, the CEO feels, and has always been part of Ten Thousand Villages’ business plan. As an example of eco-conscious merchandise, TTV is featuring, among other items in its stores and on-line, photo frames, mobile phone, and tablet holders made from computer circuit boards as well as scarves and other products from recycled Indian saris.

“Socially conscious buyers want to feel good about their purchases,” Lundblad says. “They are buying less and want what they buy to be eco-friendly and contribute to sustainability.”
For marketing and branding purposes, the company changed its name to Ten Thousand Villages in 1996 to better represent its operation which had grown considerably from the original branding of overseas needlepoint and crafts and self-help crafts stores. As it has grown, the company has added buyers, merchandisers and designers to work with (and add) artisan groups in different parts of the world.

“TTV staff provide design help and feedback to artists to be sure products &tstr; design, manufacturing and materials &tstr; works for both the seller and the consumer and are produced in quantities that will sell in a reasonable time at a fair price,” Lundblad explains.
Today, this is called a triple bottom line by socially responsible companies, meaning strong sales from a workforce that is not exploited while products are eco-friendly and contribute to sustainability.

TTV partners with Bunyaad Rugs to provide handmade, Oriental carpets for its customers at TTV stores or through rug events in the U.S. and Canada. Bunyaad has 6,000 square feet (holding 1,700 artisan made carpets) at TTV’s Ephrata flagship store. Bunyaad is run by Yousaf Chaman and his wife, Ephrata native Jenni Lester. The Bunyaad group is based in Lahore, Pakistan, and works with 850 families from more than 100 villages in a fair trade relationship to produce one-of-a-kind hand knotted masterpieces.
In a TTY fair trade relationship, artisans are paid 50 percent of the agreed-up contract up-front to help defray the cost of raw materials used. The remaining 50 percent is paid when the artisan delivers the goods and even before they are sold in North America.

Ten Thousand Village CEO Carl Lundblad discusses the company in the product bank display room at the Akron headquarters.

Ten Thousand Villages remains one of the country’s oldest fair trade organizations. Today consumers echo Mrs. Byler’s vision and urge companies to adopt fair trade practices when manufacturing in the developing world &tstr; providing safe working conditions and fair pay for all while upholding strict guidelines on the use of child labor. Locally, Ten Thousand Villages has its flagship store in Ephrata (240 N. Reading Road). It also has stores in Lancaster (at Rockvale Outlets, with the largest area of clearance items) and Intercourse (in Kitchen Kettle Village). The Ephrata store has the largest physical space with 30,000 square feet plus an additional 6,000-square-foot rug room. The Ephrata store opened in 1982 in the former Stauffer Furniture building and has some 2,000 artisan items for sale at any one time.

The collaboration, strong relationships and synergy created in the Ten Thousand Village model remains as strong as it did when Mrs. Byler shook the hands of her first artist partners making embroidered goods seven decades ago and is an example for other retails entering the field.

Art Petrosemolo is a freelance feature writer and photographer who recently retired to this area from New Jersey. He welcomes reader feedback at artpetrosemolo@comcast.net. 

 

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