When you first walk into the Ten Thousand Villages store on Richmond Road you might think that you’re in just another store selling interesting crafts from developing countries. But then you notice all the signs referencing fair trade and you may become aware that you are really inside a social enterprise.
Ten Thousand Villages operates retail outlets all over Canada and the US. Founded in 1946 by the Mennonite Central Committee, they sell fair trade products from developing countries around the world. Every weekend in November their once-a-year festival sale is held at the Ottawa Mennonite Church at 1830 Kilborn Avenue.
Apt613 visited the Ten Thousand Villages store on Richmond Road and talked to Kathy Neufeld, assistant manager. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Apt613: So what is Ten Thousand Villages all about?
Kathy Neufeld: Ten Thousand Villages is a not-for-profit organization. It focuses on selling fair trade products from around the world. We work with artisans in developing countries who would otherwise not have an avenue to a North American market. It’s an organization that’s over 70 years old.
Is there a standardized definition of the term ‘fair trade’?
Yes. There are 10 principles of fair trade, and that’s not just Ten Thousand Villages principles. There’s the World Fair Trade Organization that Ten Thousand Villages was actually a founding member of. Things like paying a fair wage, no child labour, no forced labour, gender equality. This organization certifies various groups for fair trade practises. And there are also specific fair trade labels for things like coffee, chocolate, soccer balls, and even bananas. One of the principles of fair trade is respect for the environment. So things are done in an environmentally sustainable manner. There’s a lot of rigor put around the fair trade label and you have to pay for that certification.
So do you have employees in the various developing countries that you’re sourcing from? How do you decide what countries do go in and who to get the products from and how to establish the relationship?
Some of those relationships were established through Mennonite central committee programs that were in that particular country. We work with organizations who are certified as fair trade organizations. There are sometimes visits to artisans, but in this day and age of communicating via Skype we don’t usually have to. The organizations do have to have the certifications.
When someone comes into your store it looks a lot like any other store that sells similar products. How do you educate the customers on the fact that it’s fair trade.
This is a very much volunteer run organization and all of our sales people are volunteers. So my standard greeting to customers is to just say hi and then ask if they are familiar with us? And if they say yes, I usually leave it at that.
But if I find out it’s someone’s first time, I usually tell them that what differentiates us is that everything we sell is fair trade. Then one of the things we try to do is to try and connect the person who makes the item with the person who buys it. We have the ability for most products to print out information about the group that makes it and a little bit about the product. So we can print or email those to customers and give them that little bit extra, which I think is something that differentiates us from your standard retailer.
Your store is right across the street from Mountain Equipment Co-op. I suppose that probably means higher rent but also more foot traffic.
We opened here 20 years ago and MEC opened slightly after that.. There certainly has been some synergy between our stores because there is a somewhat like-mindedness between people who are outdoorsy and people who are socially conscious.