Ten Thousand Villages has international impact through fair trade


Hannah Auten

Emily King, manager of Ten Thousand Villages in Champaign, speaks to a trainee about the importance of fair trade at Ten Thousand Villages on Tuesday. Fair trade has remained a priority for the nonprofit company since its establishment in 1946.

By Rachael Bolek, Copy chief

Elephant poop, bomb casings and bicycle chains are three things not typically used to make household items. However, one store in downtown Champaign uses those products, and many other unique materials, to create its merchandise.

Ten Thousand Villages is a nationwide company that works with artisans in developing countries to make products out of natural or recycled materials.

According to Ten Thousand Villages’ website, there are 70 stores in the United States, four of which are in Illinois. There is only one store in Champaign.

“We’re working with artisans in developing countries to provide a marketplace for crafts,” said Emily King, manager of the store. “In order to find materials that are easily accessible, we’re looking for a lot of natural things and recycling.”

Justine Trout, a volunteer for the past seven years, said she loves that much of the store’s merchandise is made from recycled materials.

    Sign up for our newsletter!

    “I’m fascinated by the fact people in other countries do much more recycling and make something pretty out of it,” Trout said. “I bring (my) recycling down in a bin, but the folks in the other countries make something pretty out of it, or something useful. We should learn a little bit from that.”

    Cynthia Nafziger, a volunteer since the store opened in the fall of 1985, shares Trout’s thoughts on the use of recycled materials.

    “It’s a way for (artisans) to use what they have (and) what they’re able to find, and use that so they have something to make the products with,” Nafziger said. “I think it’s fantastic that they can find things that they have around that they can just use.”

    In addition to recycled material, artisans often use natural resources in their products. One example of this is elephant poop.

    “It’s cleaned, cleaned, cleaned and they make paper out of it,” said Tammie Bouseman, a volunteer for the past 10 years.

    The store sells the paper in a heart-shaped box in either black, yellow or green with an elephant on top. The pieces of elephant poop paper inside are heart-shaped.

    Another product the store sells is made of recycled material and helps clean up war-torn areas; Trout said brass bomb fragments from Cambodia are melted down to make different pieces of jewelry.

    “It started and kids were going around outside and they were picking them up,” Trout said. “Then they decided to make something out of them. It’s a beautiful thing to make out of the war.”

    Other products are also made of different recycled materials like bike chains, maps and circuit boards. Bike chains make different types of picture frames and wine racks, maps make notebook covers and circuit boards make clocks.

    While selling products made of recycled and natural materials is an important part of Ten Thousand Villages, it is just one aspect of the store.

    Ten Thousand Villages is a fair trade company, which means it seeks out workers in developing countries to produce its products in exchange for a fair wage.

    According to the store’s website, “(Fair trade) highlights the need for change in the rules and practice of conventional trade and shows how a successful business can also put people first. It is a tangible contribution to the fight against poverty, climate change and economic crisis.”

    Bouseman said that fair trade is one of the main reasons she started volunteering at the Champaign store.

    “I like the idea of fair trade, of people being able to earn a living who need to, especially women, especially people with disabilities, but also men in areas where maybe they couldn’t otherwise earn a living,” Bouseman said.

    King said fair trade plays a large role in influencing how the store is run locally.

    “Part one of the fair trade principles is environmental responsibility, so then in our business practices in the U.S. we try to follow a lot of those same things,” King said.

    She said one thing the store does is use bags made out of recycled paper instead of plastic.

    “We also try to ask everybody if they need (a bag) today, because oftentimes if you ask if they need it they’ll go, ‘No, I can put it here,’ and it saves the bag (and) saves the packaging,” King said.

    According to the World Fair Trade Organization, there are 10 principles of fair trade. Three of the principles are transparency and accountability, payment of a fair price for the costs of production and providing safe and healthy working conditions for producers.

    Pam Reber, a volunteer for 25 years, said she thinks providing safe conditions for workers is important and loves that Ten Thousand Villages offers that for artisans.

    “There’s a group that takes the women of the night and gets them off the street,” Reber said. “(It) gets them off the sex trade so they can have a way to make a living.”

    The group, Sacred Mark, is part of Ten Thousand Villages and works with women in Bangladesh to give them an opportunity to support their families and leave the sex trade.

    According to Sacred Mark’s website, it’s “working towards changing the lives of these women who have few opportunities for sustainable employment. Women who have experienced the unimaginable pain of victimization and abuse are provided counseling, plus training and employment in soap-making and textile work.”

    The main thing the Bengali women use in their work is recycled saris, a long piece of clothing that many women in South Asia wear. Reber said they make tables, bags and baskets out of them.

    King said another group they get products from is Soup For Success. She said the group is “a job training program for women.” Soup For Success is one of only two groups in the United States that the store gets products from.

    Soup For Success is based in Indiana. According to its website, it helps “the participants find their voices, discover their direction, establish their goals, and then help them figure out a way to overcome obstacles and achieve those goals.”

    The group provides soup, cookie and brownie mixes for Ten Thousand Villages. The other group in the United States is comprised of women who settled from Burma in Massachusetts.

    “We have some candles that are made in Massachusetts by refugees, and so it’s usually their first job,” King said. “It’s a wonderful little company. They have childcare provided and work with them to get them settled. They do a lot more than just provide a job.”

    However, the store in Champaign does not work directly with any of the artisans. King said this is done by people who work for Ten Thousand Villages as a whole.

    “We buy mostly through a centralized warehouse,” King said. “There’s a team of buyers at the home office who travel around to different countries to meet with the artisans and then purchase the products to the warehouse, and then we buy from the warehouse.”

    King said the use of recycled and natural materials in their products and the fact that it’s fair trade is usually enough to drive in customers. However, in recent years she has noticed fewer people coming through the door.

    According to documents provided by King, the store sold $326,044 worth of products in 2016. This is down $20,711 from 2015.

    In 2016, Ten Thousand Villages made a profit of $133,346. This also fell from the previous year, this time by $14,413.

    “We’ve seen decreasing traffic,” King said. “We count everyone who comes in. It fluctuates, but the general trend is a downward trend in the past 10 years.”

    The decline began a few years ago, King said, when the price for parking in downtown Champaign increased.

    “In the 2000s when the parking jumped from 25 cents an hour to 75 cents an hour, our sales dove like 20 percent that year,” King said. “I hear it all the time: ‘I’ve only got 10 minutes.’ We’ve got a lot of stuff in here (and) it’s hard to look at everything in 10 minutes. Or I hear, ‘I drove past and there wasn’t a space open so I didn’t stop.’”

    Ten Thousand Villages makes most of its money during the Christmas season. Other peak holidays are Valentine’s Day and Mother’s Day.

    King said about 30 percent of their annual income is earned in December alone, and 5o percent total comes from November and December.

    However, she said the 2016 holiday season did not compare to previous years.

    “I think in the month of December we had 1,100 fewer people come through the door than we did last December, which is a big drop for us,” King said. “I think timing was a weird thing this year with Christmas on a Sunday. It threw off our last shopping weekend quite a bit because it was so early.”

    King also said a major component of lost Christmas sales comes from people not associating downtown Champaign with a place to shop for gifts.

    “It’s not a regular stop,” King said. “There are other areas of town … people go to first.”

    She related this issue back to the parking problem in downtown Champaign.

    “It’s the, ‘I’d love to stop, but if I don’t see a parking space within a two-block radius I’m not gonna seek one out,’” King said.

    Even though there’s been a decline in traffic, King said the store can always rely on its repeat customers.

    “We have an incredibly loyal and supportive customer base,” King said. “They’ll come and find us no matter what. They come in every year.”

    One customer, Alison Schmulbach, has lived in Champaign for years. She said she always goes to Ten Thousand Villages when she needs a gift.

    “I always find something cool in the way of gifts,” Schmulbach said. “This is the first place I come when I’m shopping for my mom. She has lots of this stuff already all over her house, but you never know when you’re going to find something unique.”

    Schmulbach also said that the fair trade aspect of the store is a reason she continues to come back.

    “I like the idea that it helps people who need assistance and they can use their craft, make a living (and) support their families by making this stuff,” Schmulbach said. “I just think that’s very cool. It’s important to me and I know it’s important to my mom.”

    King said even though Ten Thousand Villages can count on its repeat customers to talk about the store to their friends and family, it still struggles with the awareness of its location.

    “It’s definitely every week that someone comes in and says, ‘I’ve lived in Champaign for 15 years and I never knew you were here,’” King said.

    She contributes the low awareness to people’s perception of the area.

    “Downtown isn’t really viewed as a shopping area,” King said. “(There’s) a lot more restaurants, a lot more nightlife.”

    King said Champaign prioritizes nightlife and entertainment, which negatively affects retailers.

    “If the city’s not prioritizing (retail), it makes it harder for us to thrive because things like parking are huge obstacles for a retailer,” King said.

    Even though Ten Thousand Villages struggles with awareness among Champaign residents, King said they get plenty of support from University faculty and staff.

    “I wanna say that a significant portion of our loyal base would be faculty and staff,” King said. “I think we’re pretty well-recognized among that group.”

    She said that, a few years ago, an interior decorator came to the store and bought one of every wall hanging in the store for a project with the University department of communication. 

    King said that was a great day.

    However, she said Ten Thousand Villages is not well recognized among undergraduate students.

    “I think part of that is geography,” King said. “I mean Green Street, it’s kind of its own area and it’s got everything you need there. I think in terms of the undergrad population we don’t have tons of people who would come downtown regularly.”

    Regardless of Ten Thousand Villages’ current awareness, the store has been in the area for decades.

    The Champaign location was founded 31 years ago with the help of four churches around the area: First Mennonite Church in Urbana, East Bend Mennonite Church in Fisher, Arthur Mennonite Church in Arthur and Dewey Community Church in Dewey.

    “Those four provided a lot of the funding and the steering committee for legally and financially getting everything in place,” King said. “It would not have been started had it not been for those churches deciding to support the project.”

    Throughout the 31 years that Ten Thousand Villages has been in Champaign, the store has gone through a few name changes and relocations.

    The store opened as Selfhelp Village Crafts, changed to Selfhelp Worldwide Gifts in 1988 and 11 years later changed to Ten Thousand Villages.

    “The larger company went through name changes as well, probably pretty close to the same time as we did,” King said. “(Selfhelp Worldwide Gifts) was one that the larger company would not have been. The bigger company also started off as (Selfhelp Village Crafts) but everyone thought it was a craft store so then we changed it to (Selfhelp Worldwide Gifts).”

    According to the Ten Thousand Villages’ website, the decision to change the name to Ten Thousand Villages “was done to identify with other stores throughout the United States with the same mission.”

    The name came from Mahatma Gandhi’s quote, “India is not to be found in its few cities but in the 700,000 villages … We have hardly ever paused to inquire if these folks get sufficient to eat and clothe themselves with.”

    As far as location, the store opened at 44 E. University Ave. before it moved three years later to 105 N. Walnut St., a little over a block away from its original location. According to the store’s website, “The move was motivated by a desire for increased visibility and accessibility coupled with a larger floor area and storage space.”

    Volunteers completed renovations, painted the store and added new display cases for products, according to the store’s website.

    King said Ten Thousand Villages has always relied heavily on volunteers. There are currently only two paid staff at the location: King and her assistant manager.

    She said there are about 35 volunteers and they each work at least twice a month. Some volunteers like Trout also fill in at least once a month when people can’t come in.

    One downfall of being heavily volunteer-run means that Ten Thousand Villages can’t go off-site to make sales, according to King.

    “Given that we have two staff, it’s hard for us to go off-site,” King said. “We like being invited to things and we try to do it whenever we can but it’s a bit of a logistical challenge for us.”

    King said that even if volunteers don’t make off-site sales, they try and inform as many people as possible about the store.

    “Our volunteers are absolutely ambassadors for us, so I know I probably don’t even hear about all the times that they go to a group and talk and just about the store and what they do,” King said.

    Volunteers like Bouseman who have been with the store for at least a decade have seen it go through many changes. One change Bouseman noted was the change in the appearance of products.

    “I think it’s a little less rustic even though it’s all still handmade,” Bouseman said. “It’s a little level up from maybe what it was. It used to be like a souvenir you would get in the country, but instead, people who just want beautiful things can get them.”

    Trout, who has volunteered for a little under a decade, said she enjoys the beauty of the products but likes the story behind each item more.

    “We get things that are beautiful and (artisans) earn a living wage because Ten Thousand Villages lets them tell us what a living wage is for their country,” Trout said. “So all of a sudden these folks are able to send their children to school and maybe have a well in town and change the quality of life for that village. Those are some of the things that inspire me to volunteer here.”

    [email protected]