Bangladesh Artisans

There have been a number of studies and articles floating around in the media lately, claiming that there are some major shortcomings in fair trade certification systems. Ten Thousand Villages welcomes this discussion, as we’re always looking for ways to improve the impact of our work.

We believe this research and these conversations are a sign that people sincerely care about the connection between their shopping decisions and the impact those decisions have on the people who produce the products. The workers who make these items are just like you and me – except that, by and large, they happen to live in developing countries. As such, through no fault of their own, they lack many of the opportunities we enjoy, as well as the basic infrastructure and day-to-day stability and predictability we take for granted.

Many of the more critical studies have centred around coffee production. At Ten Thousand Villages, we’re proud to partner with Level Ground Trading to bring you fabulous fair trade coffee. Here are a few words from Stacey Toews, Level Ground’s Co-Founder & Communications Catalyst:

“There are many reasons why producers in developing countries are poor. To address the challenges producers face in modern markets requires complex thought and deliberate engagement. This is the business of Level Ground Trading. Our primary focus is to alleviate poverty by trading fairly and directly with producers in developing countries. … Our primary tools to demonstrate that our products are  ‘fair trade’ involve a lot of rolling up the sleeves, difficult travel conditions, gut-wrenching moments of laughter with translators, lots of photos, meticulous record keeping, and most of all, building trust with producer groups in the context of long-term relationships. …

“Face-to-face, transparent relationships with producers is the only context in which Fair Trade can flourish. We’ve been doing this for 17 years. This year we will purchase the harvests of 5,000 small-scale farms in 10 countries. …

“When you purchase a product from Level Ground Trading or Ten Thousand Villages, you are making a positive difference in the lives of producers – that’s why we are in business!”

I have not yet had the opportunity to delve deeply into the most recent four-year study by development economists from the School of African and Oriental Studies, nor have I carefully validated the accuracy of its interpretation in the media. Regardless of its actual merits, however, I believe such research must be taken seriously.

Fair traders claim that buying fair trade items results in a better-than-average positive impact on those who make or grow the products – and these claims must stand up to independent scrutiny.

For many of us within the fair trade movement who have been trading with artisans and farmers for more than 50 years, fair trade certification is not part of our core business model. We are, however, supportive of efforts to systematize and formalize standards for commodities that lend themselves to this approach (e.g., coffee, tea, chocolate, etc.), in order to allow more of these products to gain access to larger stores and broader markets.

How, then, does Ten Thousand Villages ensure that our claims are legitimate, and backed up with real results? We build direct relationships with our artisan business partners. We create an ethical supply chain that actualizes our core principles and values. We don’t use “middlemen” or agents – just good old-fashioned conversations directly with the individuals and groups who produce the products you find in our stores.

We at Ten Thousand Villages are committed to our mission of delivering tangible results for our trading partners in developing countries – so much so that we choose not to outsource the verification of our supply chain. Instead, we set the very highest standards for ethical trading and hold ourselves rigorously to them, and we continuously monitor our producer relationships to ensure that our principles and values are being upheld.

If you care about making ethical shopping decisions, it’s because you care about the dignity and rights of every human being. And when it comes to making a positive impact on human beings, there’s just no substitute for direct relationships.

Dedicated fair traders like Ten Thousand Villages and Level Ground rely squarely on these direct relationships with artisans and farmers to back up our claims. To borrow Level Ground’s image, “we shake the hands” of the people who make our products.

We posted a blog entry earlier this week on what artisans are saying about working with Ten Thousand Villages. If fair trade is actually making the positive impact it purports to make, producers themselves are the ones who really need to tell the story about the impact of fair trade.

Time and time again, our artisan partners affirm and confirm that their trading partnership with Ten Thousand Villages makes a huge difference in their lives. As I indicated in that recent blog entry, when writing about the impact she witnessed during a recent trip to India, Kathleen Campbell, Purchasing Director for Ten Thousand Villages in the U.S., shared this:

“People tell us about dramatic changes in their lives – from places of vulnerability to security, dignity and planning for both their and their children’s futures. They are changing their own lives, and are especially changing their children’s futures.”

Based on her extensive experience working directly with artisans in a variety of capacities over the years, Jacqui MacDonald, Chair of the Ten Thousand Villages Canada board of directors, adds these comments:

“I am proud of the work Ten Thousand Villages continues to do in building relationships and markets for artisans and farmers. Whenever I speak to artisans, they tell me how important the ongoing relationship has been to them and their families over the years.”

Based on these testimonials from artisans, we continue to press on with enormous confidence in our unique approach to doing business.

We take our reputation and our integrity very seriously. So, as CEO of Ten Thousand Villages Canada, I can promise you that Ten Thousand Villages will continue to actively foster and monitor our direct relationships with artisans, to ensure that the impact we celebrate is actually happening. We will also continue to provide a venue for artisans to share the impact working with Ten Thousand Villages, and within the broader fair trade movement, makes – on them personally, on their families, and on their communities.

If you’re interested in learning more about Ten Thousand Villages’ business practices, check out our website for more information about the values and principles that drive our commitment to make a lasting positive impact in the lives of our artisan partners.

We believe in the power of alternative trade mechanisms to make a tangible impact on producers, because we see it in action every day. I hope you will join me in working toward a more just global economy.

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