It can be difficult for individual artisans to make a profit in certain parts of the world. But Calgary’s Ten Thousand Villages gives citizens from underdeveloped communities the opportunity to put their handmade products on the market.

This fair-trade shop is part of a non-profit organization that aims to support those who don’t have other opportunities to earn a living. The store’s inventory usually represents handmade goods from more than 120 different artisans living in 27 countries, to put it into perspective.

Ten Thousand Villages is involved with the Mennonite Central Committee, an international Christian organization that works with the less fortunate to help give them a better quality of life.

There are currently 100 locations throughout Canada and the United States.

The humanitarian actions of this retailer sparked the interest of June Kirk, who has been volunteering at the store on Crowchild Trail NW for over a decade. After spending a full year traveling throughout Sri Lanka, India, Nepal and Asia, Kirk had returned with feelings of anger and shock, which she was able to channel into her efforts with Ten Thousand Villages. 

“Why do we have it so good, and why are things so different,” Kirk questions, regarding the disparity of developing countries. “Yet the people we had visited and spent time with had touched my heart immensely.”

Kirk says that soon after returning to Canada in the late ‘70s, she decided to choose the path of activism by exploring ways to solve a variety of environmental and peace issues. It didn’t take long for her to connect with Ten Thousand Villages, where she had shopped for years before volunteering.

“I just loved the concept of purchasing items knowing it was benefiting the artisans in these various countries,” Kirk says. “It’s just a win-win for everybody.”

The organization supports groups who may not have equal opportunities to make a living, such as women or disabled people living in developing countries.

Jenni Leister shares the same opinion as Kirk when it comes to supporting the fair-trade movement. Leister is the director of operations at the Pennsylvania-based company Bunyaad Rugs, which sells their rugs at various Ten Thousand Villages locations, including Calgary’s. Fair trade keeps money within a developing community while making sure artisans receive recognition for their work.

“It’s not just about paying the artisan a fair living wage, it’s also about treating them with the respect they deserve as an artist,” Leister says. She explains that producing handmade rugs is extremely labor-intensive, taking five people working 14-16 months to create a single 9-x12-inch rug.

Leister believes that buying fair trade is not only beneficial for the artisans involved, but also the North American consumer. She says the quality of the items, like the handmade rugs, improves because the workers are getting paid a fair wage. 

Leister is hopeful that one day, it will be mandatory to treat people fairly all over the world. Because fair trade has come a long way since she got involved 26 years ago, she is hopeful it will become standard practice.

Creativity is strongly encouraged within Ten Thousand Villages, Leister notes.

“Just like we would not ask Picasso to make 150 copies of one painting, we don’t ask the same of rug knotters.” -Jenni Leister

In addition to being handmade and often created using recycled materials, each item sold by Ten Thousand Villages comes with a story about the artisan and how the product was made.

Janet Dawson, another volunteer at Calgary’s Ten Thousand Villages, explains the importance of raising awareness about buying ethically. Dawson frequently speaks to classrooms of kids from grades four to 10 to talk about buying fair-trade products.

“I hope to achieve a new generation of young people who will understand that their money counts, and that they have a say in how they’re spent,” she explains.

Kirk, meanwhile, says each artisan is in full control of the price of their goods because Ten Thousand Villages pays for the items up front before they reach the store. The price is determined by the cost of the materials, as well as the requested amount from the maker. 

For all the items sold at Ten Thousand Villages, 50 per cent of the asking price is given before the product is made, while the remaining 50 per cent is awarded when it is finished, Kirk says. The artisan is paid in full before the item comes to Canada.

Although there have been a few store closures across Canada, including Calgary’s Heritage location, Kirk believes that the Calgary location, which has been operating since the 1980s, will not be shutting down anytime soon.

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