Fair Trade introduced to Iowa City

Purchases making at difference at Ten Thousand Villages 

IOWA CITY- People looking to make purchases that benefit disadvantaged artisans from around the world can look to Ten Thousand Villages.

Ten Thousand Villages is a non-profit organization that provides artisans around the world with a market for their products. The Iowa City store is located off of Dubuque Street in the pedestrian mall downtown. It is the only location in Iowa, but among many others in the United States.

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Alicia Greenwood, board of director for the Iowa City villages store, said the idea of the store began 70 years ago with a Mennonite missionary and his wife who were traveling around the world.

“Women were working so hard making these handy-crafts, and then selling them for dirt cheap in the market,” Greenwood said.

These women were struggling to feed their families, so any money was better than nothing, she said. But the missionary’s wife wanted to provide these women with more than they were receiving at the market in their countries. The missionary and his wife bought the products and brought them home to the United States to mark the product to what they thought it was worth.

“Through their missions, they traveled all over the world and collected products from Kenya to the middle east,” she said.

It eventually blossomed into a nationwide phenomenon. People were interested in these hand crafted products in the United States, and were willing to pay what they were worth, she said.

The mission of this organization is to “bring artisan crafts from around the world to North American markets which provides the artisans in developing countries with income that they would not otherwise have,” Greenwood said.

The organization is also a fair-trade retailer, she said. Trade means giving something to get something, but the opposite of that would be unfair trade and that is where one party holds power over another. In fair-trade each party is treated equal.

In fair trade, there are several principles: no child labor, no sweatshop conditions, no pay difference for male and females. In addition, artisans are provided fair middle-class wages, Greenwood said. The organization also wants the artisans to use environmentally sustainable methods. Design assistance is especially important to Ten Thousand Villages, as it helps artisans make products that will sell.

Kitty Bird, retail sales manager for Ten Thousand Villages, has been apart of the organization for years and has had different roles throughout her career. In her current role she travels to stores around the country and assists them.

Of those principles, Ten Thousand Villages focuses on paying fair wages to their artisans and also design assistance, Bird said. The artisans could produce mass amounts of product, but if the product doesn’t sell then it doesn’t work out for the organization. But the organization is strategic in what they tell their artisans to make.

“We redesign for a lifestyle rather than focus on trends,” she said.

Kassidy Bell, manager of the Iowa City villages store, has been involved with the Iowa City community since she was a student at the university. She is interested in non-profits and genuinely cares about the people she helps. She believes the store offers something others don’t.

“Usually everyone can find something, a lot of students come in and say that their Mom’s would love this store,” Bell said.

Allison Letcher, a freshman majoring in psychology, was looking for a way to volunteer in the community, and once she heard the mission of the organization she was intrigued. She was one of those students saying that their Mom would love this store.

“The story behind each product, it’s different,” Letcher said.

Her favorite products come from the West Bank, the Phoenician wine glasses and vases. What is unique about these is that each piece has a range of coloring, she said. These artisans are provided with good income and a safe work environment because of these purchases.

Recently Allison’s mom, Nancy Courbat, was visiting Iowa City and Allison wanted to show her the store. Courbat seemed to be in awe over the the product she was seeing.

“Being from a small town, I had never heard of the organization before my daughter started volunteering here,” Courbat said.

Even though the store is in Iowa City, the shoppers come from all over because this is a university town. A lot of people are becoming familiar with Ten Thousand Villages and what it sets out to do.

Bird, the retail sales manager for Ten Thousand Villages, works around the nation and is seeing that many communities are receptive to the store and appreciate the mission of the organization. But it isn’t just the people here in the United States that feel the impact, it’s the artisans from disadvantaged countries as well.

“Everything we do everyday, we feel we are making a difference,” Bird said.