When Edna Ruth Byler was visiting with women artisans in Puerto Rico in 1946 she couldn’t possibly have imagined that these conversations would spark a global fair trade movement now in its 69th year.
Struck by the overwhelming poverty and believing she could provide sustainable economic opportunities for artisans in developing countries, she got started selling handcrafted products to family and friends in the U.S. out of the trunk of her car. She would work tirelessly for the next 30 years, in conjunction with the Mennonite Central Committee, connecting individual entrepreneurs — mostly in the Global South — with market opportunities in the U.S.
It would be a quarter of a century before the first gift and thrift shop, then called SELF-HELP: Crafts of the World, would open in Bluffton, OH and another 15 until sales would reach $3.6 million. Three years after that, SELF-HELP: Crafts of the World would help found The International Fair Trade Association (IFAT).
On its 50th Anniversary, the name would change to Ten Thousand Villages, symbolizing its commitment to community and tradition and its bold hope that one day there would be 10,000 villages offering hand-crafted items to improve the quality of life for the artisans and their families as well as customers. Since 2008, Ten Thousand Villages has gone on to repeatedly be named one of the “World’s Most Ethical Companies” by the Ethisphere Institute and has been featured in Forbes Magazine. Sales now top $27 million annually.
All because a pioneering businesswoman was deeply disturbed by overwhelming poverty and moved to take action. Next time, something catches your attention, remember Edna. In a hurried world, it’s easy to believe that just getting started, even if it’s out of the trunk of your car, might not be “big enough” to matter. Like fair and alternative trade, Edna’s story helps me remember that even an effort that starts out small can make a powerful difference in people’s lives.
What’s got your attention? What’s moving you?
Photos from the Ten Thousand Villages website. www.tenthousandvillages.com