Crafts Chain Corners Fair-Trade Market Ten Thousand Villages, founded in 1946, is a handicrafts company with about 160 stores in the United States and Canada. It sells gifts and home decorations from around the world at "fair trade" prices set by the artisans who make the products.
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Crafts Chain Corners Fair-Trade Market

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Crafts Chain Corners Fair-Trade Market

Crafts Chain Corners Fair-Trade Market

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By now, you should have finished your Christmas shopping. Perhaps you're among the growing number of consumers looking for so-called fair-trade products. This year fair-trade handicrafts raked in about $50 million in North American sales. The leading vendor is Ten Thousand Villages. Sarah Bush has this profile.

SARAH BUSH reporting:

Austin's Ten Thousand Villages store is bustling with shoppers. They're checking out colorful wall tapestries from India, bamboo pots from Vietnam and hand-woven garlands from Bangladesh. Mary Cole is looking for something unique.

Ms. MARY COLE: Even though you may have five dozen garlands that look--every one's handmade and no two are alike, and that's kind of like the world itself and I like that.

BUSH: While Cindy Haas(ph) supports the store's philosophy.

Ms. CINDY HAAS: I've shopped here several times over the years. It's more like a seasonal thing for me. But I like to support them and try to buy a lot of my Christmas presents here, so that I'm supporting fair trade.

BUSH: Founded in 1946, Ten Thousand Villages is now one of the largest fair-trade organizations in the world. There are about 160 Ten Thousand Villages stores in the US and Canada. The point of fair trade is to provide the artisans with a decent wage. Pauline Maneer(ph) helps manage the Austin store.

Ms. PAULINE MANEER (Ten Thousand Villages): The pricing is set by the artisan and things are included--not just the cost of the material, but also what it takes to provide a dignified living for those people.

BUSH: Maneer says the artisans are paid 50 percent of the costs up front, so they don't have to go into debt to buy materials. They're paid the rest when the order arrives at corporate headquarters in Pennsylvania. Ten Thousand Villages had about $16 million in total sales this year. About a third went back to the artisans.

As an arm of the Mennonite Church, the company is not driven by dollar signs. CEO Paul Myers says they're motivated by principle.

Mr. PAUL MYERS (Ten Thousand Villages): We do it out of a deep sense of God being good to us as people, and our responsibility to share the resources we have with those neighbors in our community, in our world community who are less fortunate than we are.

BUSH: This year the company expects a profit of $900,000. It'll all go back towards working with the artisans to alleviating their poverty. Over the past 10 years, sales have tripled. Myers says it'll be a challenge to manage that growth.

Mr. MYERS: So there are a lot of practical issues that are--we're going to have to work at as we go along, and we're going to simply need to work at those as we grow and as we understand what's needed to take things to the next level.

BUSH: For example, Myers says to supply bigger orders, artisans may need more sophisticated equipment and better business skills. Economist Michael Brandle at the University of Texas at Austin says fair trade helps pull people out of abject poverty, but doesn't address the next step.

Mr. MICHAEL BRANDLE (University of Texas): What we also need to think about is, OK, down the line then. What else could these people do? Because we don't want it that, you know, 40 years from now that they're still producing really the same handicrafts, making the same living 40 years from now.

BUSH: But Myers says producing handicrafts gives them an initial role to play in the worldwide market.

Mr. MYERS: I've seen it happen on a number of occasions that these people who are on the periphery of society over time become the medium-sized entrepreneur.

BUSH: It's a challenge to keep operations streamlined on both sides of the ocean. According to surveys, customers are only willing to play 5 to 15 percent more for a fair-trade product, because they want a fair price too. For NPR News, I'm Sarah Bush in Austin, Texas.

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