#Newinthecity: Reaching Ten Thousand Villages in Ann Arbor

India lives in its villages. One could argue that Nadur gaam 7 kilometers away from downtown Srinagar was my first ‘village’ experience. But that’s a fallacy considering I spent 0-8 years there, and except for my mother (a downtown 3rd bridge snob), it was well within the confines of the city of Srinagar, Kashmir. My first real village experience came in August 2000, while in the Goa express with my parents towards Pune. As we moved 1500 kilometers in the train, we noticed a change in soil colors, landscapes, the ghats of Chambal and little village schools where kids played in blue shirts in overused flip-flops. Reaching Ten Thousand Villages in Ann Arbor didn’t need to wait years. We passed by the store in our first afternoon out in the downtown. It’s hard to miss.

While talking to Rene Greff, the owner of the Arbor Brewing company, she asked me if I needed something else. I asked her about other landmark brands that made up Ann Arbor. She instantly recommended, Ten Thousand Villages, remarking that they’ve been here forever.

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I decide to just walk in to Ten Thousand Villages

I walked in to ask for a card that I could write to, not wanting to come by unannounced. The kindest looking lady with silver hair on the main counter however introduced me to the assistant manager, Gerda Paschal. I shared my intent of wanting to talk about their story on my blogs. Usually in the United States, I never get a push back on it as it’s not a foreign language and they understand blogging in general. The assistant manager decided to start off with a string of questions: who reads my blog, where they’re from, la di da. I have these numbers on top of mind recall, so it didn’t take me off guard. Once we were past the numbers, she invited me to a small chamber at the end of the store.

Everything felt Indian as we talked over a table covered with an Indian print

It was my turn to ask questions in a shop where everything felt Indian. The table cover reminded me of the tons of Divan and bedcovers we had at home. Also, the costume handmade jewelry from the crafts-mela I frequented at home. Not knowing much about the Ten thousand villages, I proceeded to ask the story.

I learned that the fair trade organization started in 1946 by the founder Edna Ruth Byler who was inspired and moved by the state of poverty in Puerto Rico. Now present in 390 retail locations, Ten thousand villages works with artisans in 38 countries. The Ann Arbor store came into existence in 2004, and would soon be celebrating its 11th anniversary. Many employees in the store have been working there since the beginning. As a non-profit, Ten Thousand Villages is mostly staffed by volunteers.

One of them was the kind lady, Norene that I first met at the counter. She came by and said, the first few people who came together to form the Ann Arbor Store had in fact responded to newspaper adverts. The Mennonite church members basically asked others to come forward for a discussion on fair trade, and eventually those that responded formed the first few members of the board.

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Fair trade practices at Ten Thousand Villages

Fresh from research and the ethical and human aftermath of the Rana Plaza disaster that I worked on as a research project, I was aware of the issues of fair trade. How did the consumers know it was fair trade? What was fair about it? I asked. I looked at the table-cover. It does come from India, she remarked. I also got a booklet with a few Indian artisans on the cover.

The manager was Dutch which she said was also seen as the frontrunner of fair trade issues the world over. These topics were big in Europe already in the 1980s and became important in the US only much later. Now the awareness seemed to be picking up. Norene said, a teacher in a local school was asking kids to check labels and identify where the good really came from, to aid awareness. There were plenty of fair trade labels with low standardization. And handicrafts came with no labels. So, it was natural that it wasn’t all ideal. But Ten Thousand Villages worked with the larger umbrella brand, that was a member of the Fair trade organizations worldwide. Later I did check that the organization as a whole was named as one of the most ethical companies in the US by Forbes recently.

Fast Fashion And Fair Trade

While in Europe walking through the High Streets would drive me crazy. Bangladeshi workers were getting paid $0.25 per hour, and we know the premium that the brands charge. The more we shopped, the shorter the supply cycles were. Tomorrow mint, and today orange, this meant that fast fashion was dictating and changing styles every 4 weeks, and putting pressure on the backend supply. There were just short term relationships with factories which could end anytime, leaving no scope for error or improvements. Everything was quick and short-lived. One could argue, would the workers have it any better if they had no work at all? There are no easy answers and child labor is definitely not uncommon.

We believe in long term relationships. It’s rare for us to drop or change contracts with our artisans every now and then. We work with them on a long term basis. – Gerda Paschal, Ten thousand villages, Ann Arbor

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As she said this, I was feeling nicer again. The fear of not losing jobs meant that artisans could focus on quality and their craft without having to work 20 hours in oppressive factory settings. It also meant that their children could go to school. Ten thousand villages also invests in education and other social initiatives with the artisans.

Who is interested in Fair Trade at Ten Thousand Villages?

I asked about the kind of footfall they see. Why they did choose Ann Arbor as a retail setting?

Ann Arbor is international. So, we often get people who’re aware of these things. We don’t get too many students coming our way. We get people who are setting up their homes (older). We get tons of volunteers who may work on the shop floor or in the basement to get our stock ready and spend 8 hours in a month or so, to further the cause they believe in.-  Gerda Paschal,Ten thousand villages, Ann Arbor

It wasn’t easy for me to check the kind of premium that was placed on fair trade. I have a certain sense of value based on Indian prices of goods that I know and purchase from a artisan backed store in India. I have not lived in the US long enough to convert that into the US currency yet. I don’t really fathom how expensive it is in comparative terms. It may well be a premium, but it helps me to think that I am not responsible for making someone go through a dire state in a factory.

We received our air shipment from Germany today and I realized how I hadn’t really missed a lot of stuff in the last three weeks. I’m not sure if fair trade is the answer, but I do know that fast fashion most definitely isn’t. Besides, we all deserve shawls that take six months of craftsmanship by expert artisans in love with their designs.