A sewing class in Puerto Rico caught businesswoman Edna Ruth Byler’s attention. There she saw the talent the women had for creating beautiful lace and the overwhelming poverty they lived in despite their hard work.
So Byler, who grew up in Hesston, Kan., began bringing the lace back home and selling it to friends and family out of the trunk of her car. She then returned the profits to the artisans.
In 1946, by then living in Pennsylvania, she founded an organization that became Ten Thousand Villages, the originator of the fair-trade movement, according to the Fair Trade Federation.
Several items on this page are from Ten Thousand Villages, which opened a shop in downtown Overland Park 14 years ago. It is one of hundreds of such stores in North America that sell merchandise from artisans from 38 countries.
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“We are the Kansas City area’s only 100 percent fair-trade shop,” says Karen Greenwood, volunteer coordinator and assistant manager at the store. “Not only do we pay a fair wage to our artisans, but we have long-term relationships with them. We are a socially just, job-creation program.”
The Overland Park shop, she notes, actually carries the wares of artisans from 45 countries because it works with other fair-trade vendors in addition to those that have partnered with the Ten Thousand Villages company.
“Over 70 percent of our artisans are women. In a lot of areas of the world, women have less access to employment opportunities and fair trade provides a source of income to those women who may not have such access,” Greenwood adds.
In 2010, the staff and volunteers at the local store helped create the Fair Trade Overland Park steering committee to raise awareness about and encourage participation in fair trade. Their goal, Greenwood says, is to get a proclamation from Fair Trade Towns USA that Overland Park is a fair trade town.
“One of the nine principles of fair trade is to promote the practice,” Greenwood says. “So we’re not like a traditional organization in that we want fair trade competition.”
The committee also works to persuade churches, offices and schools to serve fair-trade commodities such as coffee and chocolate in their cafeterias and break rooms and at meetings.
One of the more interesting ways the local effort has had an impact, Greenwood says, is that students in the interior design program at Johnson County Community College recently redecorated the offices of Windmill Eye Associates using fair-trade handicrafts, which not only served as a tool for educating their clients but also illustrated the beauty of the products.