Putting People and Planet First

Since 2016, I am honored to serve on the Ten Thousand Villages Board of Directors. I grew up admiring Ten Thousand Villages.  I started as a volunteer then began working there from 2001- 2007, holding various roles from Buyer to Executive Director.  During the organizations transition to Gordon Zook as CEO, I did a short term as Acting CEO.  During this term,  I contributed to Ten Thousand Villages new brand direction including and our new store environment design and execution.  Here is the recent article published by Forbes magazine on all things Ten Thousand Villages. 

Ten Thousand Villages Mission: Putting People and Plant First since 1946

In this crazy world of retail, I get excited by retailers that are crazier than most. The non-profit Ten Thousand Villages may be one of the craziest. \With some 20 company-operated retail stores and another 40 licensed stores located in tony shopping areas, like the one in Redondo Beach, CA or downtown Boston, Ten Thousand Villages sells ethically-sourced and handcrafted gifts, home decor accents, fashion and jewelry from makers all over the world.

Ten Thousand Villages founded the concept of “fair trade” back in 1946 before anyone knew what it was. Its tagline is “Shop with Intention. Share In the Joy.” It describes itself as “Maker-to-Market,” but unlike other retailers, Villages puts the emphasis on making money for its 20,000 makers in 30 countries rather than the market, though without the later, it can’t help the former.

As a retailer, Ten Thousand Villages’ business mission is a real mission: “Ten Thousand Villages is more than a store. We’re a global maker‑to‑market movement that breaks the cycle of generational poverty and ignites social change.”

It is a partner of the Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), the relief, peace, and service agency for Anabaptist churches known for their Christian pacifism and Biblical nonresistance position. Wherever you find pressing human need in the world, you’ll find Mennonites lending support and aid. Charity is at the core of the Mennonite faith. Throughout this past year, the Ten Thousand Villages board has been in search of a new CEO to continue its mission to help its growing body of makers, mostly women in impoverished parts of the world, earn a living wage, and provide for their families.

Recently, they brought in Gordon Zook from MCC to lead the retailer forward and drive growth for its makers’ products in its stores. Zook holds a Ph.D. in organizational development from Eastern University in St. Davids, PA, and worked for MCC in India, Bangladesh, and Haiti, initially in agricultural projects, then advancing to overall country program management.

Now under Zook’s leadership, Villages will work toward “reclaiming our leadership in the Fair-Trade movement, build momentum as a brand in the Maker-to-Market movement and drive towards results to expand our mission impact,” said board chair Ed Diller in a statement.

Stores tell the stories

To expand Village’s mission impact, it also needs to grow its impact in the retail market. While it has a well-designed and easily searchable e-commerce presence, Zook remains convicted that the company’s mission is best achieved through the in-store experience. “We’re trying to make connections between the people making our products and the people buying them. It’s more than just a transaction,” he says.

The stores are places where customers can touch and feel the products on offer. But more than that, the stores are where the makers’ stories are told through videos, graphic displays and story cards which can be included with items sold that tell about how the makers’ lives are changed, how the product materials are sourced, and the cultural background related to the craft.

In a Ten Thousand Villages store, the people who make the products and the products they made get equal billing, unlike traditional retail where the products are center stage. “It is a way for people to understand each other and their different cultures, but to also showcase the similarities we all share in our lives,” Zook says.

New environmentally-sustainable store model

To add to the in-store shopping experience, as well as to practice what it preaches about doing good for people and the planet, Village’s company-owned stores are slated to get an environmentally-sustainable refresh. Two Philadelphia-area stores in Bryn Mawr and Center City on Walnut St. have opened and a third in Glens Mills will open shortly.

The new sustainable store model will have fixtures made from recycled materials and re-purposed objects found locally. Energy-conserving lights will reduce the store’s carbon footprint and water-based paints will avoid harmful chemicals in the environment. Saying no to plastic, the stores will use only 100% recycled paper bags and boxes, and an eco-wrapping station will be available for customers to wrap their gifts.

“We want to ensure that the values that are used to create the products are also reflected in our stores. Everything we do has a values message,” Zook continues. All the staff are mission-driven, as well. A friendlier or more helpful bunch of people are hard to find in other retail settings.

Retail turned upside-down

In the upside-down retail world that is Ten Thousand Villages, the company aims to pay the most for the products sourced, rather than pay the least. Retail margins are slim because the company pays 50% of the cost up-front when the order is placed, which typically is a year or so before delivery.

“Most of the artisan groups we work with don’t have access to credit, so we are giving them the ability to purchase raw materials and pay labor while the products are being made,” Zook explains, adding that over the last 16 years there has only been one case where products were paid for in advance but never delivered. And that was because of problems beyond the maker’s control. “We have worked with many of our artisans over 25 years. We have built a relationship of trust.”

Of course, its products must sell, so the Village’s buyers watch retail trends closely to marry in-demand product concepts with the capabilities of its artisan makers.

The retail prices must be right, as well, but for that, Ten Thousand Villages relies on locating its stores where the right customers are going to be.

“We look for locations where customers assign the appropriate value to the products that we sell. Our products are not cheap because we are trying to make sure that the people producing them get paid fairly,” Zook adds.

For years Ten Thousand Villages has been my go-to destination whenever I need a gift. It’s a store where I can always find something interesting and different and the prices are affordable. It makes me feel good to know that I am doing good not just for the person I’m buying the gift for but also doing good for the person who made it. And inevitably I find something there to gift myself.

Ten Thousand Villages is a refreshing respite in today’s world of retail where authenticity, meaning, and mission are in short supply. It truly puts people and planet first. Its goal is nothing less than to change the world by helping people help themselves.