How Ten Thousand Villages Is Surviving the Retail Apocalypse

Amid of thousands of store closures across the country, maker-to-market store Ten Thousand Villages is expanding across the Philadelphia region and connecting shoppers to a sustainable global market.

A Ten Thousand Villages store | Courtesy photo

Ten Thousand Villages is a global maker-to-market store that boasts more than 50 locations nationwide. The retailer prides itself on its fair trade practices, sustainability efforts and commitment to fostering cultural exchange. Ten Thousand Villages operates by buying and selling the traditional crafts of partner artisans and makers, particularly women, from 30 countries. With this model, each product and purchase helps artisans earn a fair living wage.

Despite the nationwide retail slump, Ten Thousand Villages continues to expand its presence online and through brick and mortar stores. With two new stores in Pennsylvania this year — one in Bryn Mawr and in Center City — a third location will open in Glen Mills this holiday season. BizPhilly sat down with Gordon Zook, CEO of Ten Thousand Villages, to learn more about how the store reduces its ecological footprint, connects with global artisans and continues to open storefronts.

Why did Ten Thousand Villages decide to open another location in the Philadelphia region?
We are committed to maintaining a space in the North American marketplace on behalf of artisans who would otherwise be excluded from the global economy. We focused on finding locations where we can join thriving retail communities like those in Bryn Mawr and Glen Mills.

And how exactly does Ten Thousand Villages thrive with over 50 branded stores in the wake of what appears to be a retail apocalypse, the decline of brick and mortar retail?
Consumers are becoming increasingly aware of the implications of climate change and how our purchasing habits affect the people who make what we buy. So we’ve seen a shift towards shopping more ethically and sustainably. Some brands are trying to catch up with this cultural shift but putting people and planet first has been Ten Thousand Villages’ primary purpose from the very beginning.

Our brick and mortar stores give shoppers a place to connect with artisans and their cultures, and to experience their craftsmanship in person. They are a place to learn about the impact our purchases can make, and to become part of a global solution. I think consumers are looking for opportunities to connect with others in an authentic way; that has always been part of our mission and continues to be our strength.

What can Philadelphians take away from global artisans?
In over seventy years of working with global artisans, we have seen firsthand how impactful long-term fair trade relationships are for artisan families and their communities. When artisans who would otherwise be excluded from the global economy have the opportunity to earn a fair income, they can put food on the table, send their kids to school, and afford healthcare. We see women become leaders and children grow up healthy and strong. We see communities break the generational cycle of poverty. Philadelphians can learn that when we take part in an inclusive economy, everybody has a chance to flourish.

How does Ten Thousand Villages establish and sustain relationships with artisans?
All our partnerships are with groups in developing countries in regions with limited employment or income generation opportunities. We look for groups that share our commitment to fair trade principles and that are members of organizations like the World Fair Trade Organization so that we have good insight into the reality of their operations. We visit artisan groups regularly to better understand their circumstances and to develop personal relationships. We provide groups with product development and design input to help them build the capacity to handcraft products that will appeal to the North American market.

And how does Ten Thousand Villages decide what will translate into US markets?
We have a team of buyers and designers who collaborate with our artisan partners on new products. They follow trends closely so that they can work together to preserve and honor traditional skills while finding innovative new designs that resonate with the US market.

As a nonprofit, how does paying the artisans in full affect the company’s profits?
As a nonprofit fair-trade retailer, our model is unique. We start with a transparent price agreement where artisans determine a fair price that covers their production costs, operational needs, and living expenses. We ensure that their business model is built on sustainability, that they meet safe working standards and that wages meet or exceed a fair wage in their local context. We pay 50 percent of the order cost up front as an interest-free microfinance loan. This gives artisan workshops the capital to purchase raw materials and pay producers and staff without getting into exploitative debt. Once the products have been produced and are ready to ship, we pay the final 50 percent of the agreed price. Artisans are paid in full before the shipment is exported to the United States. This removes all risk from artisans if products are lost in transit, tariffs rise, or trends change. Once the products arrive and are sold, the profits are reinvested into further purchases from our artisan partners so they can expand their businesses and strengthen their communities and in strengthening our ability to continue our mission.

What types of benefits do long-term buying relationships provide for the artisans?
Consistency and stability enable artisans to plan ahead and to improve their quality of life. They can invest in growing their businesses, save for their future, or pay for their children’s education. Our average buying relationship with artisan groups is over 20 years. This gives us the honor of watching communities thrive and families break the generational cycle of poverty.

How do the Philadelphia-area locations feature sustainable design?
Our designers took sustainability into consideration in every aspect of our new Maker-to-Market spaces in Center City, Bryn Mawr, and Glen Mills. From repurposing shipping crates and vintage items found at Lancaster County community auctions into fixtures and implementing water-based paints and energy conserving lighting, to offering artisan-made reusable shopping bags alongside our 100 percent recycled paper bags and boxes, we have worked hard to reduce our negative environmental impact.