July 3, 2020

Ten Thousand Villages Canada is closing

All across Canada, the doors are closing on an emporium of ethically sourced wares.

The demise of Ten Thousand Villages, the sole national retail chain specializing in fair-trade goods, is a bitter cup for staff and volunteers at the social enterprise and its parent organization, the Mennonite Central Committee Canada.

The global fair trade movement, which seeks to pay workers in developing countries well and foster their welfare, began in part because American Mennonite Central Committee worker Edna Ruth Byler launched the initiative that later became Ten Thousand Villages — “Villages” — in the ’40s.

The American Villages chain will begin shipping to Canada when the Canadian company ceases sales at the end of May. Up to seven independently owned locations that carry the Villages name will stay open. But 15 other stores will be or have already been shuttered forever — and with them, an outlet for goods from the developing world that bring dignity to those who make them, and an end to many memories and dreams for those who were their champions.

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The Ten Thousand Villages store at 80 King St. S. in Waterloo is closed for the COVID-19 quarantine and was set to shut its doors for good May 26. Inside, the store is the bright, uncluttered white of modern interior design, not the filled-to-the-brim busyness one might expect of a vendor dealing in artisan wares from the world over.

Perhaps the contrast serves to accentuate and draw attention to the earthy or vibrant craftsmanship of the pieces on display. Ceramics, colourful duvet covers made of up-cycled saris, bookends made of bike chains shaped like bicycles. The space is half store, half art gallery. And like an art gallery, there’s a story and a style — traditional or discovered — behind every work.

Handmade rugs fill the Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo showroom in May 2018
Handmade rugs fill the Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo showroom in May 2018.
Matthew Kok

Villages purchasing director Kristen Fromm — tall, spectacled, a 38-year-old mother and the woman who liaises with suppliers in the developing world — recounted some of those stories in an interview in a Kitchener café before the pandemic.

“To see a silk scarf be made from start to finish is mind blowing,” Fromm said. She recalled Indian craftsmen in pairs painting great lengths of silk through a patterned screen, with silk suspended like banners to dry, in a small workshop associated with Kolkata (Calcutta) supplier the Craft Resource Center. Then, to soften the silk, a worker hammered it with a heavy wooden mallet, beating it as a blacksmith would steel, beating it like the poverty that surrounds.

“This guy’s arms were huge, the mallet was so heavy, and they just have to pound the heck out of this silk to soften it all down, and then they wash it and it’s good to go. And so when you buy a silk scarf in the store for 40 bucks (and) you’re like, ‘It’s beautiful!’ then you’re like, ‘Whoah, whoah, whoah — do you know how much work went into that? That’s insane!’”

Workers at a Craft Resource Center-associated workshop in India prepare to paint silk using a patterned screen
Workers at a Craft Resource Center-associated workshop
in India prepare to paint silk using a patterned screen.
Ten Thousand Villages Canada
Painted silk and patterned screen in a Craft Resource Centre-associated workshop in India
Painted silk and a patterned screen lie next to each other
in a Craft Resource Centre-associated workshop in India.
Ten Thousand Villages Canada

While in Ahmedabad, India, Fromm said she saw a septuagenarian Catholic nun laugh at two women bringing in hand-stitched embroidery bought by outlets like Ten Thousand Villages. This nun would rip out any stitches that weren’t good enough and demand they be redone.

“We were just gut-wrenched,” said Fromm, “’cause this stuff was beautiful.”

But Sister Lucia wasn’t laughing at the ladies’ stitching. No, she was laughing because they’d said they’d rather re-stitch it themselves than tell their mother-in-law her sewing needed work!

Sister Lucia records embroidering work in a pay ledger at St. Mary's Mahila Shikshan Kendra in India
Sister Lucia records embroidery work in a pay ledger at
St. Mary’s Mahila Shikshan Kendra in Ahmedabad, India.
Ten Thousand
Villages Canada

Fromm also recalled the streets of Moradabad, a city Indians call Pital Nagri, Brass City, awash with the clatter and ring of hammered metal from every open door.

“Some of the metalwork that they do, it looks machine made and (yet) it’s all done by hand.” (Though Moradabad does have machine shops too.)

The city is home to Noah’s Ark International Exports, a fair-trade business founded in 1986 to better the lot of metalworkers. Noah’s Ark makes Villages’ bike-chain bookends (from recycled chains) and other metal wares. It employs hundreds in diverse industries in northern India and furnishes workers and families with shared profits, potable water, medical checkups and schooling through an accompanying non-governmental organization (NGO), says their website.

It supplies multiple fair-trade resellers. It’s a textbook example of the way fair trade is meant to work.

“It is not just selling things for the sake of selling things,” Waterloo store assistant manager Janna Cressman said in an interview, “but the heart behind it is helping these artisans in developing countries have sustainable livelihoods.” She’s travelled to multiple developing countries for a Christian missional organization.

“I’ve seen how a lot of people in the world live very, very differently than we do here and I know the impact that a fair wage makes in someone’s life in developing countries.”

She related a story of travel in Kenya. Her Nairobi hostel gave her a new soap every day. She gave them to a Kenyan friend, whose mother in the country was usually without soap.

Cressman’s friend had moved to the city for work. But work in Nairobi is ever so precarious: odd jobs, stints — day labour, the wages too often defaulted on.

“I often think of my friend … when I think about fair trade and I think what a steady job for her, being paid a consistent wage, how that would drastically change her life.”

That situation is common globally. A January 2020 International Labour Organization report states, “All too often, the lack of income or other means of financial support compels workers to engage in jobs that are informal, offer low pay and provide little or no access to social protection and rights at work.” About two billion people work without formal employment or business status.

What’s more, “In 2019, more than 630 million workers worldwide – that is, almost one in five, or 19 per cent, of all those employed – did not earn enough to lift themselves and their families out of extreme or moderate poverty; which is defined as them earning less than US$3.20 per day in purchasing power parity terms.”

Fair-trade handicrafts on display in the Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo store
These fair-trade handicrafts on display in the Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo
store in February 2020 meant decent livelihoods for craftsworkers overseas.
Emily Shields

Ten Thousand Villages seeks to amend such poverty and precariousness by buying developing-world artisans’ wares and showing regard for workers’ wages. It isn’t run for profit. Many of its frontline retail staff are volunteers. Villages is accredited by the World Fair Trade Organization, one of multiple international fair trade certifiers or associations.

Fromm emphasized the importance of the sustainable income a fair-trade relationship implies, permitting artisans to budget for food, their children’s education, home improvement and commercial investments, and the unquantifiable empowerment work provides, especially for women, women whose lives often have been characterized by struggle.

“You look at these families — and some of them have by our standards nothing — compared to their neighbours or others working in the local economy, not in a fair-trade model, they have so much more; they might have four brick walls or two brick walls instead of none. That’s in the poorest situation. But they’re so happy and they’re so joyous and they feel so empowered and they know they have the sustainability of this income, which is huge.”

Women embroider at St. Mary's Mahila Shikshan Kendra in India. They’re able to work from home, but twice-weekly trips to St. Mary’s lead to welcome socializing
Women embroider at St. Mary’s Mahila Shikshan Kendra in India. They’re able to
work from home, but twice-weekly trips to St. Mary’s lead to welcome socializing.
Ten Thousand Villages Canada

Rick Cober Bauman, executive director of the Mennonite Central Committee Canada (MCC), likewise remarked on Villages’ influence in a phone interview.

“In some communities (Villages) has been the major contributor to some economic independence for our artisans. And in a number of communities that’s meant access to school, to health care. It’s often had a particularly strong impact on women, especially women who were able to work in their own home but still contribute significantly to their family income. So we worked very hard to have community-based, broad-based impact, women focused often. And I think we were successful, Villages (was) successful in doing that in many, many communities.”

Villages’ 2016-2017 annual report says it helped support 20,000 artisans. The most recent annual report — for the year ending March 31, 2019 — says it spent almost $2.7 million on purchases, especially craft goods from south and southeast Asia and foodstuffs like coffee, tea and chocolate. Villages lists 98 artisanal goods suppliers across 29 countries on its website.

To work or volunteer with Villages, Cober Bauman observed, “meant a very visceral, practical connection to people whose livelihood was hugely improved and impacted by Villages’ product being sold in Canada.”

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Yet to practise fair trade, as a deliberate disruption of the inequities of the world market, requires bearing costs.

“It’s a difficult model to manage,” said Fromm. 

It’s a World Fair Trade Organization principle to pay 50 per cent of a product’s cost up front if requested. Villages pays the rest on shipment. Though stipulating she’d never want to abandon the practice, Fromm pointed out it leaves many months of production time, oceanic shipment time, receiving time — half a year or more — before the outlay can be recouped.

“Every fair-trade retailer I talk to, that’s the biggest challenge, is making sure that you can manage that prepayment and that final payment before you get their product, and what you need is those sales in between to keep your business strong and going.”

Of course, retail sales peak in November and December. Fromm made Christmas orders in February, months ahead of time.

Nativities tell the story of Jesus' birth at Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo in December 2019
Nativities tell the story of Jesus’ birth at the Ten
Thousand Villages store in Waterloo in December 2019.
Emily Shields

But the reason Villages cites for its decline is the elusiveness of the consumer.

In Villages’ Jan. 22 press release announcing its closure, Cober Bauman said, “With dramatic changes in the Canadian retail landscape and consumer habits, our retail model is no longer viable.”

By phone, he elaborated that while causes are difficult to measure, “One only has to watch mainstream news to see almost every week there’s another retailer, or a couple, that are either closing Canadian operations or dramatically scaling back. So there is that whole major disruption in the way retail happens in Canada and absolutely that’s a factor for us. Some of that is people moving to online shopping, some of it is people, you know — the short form that you hear often is people are buying experiences, not stuff” — this despite the fact “Villages had story attached to every product.”

Indeed, Retail Insider said in January it “counts well over 700 (retail) store locations that will be closing or have recently closed in this country, with news coming in daily that more stores and chains will be shuttering.”

Villages already made large-scale closures of 10 stores each in 2013 and 2017-2018. A chart of sales revenue from March 2011 to March 2019, drawn from annual reports, shows corresponding sharp declines in sales in the years ending 2014 and 2019, though Villages experienced a modest recovery up to March 2017. In March 2017 and 2018, the then-CEO, Holly deGraaf, reported reduced foot traffic, and in the most recent report, interim CEO Brent Zorgdrager said sales gains in the independent stores, online and in wholesale “were more than offset by a larger decline in the sales through our company stores.”

Graph of Ten Thousand Villages Canada sales, artisan purchases and e-commerce revenue 2011-2019

In a way, the closure of the Ten Thousand Villages chain in Canada can be seen as another, larger, contraction, as seven independently owned branded stores are slated to remain open. (They are in Abbotsford, B.C., Edmonton and Calgary, Steinbach and Brandon, Man., and Port Colborne and Cobourg, Ont., but patrons should check Villages’ website for the latest information.)

Derrick Cunningham, a part-time high school teacher in Brighton, Ont., has managed the Cobourg store for seven years; he helped found it in 2009. Contrasting with the corporate trend, he said in a phone interview his store has “had expanding sales for I think all but two of our 10 years.” Christmas-season sales are steady and the store has seen a “huge boon in sales” from taking over pop-up sales events in other towns — Simcoe, Aylmer, Barrie and North Bay — events the central enterprise largely shed by 2018.

“Our community has very much been supportive in sustaining us in the actual brick-and-mortar store while we go out and take product on the road to other sales and customers.”

Villages Cobourg’s success comes in a community of only 19,000, compared to 105,000 for Waterloo and 535,000 for Waterloo Region, as of the 2016 census.

Cunningham speculated that brand awareness and investment in the store’s mission, fostered by fundraising sales held to support community partners and percolating through a small market, has made Villages Cobourg a downtown anchor. Many of those fundraisers, with proceeds shared, are held outside of Cobourg, spreading awareness; shoppers from nearby Peterborough, where the store partners with Trent University and Fleming College, are common.

“All that outreach and that partnership has been huge to get people coming into the store and to boost sales and to boost (partners’) fundraising,” he suggested.

In a press release headlining its ongoing operations, Villages Calgary also referred to heavy community involvement, though it didn’t cite reasons for its success. Its 60 volunteers, it said, hold chocolate tastings, community arts celebrations and an annual rug emporium.

“They are also active in many elementary, junior and senior high schools in Calgary as they teach students more about the positive effects of ethical consumerism in the lives of makers around the world,” the release said.

Cunningham believes the faithfulness of Villages Cobourg’s patrons is driven by charity.

“I think that human desire to help those who are less fortunate, particularly in this case in developing countries, given all our good fortune and affluence in North America. … that’s why I think people have been so supportive of us here, because I think they enjoy participating (in) that and knowing that something good is being done with their dollars that they’re using to shop.”

In a phone interview, Wilfrid Laurier University marketing professor Chun Qiu placed Villages’ closure in the context of the broader retail decline and proposed a generational difference as a primary explanation.

“Buying stuff gives people two fundamental values: first one, to fulfill their shopping requirements; the other one is the experience of buying stuff. And the thing (is) that the new generations of consumers gradually reduce their reliance on the second source for value. They don’t think (the) shopping experience is as important as before, because they value other types of experience than (the) shopping experience. Older generations, on the other hand, value (the) shopping experience. They want to have this kind of physical touch, want to get to know where the merchandise comes from, stories behind those merchandise, and then (whether) the price is right and fair.”

So younger shoppers may prefer the convenience of internet shopping. Villages established itself online with a web store, whose sales grew 351 per cent over the eight years charted above and made up just under 20 per cent of total sales in the 2018-2019 year.

Yet there, too, Villages faced an inherent dilemma, according to Qiu: it neither has a large consumer base nor sells frequent-purchase items, one of which is necessary for an online store to survive. Home-decor items like Villages sells are both common online and infrequent, impulse buys.

Pieces displayed at Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo in Feb. 2020, including tree designs made from oil drums by workers associated with Comité Artisanal Haïtien in Haiti
Pieces displayed at Ten Thousand Villages Waterloo in February 2020, including tree designs
made from oil drums by workers associated with Comité Artisanal Haïtien in Haiti.
Emily Shields

Anecdotally, Janna Cressman said younger visitors to the Waterloo store (perhaps students from the nearby universities and Conestoga College campus) tended to browse, not buy.

Cunningham also identified Villages’ decline with retail’s trials and the sector’s shift online: “When you get people directed to fair trade and you get them in the store and they can understand what it’s all about, then they tend to come back. But to get them there amidst all the chaos and noise of all the other places competing for the retail dollar, it’s been the big problem, I think, over time.”

Cober Bauman said that by deliberately nurturing artisans’ marketability for their independence’s sake, Villages may have “helped create our own competition.”

Yet, he said, “I think that rich ecosystem now of fair-trade marketers and retailers is, even while Villages is closing, one of the positive legacies of Ten Thousand Villages.”

Cunningham offered a like sentiment: whereas 20 or 25 years ago, Ten Thousand Villages in Canada and the United States might have been an artisan groups’ sole customer, now many prominent groups have actualized the World Fair Trade Organization principle of capacity building.

“Artisan groups have webpages, they have glossy magazines, they attend fair trade conferences and consumer shows in North America and Europe to display their product. So they’re no longer just selling to Ten Thousand Villages; they have a whole customer base that takes their product on a regular basis and is creating more work and more jobs over time, building that capacity.”

He said, “I see that as a silver lining, that fair trade did work even though the place that originated it can’t continue it.”

The Canadian Fair Trade Network lists 144 fair-trade brands and stores on its website, from Balzac’s Coffee Roasters, where Fromm sat down for an interview, or Settlement Coffee Roasters, in Kitchener, Waterloo and Ayr, to Nepalese-knit woollen clothes purveyor Laundromat Fair Trade, which stocks other apparel stores and sells online, or Pure Art, which sells a variety of wares, like Villages, from a single store in Quebec and online. (The list is not necessarily current.) A large proportion are coffee and tea vendors, though there are a number of chiefly web stores selling clothing or other goods.

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“People are very, very sad that we’re closing,” said Janna Cressman. “I’ve been surprised by the outpour from people who are so upset.” She said it’s a reminder there are indeed fair-trade stalwarts among consumers.

Cobourg customers are relieved their store will remain open, Cunningham said.

But as Canadian fair trade loses its vanguard, it’s likely Villages staff and volunteers who have the most to mourn this side of the tossing seas.

“Everything about my job is amazing,” decade-and-a-half-veteran Fromm at one point remarked.

Cunningham, whose role continues, said, “It’s been so much fun. It’s been such a great journey and meeting so many people, especially when we acquired some of these far-reaching festival sales that we now do. … It’s like now a new extended family in southwestern Ontario; it’s really lovely to meet all these people who are so enthusiastic about fair trade.”

Cressman, who was only hired last June, said, “I’m really sad that my time here is going to be so short. I feel like I was just finally getting into the rhythm of working here and was excited for the future and (manager) Emily (Shields) and I were planning and dreaming and had all these ideas. So it’s sad and I’m feeling very sad that my time here will be wrapping up and I — don’t know what’s next, which is scary.”

Perhaps Cober Bauman spoke Villages Canada’s elegy best:

“From leadership in MCC, we want to express a huge message of gratitude to those artisans who trusted working through MCC and Ten Thousand Villages these decades as a way of growing their community capacity. They chose to work with us and we’re very, very grateful for that. And Villages would not have been what it was without the trust and engagement and investment from those artisan groups. Same to shoppers, loyal shoppers, decades long, people who were really committed to fair trade as a principle, willing to invest in it over and over. Our staff and our volunteers, the same, deep commitment, long commitment, broad commitment, and there is for sure a loss there, and it’s in all of these settings that we want to remind ourselves and all of these other communities across the globe that even as Villages Canada closes, there is a huge and lasting legacy and impact in the marketplace and in the fair trade marketplace especially.”

Before COVID-19 disrupted operations, the last corporate Villages stores in Canada were set to close by the end of May.

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