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The Basement Beginnings of the Fair Trade Movement

Edna Ruth Byler sale

In 1946, Edna Ruth Byler stockpiled a small inventory of needlework sewn by Puerto Rican women in her central Pennsylvania basement. She began selling the products to friends and neighbors from the trunk of her car.

Edna had visited Puerto Rico as part of her duties with a Mennonite relief and development organization. Stunned by the poverty the women were living in and impressed by the quality of their work, she decided to help them work their way out of poverty by turning their talent into income.

Edna Ruth Byler

                                Edna Ruth Byler

Over the next few years, she tirelessly volunteered her time and gave her money to the project.  Edna began to expand her offerings with products from artisans in other countries, all the while educating her community about the artisans’ lives as she sold their products.

Eventually the business grew too big for the trunk of her car, so she opened a small gift shop in her home.  Six years later, her basement project had grown to become the Overseas Needlepoint and Crafts Project, which the Mennonite Central Committee eventually adopted as an official program.

 

Many parallel and closely related efforts began to spring up over the next couple of decades. Non-Governmental Organizations (NGOs) and socially motivated individuals in countries throughout the world saw the need to provide advice, assistance, and support to disadvantaged producers.

Edna-Ruth-Byler-at-Fairfield-1968

                                                       Edna Ruth Byler at her gift shop.

But it was Edna Ruth Byler’s efforts that many consider to be the beginning of the fair trade movement.  Her first craft sale—which brought in only 50 cents–eventually became Ten Thousand Villages, now a $20 million global network of social entrepreneurs working to empower and provide economic opportunities to artisans in developing countries.

Sources: Fair Trade, by Jacqueline DeCarlo and Ten Thousand Villages

 

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