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Fair Trade Pioneer: Edna Ruth Byler

by Sumaya Steele

One of the key developments towards improving conditions for workers in developing countries was the beginning of the fair trade movement. Fair trade, when companies in developed countries pay producers in developing countries a fair wage for their work, sufficient to meet their everyday needs like food, education and healthcare, has grown greatly. Today, fair trade has grown into a global movement with numerous fair trade organisations (FTOs) established to ensure sustainable prices, protect workers’ rights, including safe working environments and the prohibition of child labour.

But where did this movement originate? While it is difficult to pinpoint exactly when the earliest act took place, many academics believe American entrepreneur Edna Ruth Byler to be one of the first people in history to engage in fair trade.

Edna Ruth Byler, active member of the Mennonite community, met women who produced fine quality needlework on linen on a trip to Puerto Rico with her husband. On talking to these women, she realised they did not have a place to sell it. Inspired to take action, she took these items back home to America, and began selling to neighbours and friends.

Mennonite Central Committee (MCC), an aid and relief agency, realised the importance of what she was doing, and began to support her efforts through enabling her travels to other countries, including India and Jordan.

By the 1950s, she was driving her car, packed with needlework from all around the world, to women’s sewing groups and friends across the country. She spread awareness of the value of the purchases, and explained how they contributed to the economic independence of previously impoverished women, and helped them support their families.

In 1962, her project was taken on by the MCC and named the Overseas Needlework and Crafts Project. In 1996, it was renamed Ten Thousand Villages. The vision and heart of people like Edna Byler, known as the ‘Needlework Lady’, were exactly what was needed to kick-start this valuable movement.