Tuesday, March 1, 2011

“Do you want to make the world a better place?” - by Leontiy Korolev

Yes, duh.

“No, I don’t have time to lobby legislatures and am too apathetic to stage a protest.”

That is a sentiment many of us can in one way or another relate to.

But, can we go through our day to day lives without being “activists” and still contribute positively to the world around us? Some people see the world as either black or white, a world where - “you’re either with us or against us.” Realistically, most of us are in the grey, but consumer activism can help us move into the green. Consumer activism-sounds important, but really it’s just the idea of being aware of where your products come from and their affects on the world you live in.

The Village Experience is the exemplary example of a business that has made and will continue to make a positive change in the world.

Anything I write won’t do them justice. So go check out their website and stop by their store. Or, plan your next overseas trip with their socially responsible tourism projects.

There are so many ways to tell you about “The Village Experience.” I could focus on some of their products and trace a beer mug from a Ugandan village to my desk in Indianapolis. Or I could focus on the many environmentally friendly products that “The Village Experience” sells in its Indianapolis store. Or, maybe I could tell you about how this company, run by two sisters (Anne and Kelly Campbell), started out of the back of a car three years ago and has developed into a profitable business that has helped village economies all over the world, literally.

The Village Experience interacts with villages in Uganda, India, Thailand, Kenya, Haiti, Guatemala and parts of the Middle East. I could write about their micro lending, socially driven travel adventures or their efforts to help women rescued from human-trafficking. I could write about the school that they helped open in Mbita, Kenya, the Party Rental Company run by Kenyan locals which rents goods for wedding, school, funerals, etc to its community, or the Mission of Hope Tailoring Project which gives HIV+ women a way to generate income to pay for, among other things, their medicines. I could also focus on one of their driving philosophies, which, paraphrased goes something like this: if you give a person a chicken, you feed them for a day, if you show them how to run a coop, you create a sustainable development project. Of course I could spend an entire article on how businesses such as the Village Experience help combat terrorism by helping communities in developing countries become self sustainable, thus removing much of the motivation that turns people to violence. I guess I kind of just did all of those things. I hope you can understand how hard it is to focus on just one of their efforts, let alone try to put into words the passion, motivation and innovation behind the scenes. The positive affect The Village Experience has had on the world it has interacted with is inspirational, even for the most cynical of us.

Here’s a quick overview of how it works. First, The Village Experience identifies a struggling community overseas. They do this through their own travels and through cooperation with other like minded businesses and organizations. They then identify the most pressing problems faced by that community and decide on the best way to alleviate some of those problems.

Example 1: As Kelly Campbell traveled through Kenya in the midst of post election violence, she came across a camp for internally displaced persons. An assessment of the area showed that the necessary resources needed to create some of the fair trade goods sold at the Indy store were lacking. Consequentially the sisters decided that the best way to help would be to donate money to help displaced Kenyans build homes and learn agricultural techniques. As of today they have been able to raise enough money from Indy donors, the UNHCR, and Friends of Lake Nakuru to help build 250 homes and set up a medical facility.

Example 2: Once upon a time, The Village Experience learned about another struggling Kenyan community. This community however had access to post industrial consumer waste. Amongst the waste, which otherwise would have been burnt, the Village Experience saw an economic opportunity both for itself and for the community. The members of the community were shown how to take that waste and make it into recycled paper necklaces. These necklaces are now sold in Kenya and in the sisters’ store in Indy. They hope to distribute begin distributing this product through larger distributors such as overstock.com.

The majority of the goods sold at the Village Experience are fair trade certified and those that are not are moving in that direction. Those goods that are not certified yet are made by overseas groups that The Village Experience has recently started from scratch. The certification process is expensive and takes several years to complete. Consequentially, the Village Experience would rather get “money into the women’s hands first.” Certification is not a priority, but it is on the agenda. As for the goods that are not  “certified,” I think it’s fair to say that they are well above what most people would consider fair trade:

Cost to make necklace: 25 Cents.

Price per necklace paid to producing community: $5.

On top of the payment for the good itself, the community receives lessons in personal financial management. The Village Experience and the organizations they team up with make sure that half of the money goes into a savings account or investments that will further help the village. For example communities have been able to buy sewing machines which allowed them to diversify the products they produce and bring in more revenue. They also teach the locals how to sell within their community as well as in nearby cities. Finally, they make sure that some of the wages go towards agricultural sustainability within the community, not limited to but including things such as chicken coops, fish farms and gardening projects. projects. (You know how we love local and sustainable food culture here at The Green Elephant.) The earnings from the agricultural products are then used for teacher salaries, medical supplies, etc.

Anyways, to not diverge too far away from the environmental theme, here are a few of their more environmentally driven products: Here are some of the other things they help villages around the world make for our consumption:

bamboo salad bowl from Thailand
blue recycled paper necklaces hand made in Kenya
 tree free journals from the pulp of the lokta plant in Nepal

Both of my parent’s birthday’s are coming up, I know I’ll go back there to pick up a Ugandan made beer mug for my dad, and I’m sure that with some help, I’ll be able to pick out something for my mom.

We all shop. Every product we buy is a choice we make. Every choice we make has consequences. I ask you to make the right choice, do the right thing, help a local business, help the rest of the world!

Find out about some of their projects here

Also, here is good article that provides a more in depth view of the founding sisters

I hope to regularly post information about socially proactive businesses-businesses that are concerned about more than just the bottom line and that make positive social/environmental contributions. In doing so, I hope that people will become more aware of the fact that there are other places to shop besides your typical solely profit driven chain stores. Even in Indiana.

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