A friend and I did some shopping yesterday, including a stop at Ten Thousand Villages, which prominently announced underneath its name: “A Not For Profit Store.” This being my first time, I asked my friend, “So, then, what’s the point?” The apparent point is that the money they would make as a profit gets passed along to the people in various developing countries who make the products, so these suppliers make more money than they would otherwise.
Of course, a store with this mission could conduct itself by acting just like a for-profit business, only instead of distributing its profits to its owners passing that money back up the supply chain. However, one way the store makes more money than it otherwise might is that it is staffed by volunteers, and so it operates with lower labor costs. And, of course, the store is able to attract progressively-minded customers and get them to pay a greater markup than they otherwise might because it allows us to spend some of our–in the great scheme of things, let’s be honest, ridiculously undeserved–wealth buying unneeded material goods for others in a way that makes us feel like we are doing something positive for the world. My presumption is that this last source of profit is much greater than the first two for how much money the enterprise is ultimately able to give back to its suppliers in the developing world.
I bought a curio for a friend. The store also sells holiday cards, and I was tempted to buy one and write inside “I could have just given $20 in your name to charity, but instead I got you a $20 knick-knack that you don’t need in the hope that maybe $3 more of it gets back to the person who made it than otherwise would. And let’s face it: you prefer that I got you the knick-knack, and so would I. Sick, is what we are. Sick, bloated and spoiled.”
I might have been in an extra surly mood when thinking about Ten Thousand Villages because much of the time we were there a couple of the volunteers were doing this drumming in back. It’s such an unfair stereotype that if you are a bourgeois-bohemian liberal you like to hear drumming while you shop. I admit I did say to my friend, “You know, if this store was for-profit, a manager would go back and get those people to stop that godforsaken drumming.”
In general, the volunteers looked wildly, perhaps even flamboyantly, inefficient, but of course nobody minded because they were volunteers. Indeed, their inefficiency served to remind you of their volunteer-hood, and thereby remind you of the mission of the store, and so maybe actually worked to increase sales.
By the register, they were selling these imported chocolates for a quarter. They also had a free plate of chocolates a few feet away. I paid a quarter and bought a chocolate. My friend looked at me like I was crazy and took a chocolate from the plate. “Why would I take a chocolate for free if the idea is supposed to be giving people a fair price for what they produce? Why the hell are they even giving away free chocolate?”