(image: Karen Robinson)

When you think Walmart, chances are you think big boxes and big brands. But in an about face, Walmart has announced plans to feature locally sourced handmade products created by women in nearly two dozen developing countries. 

The move is part of Walmart’s Global Women’s Economic Empowerment Initiative – a five-year commitment to increase sourcing from women-owned businesses, empower women through job training and education, and invest $100 million in philanthropic grants to women’s empowerment programming.

Beginning in Spring 2012, Walmart.com will feature the new artisanal products sourced from women who work in cooperatives and own small businesses. The first round of products will include jewelry from Guatemala, Thailand and Ethiopia; coffee from Central and South America; and dresses from Kenya.

Watch social entrepreneur Puifung Leung talk about the huge benefits of fairly sourcing tea, coffee and chocolate from developing countries.

The challenge for small women-owned businesses – and particularly women artisans – is that they have a fantastic product, but they may not have the size or scale to sell in our brick-and-mortar stores,” Leslie Dach, Walmart’s executive vice president of Corporate Affairs, said.

By 2016, the e-commerce site will feature about 500 items – from apparel and jewelry, to stationery and accessories – by more than 20,000 women in nearly two dozen countries.

This commitment today gives these women access to an established set of customers on Walmart.com, as well as the benefit of the company’s knowledge about customers, packaging and promotions,” Dach said.

Walmart plans to procure some products from Ethical Fashion Africa and Full Circle Exchange, a program within the International Trade Centre (a joint agency of the U.N. and the World Trade Organization.) 

Will Walmart’s initiative make a difference for women in developing countries and lead to more ethical trade practices?