Inside the newly opened fair trade store, Global Awakenings, Maren Anderson looks at the children seated around her and asks, "Everything in here is made by?"
"Hands!" the group of mostly five- to 10-year-olds shout back.
To which Anderson, the owner of the King Street shop, then asks, "Which takes more?"
"Time!" the children yell.
"So they deserve more?"
It's simple for a child to understand what's fair, but for adults, after a lifetime of hearing people tell us that "life isn't fair," our hearts harden and we sometimes forget what true fairness is. Which is probably why many of us ignore the fact that all those cheap goods we buy at the local Mega-Lo-Mart were made by unseen hands, belonging to underfed people living on paltry wages in third-world countries.
However, the growing fair trade movement seeks to ensure that those far-off laborers get paid the wages they deserve by urging retailers to purchase goods from co-ops controlled by artisans and farmers, not from those companies who seek to exploit their hard work for a hearty profit.
As a former third-grade teacher at Goodwin Elementary in North Charleston, Anderson often told her students, many of them poor by average American standards, about her time teaching in an "off the map" village in Costa Rica. "There was no electricity or hot water, so no lights or computers, and the floor was dirt," she recalls. "It was one of the ways I'd pump them up, to explain to them that, 'You are so fortunate,' because a lot of times they didn't feel that way."
Anderson says she could see in the children's eyes that they got it and realized she wanted to share that with an even larger audience. With the help and generosity of family and friends, she secured a spot on upper King Street and spent the summer waiting tables, saving money, and renovating the space. She's been open for a month and works daily as the store's only employee.
Global Awakenings' inventory comes to Charleston through co-ops all over the world. These co-ops pay artisans half the value of their products in advance and arrange the international shipping. After Anderson sells an item, she sends money back to the co-ops, who then redistribute payment to the artisans.
Items in Anderson's store range from wind chimes made from bamboo and recycled television antennas to trendy-looking handbags sewn from cloth and foil candy wrappers. It's like a museum where you can take the exhibits home. Each display is accompanied by pictures and descriptions of the artisans. A rack of brightly dyed linen shirts include the maker's signature on the tag, a far cry from the "Inspected by #42" card you might pull from a new pair of Carhartts.
"The retail aspect of this is not my forte, and I'm having to learn," says Anderson. "I want to talk to every person that comes in about fair trade and environmentally friendly products, but I'm trying to adhere to the fact that some people just want to shop and look around."
Education and community are clearly the store's bottom line. In November, Anderson's hosting a program by Mary Baker, a recently returned Peace Corps volunteer from Guatemala, to talk about the humanitarian issues the nation is facing.
"The people in my village work for virtually nothing, less than $80 a month, and they feed eight children on that," says Baker. She explains that ropa Americana (clothes from the U.S.) are far cheaper than making traditional garments and that creating international markets is a way to keep that part of their culture alive.
The Charleston chapter of Roots and Shoots, a global environmental and humanitarian program for youth started by Jane Goodall, also visited the store on a recent Tuesday afternoon. Using skits and games, children learned about fair trade through the story of Olga, a 12-year-old Dominican girl whose father farms cocoa for a co-op.
"We're trying to give kids the idea that they can recycle things and not waste energy or resources," says Charleston's Roots and Shoots founder Wende Reynolds. "Children naturally care about animals, plants, and other people, and we're just trying to keep that going so they don't turn into little consumer demon teenagers."
Anderson's friend Kate Counts, who often volunteers to help her at the store, says, "Maren's an amazing person. Most people would be afraid to invite a bunch of kids into a brand-new store."
Then, almost as if on cue, the sound of glass crashing to the floor emerges from an area of the store where a group of children have gathered. "That was bound to happen," Anderson says with a smile, and opens another brand-new puzzle for them to play with.
While Anderson claims that an average retail store marks up their items around 240 percent from their cost, her markup isn't half of that. "I don't want people to think that buying fair trade means you have to spend more," she says. "That might get me in trouble, but I'm just trying to make sure it's paying the rent and bills, and maybe, eventually, myself."
Anderson's is a fascinatingly unconventional business model. "I'm not money driven. Global Awakenings' mission is to change the minds of everyday consumers," she says. "The ultimate goal is to make enough that I can go and visit the co-ops, and shake the hands of the artisans. I want to meet them so I can better represent them here, and say, 'I know these people.'"
Check out www.coopamerica.org for more on fair trade, and stop by Global Awakenings at 499 King Street to sign up for e-mail about community events hosted by the store.