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Pop-Up Store Sells Goods With a Conscience

By Camilo Smith
Published: Sunday, December 07, 2008, at 10:32PM
GWC Fair Trade Popup Camilo Smith

Figurines on display at the Garment Worker Center's Fair Trade Pop-Up store.

Many Downtowners may not be aware that Los Angeles is considered the sweatshop capital of the U.S. with it's 4,000 garment factories. The group which makes that claim is the labor-rights non-profit Garment Worker's Center. The organization is hoping to add to its fundraising budget through a pop-up store that helps fight sweatshop conditions.

Sound like a novel-enough idea? The store's located on Los Angeles Street, in the Fashion District.

Mr. Ellie Pooh, a popular selling line of stationary products made in Sri Lanka, was created to raise funds to help ease the elephant and agriculture clash that's endangering the elephant population there. GWC organizer Kimi Lee, also points out that the product addresses sustainable-use issues and consumption of paper.

"The Fair Trade movement has a more sustainable holistic approach," Lee said of the products, many of which also uses natural dies in their coloring. "When you talk about globalization, it's not just the workers, it's also the environment."

The store, which opened its doors to the public this weekend, offers housewares, jewelry, children's toys, and fashion accessories bought wholesale from Ten Thousand Villages, a unique organization that operates under fair trade principles to support artisan collectives around the world. Most of the products come from such collectives in Bangladesh, Chile, Sri Lanka, Zimbabwe and Peru.

Groups such as Ten Thousand Villages seek to counter the problem of sweatshop conditions that develop when factories compete by submitting the lowest bids, resulting in minuscule wages paid to workers. "The problem with Free Trade export zones is that they take over the local economy," said Lee, whose mother labored in Burma's notorious garment industry.

"Garment workers make around $3.28 an hour" in Los Angeles, according to Lee. "You're not going to find fair trade goods at Target or Walmart," she said. And although the lower prices at those big box stores are attractive in this time of financial crisis and customers to the pop-up store can expect to pay a little more, the satisfaction comes in knowing you're helping out. "You can have consumers support workers rights."

Lee, who was born in Burma but grew up in San Francisco, concedes that a pop-up store plays on the notions of trendy consumer culture. "Living in the U.S. -- there's the consumption part of our lives, it's part of our culture. With this pop-up store, we're trying to infiltrate that."

Lee has been with the center for eight years, and comes from a background that's very close to the workers right's issue. "My mom was a garment worker."

The Fair-Trade Pop-Up Store is located at 1250 S. Los Angeles and runs through Thursday, December 11. Store hours are Mon, Tues, Thurs: 10am-7pm; Weds: 10am-2pm

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