Wake-up call

Jan 18, 2006 at 12:00 am

The "always low prices" of Wal-Mart economics often mean turning a blind eye to the social and ecological costs of labor exploitation and environmental abuse, here and around the world. But some consumers and proprietors are beginning to wake up, and to search for a more a more holistic approach to the link between production and consumption.

Two such people are Mike and Denise Kitchen, owners of the recently opened Waking Up store at Universal Mall, on 12 Mile and Dequindre roads in Warren.

Waking Up features sweatshop-free, environmentally friendly clothing and accessories for men and women, produced by such brands as Hemptown and No Sweat. They also carry progressive books, CDs and DVDs. All products are made outside of sweatshops with a living wage, with sustainability preferred — meaning that employees who produced the goods have decent working conditions and pay, and that the materials are either naturally grown without pesticides or leave a light footprint on the environment. (Hot pick: Daya outdoor fitness shoes made of vegan leather — a synthetic substitute — and recycled materials for $28.)

The Waking Up store opened at the beginning of December, and its socially and ecologically responsible theme carries through to nearly every aspect of the business. All promotional materials are printed on recycled paper, and the store's plastic shopping bags are made from recycled milk bottles. The phone system comes from a company that's 100 percent wind-powered. The store's Web site (wakingupstore.com) is hosted by a service based in California that uses solar power. Even the display mannequins are made from recycled materials by a union shop in Sturgis, Mich.

"We actually found the mannequins on the Internet through a company in Australia," Mike Kitchen says. It was only after contacting the company to place an order that they learned the items were coming from just down I-94 instead of the other side of the world.

Location, location, location?

Universal Mall might seem to be an odd place for a store with such a progressive rationale. With an occupancy rate that's about half-empty and declining, the mall looks like it's ready for bed instead of a wake-up call. Indeed, the Kitchens, who live in St. Clair Shores, at first considered other areas.

"We were looking at Royal Oak and Ferndale, and also along Maple Road in the stretch between Good Foods and Whole Foods in Troy," Kitchen says. "But they were all expensive."

At one point, they were closing in on a spot near Good Foods, but the lease terms got less appealing as negotiations got more serious. Then the Universal Mall opportunity came up.

"Most malls want only franchises," Kitchen says. "But Universal Mall has a high percentage of independents."

Universal's management company showed the Kitchens an 1,800-square-foot space in the middle of the mall, which is anchored by two chain stores, Burlington Coat Factory and Value City, and includes a multiplex and a food court.

It was more affordable than any of the other places the Kitchens had looked at, and was already set up for apparel retail, with changing rooms and display racks.

But the clincher was the month-to-month rental arrangement that allows first-time entrepreneurs to wet their feet without signing a long-term commitment.

Mall foot traffic didn't figure so much into the equation. "We've been working with the idea that our core customers will seek us out," Kitchen says. Waking Up has an ad on Air America radio that Kitchen says has been pretty effective. Much promotion has been word-of-mouth through places like the community billboard at Whole Foods.

"We've had some people who just walked in and have gotten it, and said, 'What's this doing here?'" Kitchen says.

The politics of personal consumption

Kitchen's path to enlightened entrepreneur was roundabout. After graduating from Eastern Michigan University in 1984 with an accounting degree, he went to work crunching numbers for Cadillac. It was a respectable gig with a good salary — but what he really wanted was to write. In 1993, Kitchen left his day job to follow his dream. "I wrote three unpublished — and unpublishable — novels," he says.

Then he applied to law school. "I wasn't politically aware at that point," he says.

His "waking-up" moment came when a buddy he talked hockey with over the Internet sent Kitchen a Rush Limbaugh quote out of the blue. "I had never listened to Rush Limbaugh, though I knew he stood for things I didn't agree with," Kitchen says. "But in order to respond to the guy I needed to figure out the right way to articulate what I believed, which meant having to get smarter about things."

He got involved in the more personal side of politics when he started attending Renaissance Unity church in Warren, led at the time by Marianne Williamson, author of such books as A Course in Miracles: Reclaiming Our Voices as Spiritual Citizens. Williamson had started a racial healing group and she asked for volunteers to help collect interviews for Detroit Councilwoman Erma Henderson's life story. "I was waiting to hear about law school and had done some writing," Kitchen says. "I thought it was something I could do to help out." He ended up working with Henderson on writing her biography and is credited on the book, which was published last spring right as Kitchen finished his law degree.

When he didn't pass the bar exam, Kitchen decided to try something completely different. He and his wife had been moving toward progressive ideals and lifestyles, and thought the time might be right for a business catering to like-minded people.

"Organic businesses have been growing 20 to 25 percent a year," Kitchen says. "I knew clothing would be coming along, and the only place you could get it was over the Internet."

He wrote a business plan and put some financing together, and attended conventions like the Green Business Conference in Washington, D.C., last November. He began building a network of suppliers. Denise Kitchen (who teaches computer-aided design full-time at Anchor Bay High) designed the Waking Up logo and other promotional materials, and built the Web site. Waking Up was off and running by mid-November and had its grand opening on Dec. 2, 2005.

A potential hotbed

Despite the Kitchens' initial reservations, in many ways Universal Mall is a viable location for an experiment in progressive commerce. It's relatively close to the hip shopping districts of Ferndale and Royal Oak, and conveniently located just off the I-696/I-75 interchange. The mall's cut-rate economics and apparent flexibility create a hospitable environment for some risk-taking. Add to that the highly Democratic, blue-collar neighborhoods surrounding the shopping center, and there's potentially the making of a consumer demographic akin to the "Teamsters and Turtles" coalition of the Battle of Seattle in 1999, when union organizers and fair-trade activists joined with environmental groups to promote social justice and ecological sustainability.

The Waking Up store is a fitting outlet for pro-union and eco-conscious consumers, and it sure beats forking over hard-earned cash to the evil spawn of Sam Walton.

So whether you're looking for the good of mankind and the future of the planet (or just an affordable pair of vegan leather sandals) Waking Up offers a fresh — and green — alternative.

Vince Carducci writes about art and culture for Metro Times. Send comments to [email protected]