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Sewing machines lie in piles of clothing and textiles from a garment factory building which collapsed May 2, 2013, in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

, Associated Press

Shoppers face hurdles in finding ethical clothing

  • Article by: ANNE D'INNOCENZIO
  • Associated Press
  • May 6, 2013 - 9:20 AM

You can recycle your waste, grow your own food and drive a fuel-efficient car. But being socially responsible isn’t so easy when it comes to the clothes on your back.

The recent collapse of a garment factory in Bangladesh, which killed hundreds, put a spotlight on the sobering fact that people in poor countries often risk their lives in unsafe factories to make cheap T-shirts for Westerners.

The disaster, which comes on the heels of a Bangladesh factory fire that killed 112 people last November, also highlights something just as troubling for socially conscious shoppers: “It’s virtually impossible to know whether the product was manufactured in safe conditions,” says Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy. “For U.S.-made labels, you have good assurance, but the farther you get away from the U.S., the less confidence you have.”

Very few companies sell clothing that’s marketed as being made in factories that maintain safe working conditions. In fact, “ethically made” clothes make up only a fraction of 1 percent of the overall $1 trillion global fashion industry.

In addition, major chains typically use a complex web of suppliers, which means even the retailers themselves may not know the origin of clothes they sell, if they’re made overseas.

And “Made in USA” label only provides a small amount of assurance. While the tailors who assembled a skirt may have had decent working conditions, the fabric might have been woven overseas by people working in a dangerous environment.

Safety vs. cost

Most global retailers do have standards for workplace safety and they typically require that contractors and subcontractors follow these guidelines. But policing factories around the world is a costly, time-consuming process that’s difficult to manage.

Some experts add that — until recently — retailers have had little incentive to be more proactive because the public isn’t pushing them to do so.

America’s Research Group says that even in the aftermath of two deadly tragedies, shoppers have continued to be more concerned with fit and price than safe spaces for workers. “We have seen no consumer reaction to any charges about harmful working conditions,” says C. Britt Beemer, chairman of the firm.

That may be changing.

Some retailers report that more shoppers are starting to ask where clothes come from.

“I’m trying to learn the story behind the clothing and the people who are making it,” says Jennifer Galatioto, a 31-year-old fashion photographer from Brooklyn who’s started looking for locally made clothes.

Making it personal

Some stores are working to ease shoppers’ consciences.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc. announced in January that it would cut ties with any factory that failed an inspection, instead of giving warnings first. The Gap Inc., which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains, has hired its own chief fire inspector in Bangladesh.

Groups such as Fair Trade USA, a nonprofit that seeks to make sure workers overseas are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions, are trying to appeal directly to shoppers. In 2010, it expanded the list of products that it certifies, from coffee, sugar and spices, to include clothing.

To use the Fair Trade label on their products, companies have to follow certain safety and wage standards, including paying workers a living wage. Local nongovernment groups train the workers on their rights, and workers have a grievance process to report problems directly to the Fair Trade organization.

As shoppers take up the charge, stores that sell ethically made products are seeing a change in their bottom lines. Fair Indigo, an online retailer that sells certified Fair Trade clothes and accessories, saw its revenues rise dramatically after the building collapse in Bangladesh.

“We are connecting consumers with the garment workers on a personal level,”says Rob Behnke, Fair Indigo’s co-founder and president. “We are showing that the garment workers are just like you and me.”

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