NEW YORK – 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.
Take Jason and Alexandra Lawrence of Lyons, Colo. The couple eat locally grown food that doesn’t have to be transported from far-flung states. They fill up their diesel-powered Volkswagen and Dodge pickup with vegetable-based oil.
But when it comes to making sure that their clothes are made in factories that are safe for workers, the couple fall short.
“Clothing is one of our more challenging practices,” says Jason Lawrence, 35, who mostly buys secondhand. “I don’t want to travel around the world to see where my pants come from.”
Last week’s building collapse in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of clothing factory workers put a spotlight on the sobering fact that people in poor countries often risk their lives working in unsafe factories to make the cheap T-shirts and underwear that Westerners covet.
The disaster, which comes after a fire in another Bangladesh factory killed 112 people last November, also highlights something just as troubling for socially conscious shoppers: It’s nearly impossible to make sure the clothes you buy come from factories with safe working conditions.
Few companies sell clothing that’s so-called “ethically-made,” or marketed as being made in factories that maintain safe working conditions. In fact, ethically made clothes make up a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the overall $3 trillion global fashion industry. And with a few exceptions, such as the 250-store clothing chain American Apparel Inc., most aren’t national brands.
It’s even more difficult to figure out if your clothes are made in safe factories if you’re buying from retailers that don’t specifically market their clothes as ethically made. That’s because major chains typically use a complex web of suppliers in countries such as Bangladesh, which often contract business to other factories. That means the retailers don’t always know the origin of clothes when they’re made overseas.
And even a “Made in USA” label only provides a small amount of assurance for a socially-conscious shopper. For instance, maybe the tailors who assembled the skirt may have had good working conditions. But the fabric might have been woven overseas by people who do not work in a safe environment.
“For the consumer, 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.”
To be sure, most global retailers have standards for workplace safety in the factories that make their clothes. And the companies 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.
In fact, there were five factories alone in the building that collapsed in Bangladesh last week. They produced clothing for big-name retailers including British retailer Primark, Children’s Place and Canadian company Loblaw Inc., which markets the Joe Fresh clothing line.
“I have seen factories in (Bangladesh and other countries), and I know how difficult it is to monitor the factories to see they are safe,” says Walter Loeb, a New York-based retail consultant.
Some retailers are beginning to do more to ease shoppers’ consciences.
Wal-Mart Stores Inc., the world’s largest retailer, said in January that it would cut ties with any factory that failed an inspection, instead of giving warnings first as had been its practice. The Gap Inc., which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains, hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that make its clothing in Bangladesh.
Still, Wal-Mart, Gap and many other global retailers have continued to reject a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry. The proposal would be a legally binding agreement that would make them liable when there’s a factory fire and pay factory owners more to make repairs.
Fair Trade U.S.A., a nonprofit that was founded in 1998 to audit products to make sure workers overseas are paid fair wages and work in safe conditions, is hoping to appeal to shoppers who care about where their clothing is made. In 2010, it expanded the list of products that it certifies beyond coffee, sugar and spices to include clothing.
Still, well under 1 percent of clothing sold in the U.S. is stamped with a Fair Trade label. And shoppers will find that Fair Trade certified clothing is typically about 5 percent more expensive than similar items that don’t have the label.
Fair Indigo is an online retailer that sells clothes and accessories that are certified by Fair Trade U.S.A., including $59.90 pima organic cotton dresses, $45.90 faux wrap skirts and $100 floral ballet flats.
Rob Behnke, Fair Indigo’s co-founder and president, says some shoppers are calling in and citing the latest fatalities in Bangladesh. The retailer, which generates annual sales of just under $10 million, had a 35 percent rise in revenue (compared with last year) following the disaster.
Behnke says that the company’s catalog and website that features some of the garment workers in countries including Peru are resonating with shoppers.
“We are connecting consumers with the garment workers on a personal level,” he says. “We are showing that the garment workers are just like you and me.”