Shoppers face hurdles in finding ethical clothing

Workers gather clothing retrieved from a collapsed garment factory building on Tuesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

Workers gather clothing retrieved from a collapsed garment factory building on Tuesday in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh.

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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.

Last week’s building collapse in Bangladesh that killed at least 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.

Very 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 $1 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 themselves 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.

And some experts say that retailers have little incentive to be more proactive and do more because the public isn’t pushing them to do so.

America’s Research Group, which interviews 10,000 to 15,000 consumers a week mostly on behalf of retailers, says that even in the aftermath of two deadly tragedies in Bangladesh, shoppers seem more concerned with fit and price than whether their clothes were made in factories where workers are safe and make reasonable wages.

C. Britt Beemer, chairman of the firm, says when he polls shoppers about their biggest concerns, they rarely mention “where something is made” or “abuses” in the factories in other countries.

Tom Burson, 49, certainly is focused more on price and quality when he’s shopping. Burson says that if someone told him that a brand of jeans is made in “sweatshops by 8-year-olds,” he wouldn’t buy it. But he says, overall, there is no practical way for him to trace where his pants were made.

“I am looking for value,” says Burson, a management consultant who lives in Ashburn, Va. “I am not callous and not unconcerned about the conditions of the workers. It’s just that when I am standing in a clothing store and am comparing two pairs of pants, there’s nothing I can do about it. I need the pants.”

In light of the recent disasters, though, some experts and retailers say things are slowly changing. They say more shoppers are starting to pay attention to labels and where their clothes are made.

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