Dhaka: The building collapse in Bangladesh that killed hundreds of clothing factory workers last week put a spotlight on the sobering fact that people in poor countries often risk their lives working in unsafe conditions 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 in November, also highlights something troubling for socially conscious shoppers: It's nearly impossible to make sure clothes 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 per cent 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 clothes are made in safe factories. 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.
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 US-made labels, you have good assurance, but the farther you get away from the US, the less confidence you have.''
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.
Five factories in one building
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 experts say 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.
"We have seen no consumer reaction to any charges about harmful working conditions,'' says C. Britt Beemer, chairman of the firm.
Shopper Tom Burson, 49, says that if someone told him a brand of jeans is made in "sweatshops by 8-year-olds,'' he wouldn't buy it. But he says there is no practical way for him to trace where his pants were made.
"I am looking for value,'' says Burson, a management consultant. "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.''
Change in shoppers' attitude
In light of the recent disasters, though, some experts and retailers say things are slowly changing.
Swati Argade, a clothing designer, promotes her Bhoomki boutique in New York City as "ethically fashioned'' and says people have been more conscious about where their clothes come from.
The store, which means "of the earth'' in Hindi, sells everything from $18 organic cotton underwear to $1,000 coats that are primarily made in factories owned by their workers in India or Peru or are designed by local designers in New York City.
"After the November fire in Bangladesh, many customers said it made them more aware of the things they buy, and who makes them,'' Argade says.
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 USA., 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.
To use the Fair Trade label on their products, companies have to follow certain safety and wage standards that are based on established industry auditing groups, including the International Labor Organization. They include such things as paying workers based on a formula that allows them to meet basic cost-of-living needs.
Local nongovernment groups train the retailers' workers on their rights. And workers are provided a grievance process to report problems directly to the Fair Trade organization.
Still, well under 1 per cent of clothing sold in the US is stamped with a Fair Trade label. And shoppers will find that Fair Trade certified clothing is typically about 5 per cent more expensive than similar items that don't have the label.
While some retailers are working to improve safety overseas, others are making a "Made in USA'' pitch.
Los Angeles-based American Apparel, which says it knits, dyes, cuts and sews all of its products in-house in California, touts on its website that the working conditions are "sweatshop free.'' The company highlights how it pays decent wages and offers subsidized lunches, free onsite massages and an onsite medical clinic.
In an interview in November with The Associated Press, the company's founder and CEO, Dov Charney, said companies can control working conditions but they need to bring the production to the US
"When the company knows the face of its worker, that's important,'' Charney said.