But when it comes to making sure that their clothes are made in factories that are safe for workers, they fall short.
“Clothing is one of our more challenging practices,” said Jason Lawrence, 35, who mostly buys secondhand. “I don’t want to travel around the world to see where my pants come from.”
Last month’s clothing factory building collapse in Bangladesh that killed more than a thousand people put a spotlight on the sobering fact that people in poor countries often risk their lives working in unsafe factories to make the clothes Westerners covet.
The disaster, which occurred after a fire in another Bangladesh factory killed 112 people in November, highlights something just as troubling for socially conscious shoppers: It’s nearly impossible to make sure that the clothes you buy come from factories with safe working conditions.
Very few companies sell clothing that’s “ethically made,” or marketed as being made in factories that maintain safe working conditions. Ethically made clothes make up a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the $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.
Major chains typically use a complex web of suppliers that 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 provides only a small amount of assurance: The tailors who assembled a skirt may have good working conditions, but the fabric may have been woven overseas in an unsafe environment.
“For U.S.-made labels, you have good assurance, but the farther you get away from the U.S., the less confidence you have,” said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultancy.
Policing isn’t easy
Most global retailers have standards for workplace safety in the factories that make their clothes. And the companies typically require contractors and subcontractors to follow the guidelines. But policing factories around the world is a costly, time-consuming process that’s difficult to manage.
There were five factories in the building that collapsed April 24 in Bangladesh. They produced clothing for retailers including Children’s Place and the 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,” said Walter Loeb, a New York-based retail consultant.
And some experts say that retailers have little incentive to do more because the public isn’t pushing them to.
America’s Research Group, which interviews 10,000 to 15,000 consumers a week, mostly on behalf of retailers, says shoppers seem more concerned about fit and price than worker safety or low wages.
C. Britt Beemer, chairman of the firm, said shoppers rarely mention “where something is made” or “abuses” in the factories in other countries.
“We have seen no consumer reaction to any charges about harmful working conditions,” he said.
Tom Burson, 49, said that if someone tells him a brand of jeans is made in “sweatshops by 8-year-olds,” he won’t buy it. But overall, there is no practical way for him to trace where his pants were made.
“I am looking for value,” said 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.”
Some experts and retailers say things are slowly changing.
Swati Argade, a clothing designer who promotes her Bhoomki boutique in the Brooklyn borough of New York as “ethically fashioned,” 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 in India or Peru that are owned by their workers or that are designed by local designers in New York.
“After the November fire in Bangladesh, many customers say it made them more aware of the things they buy and who makes them,” Argade said.
Jennifer Galatioto, a 31-year-old fashion photographer from Brooklyn, has become thoughtful about where her clothes are made. “I am trying to learn the story behind the clothing and the people who are making it,” she said.
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 a fire inspector to oversee factories that make its clothing in Bangladesh.
Still, Wal-Mart, Gap and many other global retailers continue to back off from a union-sponsored proposal to improve safety throughout Bangladesh’s $20 billion garment industry. As part of the legally binding agreement, retailers would be liable when there’s a factory fire and would have to pay factory owners more to make repairs.
Fair Trade U.S.A., a nonprofit 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.
The organization, known for its black, green and white label with an image of a person holding a bowl in front of a globe, said it’s working with small businesses such as PrAna, which sells yoga pants and other sportswear items to merchants like REI and Zappos.
To use the Fair Trade label on their products, companies have to follow a set of safety and wage standards.
5% more expensive
Still, less than 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. It generates annual
sales of just under $10 million.
The company’s catalog and website feature some of the garment workers in countries including Peru. “We are connecting consumers with the garment workers on a personal level,” said Rob Behnke, Fair Indigo’s co-founder and president. “We are showing that the garment workers are just like you and me.”
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.”
In an interview in November, the company’s founder and CEO, Dov Charney, said companies can control working conditions but they need to bring the production to the U.S.
“When the company knows the face of its worker, that’s important,” Charney said.