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 hundreds of clothing-factory workers put a spotlight on the sobering fact that people in poor countries often risk their lives 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 just as troubling for socially conscious shoppers: It’s nearly impossible to make sure the clothes you buy come from factories with safe conditions.
Few companies sell clothing that’s “ethically made,” or marketed as being made in factories that maintain safe working conditions. In fact, such clothes make up a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the overall $3 trillion global fashion industry.
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And with a few exceptions, such as the 250-store chain American Apparel, most aren’t national brands.
To be sure, most global retailers have standards for workplace safety in the factories that make their clothes. The companies typically require that contractors and subcontractors follow these guidelines. But policing factories around the world is a difficult, costly and time-consuming process.
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, 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.
C. Britt Beemer, the firm’s chairman, says that when he polls shoppers about their biggest concerns, they 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 says.
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.
Swati Argade, a clothing designer who promotes her Bhoomki boutique in Brooklyn, N.Y., as “ethically fashioned,” says people have been more conscious about the source of their clothes.
The store 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 in New York.
“After the November fire in Bangladesh, many customers says 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.
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 it certifies beyond coffee, sugar and spices to include clothing.
The organization says it’s working with small businesses like PrAna, which sells yoga pants and other sportswear items to merchants like REI and Zappos. It also says it’s in discussions with other big-name brands.
Still, well under 1 percent of clothing sold in the U.S. is stamped with a Fair Trade label. And shoppers will find 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 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) after the disaster. That was in line with the 38 percent revenue surge it had during the November-December season, after the factory fire.
Behnke says its catalog and website, which feature some of the garment workers, 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.”
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, offers subsidized lunches, free on-site massages and an on-site medical clinic.