May 1, 2013

Human cost of cheap clothes laid bare

While socially responsible shopping isn't easy, some retailers are doing more to ease our conscience.

By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO The Associated Press

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.

A worker sews inside a garment factory in Ashulia
click image to enlarge

A woman works at a garment factory in Ashulia, Bangladesh. Very few companies sell clothing that’s made in factories that maintain safe working conditions. In fact, “ethically made” clothes make up a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the $1 trillion global fashion industry.

Reuters

JUDGE ORDERS BUILDING OWNER'S PROPERTY CONFISCATED; PROTESTERS CLASH WITH POLICE

SAVAR, Bangladesh - A top Bangladesh court on Tuesday ordered the government to "immediately" confiscate the property of a collapsed building's owner, as thousands of protesters demanding the death penalty for the man clashed with police, leaving 100 people injured.

A two-judge panel of the High Court also asked the central bank to freeze the assets of the owners of the five garment factories in the building, and use the money to pay the salaries and other benefits of their workers.

The order came after police produced the building owner, Mohammed Sohel Rana, and the factory owners in court. The order did not elaborate but it was implied that the salaries of the dead victims would be paid to their relatives.

At least 386 people were killed and 2,500 people escaped with injuries when the illegally constructed eight-story Rana Plaza collapsed on April 24. According to one estimate, about 1,000 people are missing, indicating that the death toll could end up in the neighborhood of 1,400.

The collapse is the deadliest disaster to hit Bangladesh's garment industry, which is worth $20 billion annually and supplies global retailers.

-- The Associated Press

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. They even bring silverware to a nearby coffeehouse to avoid using the shop's plastic utensils.

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," 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 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.

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.

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.

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 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," said Craig Johnson, president of Customer Growth Partners, a retail consultant. "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 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 Primark, Children's Place and Loblaw Inc., which markets the Joe Fresh 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 be more proactive because the public isn't pushing them.

America's Research Group, which interviews 10,000 to 15,000 consumers a week mostly on behalf of retailers, said that even in the aftermath of two deadly tragedies, 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, said when he polls shoppers about their biggest concerns, they rarely mention "where something is made" or "abuses" in the factories.

(Continued on page 2)

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