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

(Continued from page 1)

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.



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

"We have seen no consumer reaction to any charges about harmful working conditions," he said.

Tom Burson, 49, certainly is focused more on price and quality when he's shopping. He said 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 said, 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. I need the pants."

In light of the recent disasters, though, some experts say more shoppers are starting to pay attention to where their clothes are made.

Swati Argade, a clothing designer who promotes her Bhoomki boutique in Brooklyn, N.Y., as "ethically fashioned," said people have been more conscious about where their clothes come from.

The store, which means "of the earth" in Hindu, sells everything from $18 organic cotton underwear to $1,000 coats that are primarily made in factories that are owned by their workers in India or Peru or that are designed by local designers in New York City.

"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 been making trips to local shops in Williamsburg, a section of Brooklyn that sells a lot of clothes made locally. She has also ventured to local shopping markets that feature handmade clothing.

"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.

Walmart, 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 hired its own fire inspector to oversee factories that make its clothing in Bangladesh.

Still, Walmart, 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 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 it certifies beyond coffee, sugar and spices to include clothing.

The organization said it's working with small businesses like PrAna, which sells yoga pants and other sportswear items to merchants like REI and Zappos.


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