By ANNE D'INNOCENZIO, Associated Press
NEW YORK (AP) — 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.
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," says 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 $3 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 your clothes are made in safe factories if you're buying from retailers that don't specifically market their clothes as ethically made. That's because 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.
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 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 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 and subcontractors 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 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.
And some experts say that 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, chairman of the firm, says when he polls shoppers about their biggest concerns, they rarely say "where something is made" or "abuses" in the factories in other countries.