EagleTribune.com, North Andover, MA

Merrimack Valley

May 5, 2013

Shoppers face hurdles in finding ethical clothing

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 $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.

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.

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