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Merrimack Valley

May 5, 2013

Shoppers face hurdles in finding ethical clothing

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“I am trying to learn the story behind the clothing and the people who are making it,” she says.

Some retailers are beginning to do more to ease shoppers’ consciences.

Wal-Mart Stores Inc., 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 Inc., which owns the Gap, Old Navy and Banana Republic chains, hired its own chief fire inspector to oversee factories that make its clothing in Bangladesh.

Still, Wal-Mart, 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 that it certifies beyond coffee, sugar and spices to include clothing.

The organization, known for its black, green and white label with an image of a person holding a bowl in front of a globe, 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 that it declined to name.

To use the Fair Trade label on their products, companies have to follow certain safety and wage standards that are based on established industry auditing groups, including the International Labor Organization. They include such things as paying workers based on a formula that allows them to meet basic cost-of-living needs.

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