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Shoppers have trouble finding ethically made clothing

A man recovers clothing made for the Joe

A man recovers clothing made for the Joe Fresh label in the factory that collapsed in late April in Dhaka, Bangladesh, killing more than 290 people. A Canadian company, Loblaw Inc., markets the Joe Fresh line. (April 26, 2013). Credit: Bloomberg News

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. They eat locally grown food, fill up their Volkswagen and Dodge pickup with vegetable-based oil, and even bring silverware to a nearby coffeehouse to avoid using plastic utensils.

But what about making sure their clothes are made in factories that are safe for workers?

"Clothing is one of our more challenging practices," says Jason Lawrence, 35. "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 conditions to make the cheap T-shirts and underwear that Westerners covet.

The disaster, after a November fire in another Bangladesh factory killed 112, 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 labeled "ethically made." The category makes up a tiny fraction of 1 percent of the overall $3 trillion global fashion industry.

Major chains typically use a complex web of suppliers in countries such as Bangladesh, and the suppliers often contract business to other factories. That means the retailers themselves don't always know the origin of the clothes they sell.

Even a "Made in USA" label only provides a small amount of assurance for a socially conscious shopper. Maybe the tailors who assembled the skirt had good working conditions, but the fabric might have been woven overseas by people who do not.

"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.

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.

The five factories in the Bangladesh building produced clothing for big-name retailers including The Children's Place and the Canadian company Loblaw Inc., which markets the Joe Fresh line.

Retailers have little incentive to be proactive, because the public isn't pushing them to do so. America's Research Group, which interviews 10,000 shoppers a week, says even after the building collapse, shoppers are more concerned with fit and price than whether their clothes were made in factories where workers are safe.

But online retailer Fair Indigo sells clothes certified by Fair Trade U.S.A. as being ethically produced, and president Rob Behnke says some shoppers are calling in and citing the latest fatalities in Bangladesh. The retailer, with annual sales of just under $10 million, said sales rose 35 percent after the disaster.

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