May 14, 2013

As spotlight focuses on sweatshops, questions on whether consumers will demand ‘ethical fashion’

Posted by: in North America

We identified “ethical fashion” as one of our 100 Things to Watch in 2010, focusing on the use of organic cotton. Now, the horrific scope of last month’s garment factory collapse in Bangladesh—more than 1,100 workers were killed—is putting a spotlight on the apparel industry’s labor practices. So-called “sweat-free” initiatives are taking center stage: On Monday a group of apparel companies—including Sweden’s H&M, Spain’s Inditex and Netherlands-based C&Asigned an agreement that legally requires retailers to help pay for safety upgrades at the Bangladesh factories that produce their goods. At the same time, some U.S. states and municipalities are passing sweat-free procurement policies—nine states, 40 cities and 15 counties to date.

A few niche retailers are tackling the issue head-on. Eternal Creation, founded by an Australian designer, trains and manages its own factory workers in Dharamsala, India. Online brand Everlane tells customers, “We spend months finding the best factories around the world” and says they visit them often. Brands whose goods were produced in the collapsed factory, including Joe Fresh, have set up relief funds and announced new commitments to safety standards. Meanwhile, American Apparel has taken the opportunity to remind consumers that its Los Angeles-made goods are “sweatshop-free.”

The question is whether The New York Times had it right in an article declaring that labor conditions would become an important issue for apparel: “With fair-trade coffee and organic fruit now standard on grocery shelves, consumers concerned with working conditions, environmental issues and outsourcing are increasingly demanding similar accountability for their T-shirts.” While the Times points to the growing consumer demand for transparency, research has found that even if consumers readily say they’re against sweatshop labor, shoppers are less ready to adjust their fashion-buying habits. MarketWatch points to a study that compared sales for a label-free rack of socks and a rack touting socks made under good working conditions; the price tag was the same, yet just half the study participants chose the “ethical” socks.

Image credit: American Apparel

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