A Bangladeshi woman looks at portraits of missing persons near the site of the recent disaster in Savar. (AP Photo/Ashraful Alam Tito)
In the wake of the Rana Plaza disaster—the garment factory in Bangladesh that collapsed in late April, leaving 1,000 dead, as of today—consumers are left with some troubling questions: Can we trust any item of clothing that’s made in Bangladesh… or anywhere else, for that matter? Are all garment factories “bad”? Is there any real way to tell if something we buy in a chain store was made under safe, ethical conditions?
Last week, a reader of The Nation wrote in asking these very questions. She recently purchased a large number of caps from a clothing brand called Port Authority and, after noticing the caps’ made-in labels read “Bangladesh,” went searching for information about the factory they came from and the conditions under which the hats were made. She came up largely empty-handed.
I did my own investigation into the reader’s hats. Port Authority is owned by a larger entity, called SanMar. A SanMar customer server representative told me that SanMar has been working with the same factories in Bangladesh “for years” and that those factories are accredited by the Fair Labor Association. You can read more about SanMar’s social responsibility efforts here.
The FLA is an auditing group hired by a number of major brands (H&M, American Eagle, Hanes, and Adidas are among them) to conduct unannounced inspections of factories and then work with the factories and the brands to improve conditions. On the FLA website, there is a factory inspection report for one of SanMar’s hat factories in Bangladesh. You can read it here.
It’s actually quite rare to be able to get even this amount of information about a clothing factory used by a major brand and even rarer to be able trace a specific item (a hat) back to a specific factory, one that might have actually created that hat. But, even then, the report does little to inspire consumer confidence. It does not disclose the name of the factory or the address nor does it give any real sense of what the factory is like. It also reveals a string of noncompliance issues, among them wage violations, a lack of accurate payroll records, a handful of faulty smoke detectors and fire extinguishers that were partially blocked by embroidery machines. And there is no public record of when and if these issues were resolved.
I don’t want to single out SanMar. A minimal level of transparency is typical across the entire fashion industry. And to answer the reader’s question: Is there any way to know with confidence that our clothes purchased from large fashion brands are being made in safe factories? The answer, currently, is not really.
Even before the Rana Plaza tragedy, the auditing system used by major clothing companies was under fire. Last year, labor leaders criticized the FLA for having too cozy a relationhip with Apple after it claimed to observe improvements in the notorious Foxconn factory. The baseline, minimum-effort logic of the clothing industry is no longer enough. Consumers no longer accept it when companies take so little responsibility for what happens in their factories. Nor do they accept slow, incremental improvements in working conditions.
More than that, consumers shouldn’t have to call a customer service line or dig up a factory auditing report to know where their cap was made and if it was fairly made or not. Consumers are really looking for total transparency and easy-to-trace supply chains for their clothing, similar to what we’ve seen with food. Or, as a New York Times story on fair-trade clothing put it this week, “origins matter” now.
As I mentioned in a video for The New York Times, there needs to be a simple and honest labeling system for clothes similar to what we’ve seen with organic and fair-trade foods. In the meantime, brands can also use their websites to give detailed and clear information about what their factories are like. As was mentioned in the Times article, online retailer Everlane includes a photo gallery of its Los Angeles-based T-shirt supplier and anecdotes about the people who work there.
Sweatfree clothing was the mentality of the ’90s. The bar is much higher now. Consumers want a good and honest story about how something is made. And it’s up to brands not only to create healthy working conditions but to meet consumer’s heightened expectations.
Today, the fast food strike wave hit Detroit. Read Josh Eidelson’s report.