Late in April, a building filled with five garment factories collapsed in a disaster that claimed the lives of more than 700 people.
The factories were responsible for making clothing bound for major retailers around the world.
It’s the worst ever disaster in the garment sector. This deadly event surpassed a 1911 garment disaster in New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist factory, a 2012 fire in Pakistan and another garment factory fire in Bangladesh.
While the garment workers are paid a minimum wage of $38 a month for their labor, Bangladesh as a whole earns nearly $20 billion a year. These garment products are exported primarily to Europe and the United States.
This catastrophe along with many other reports of poor working conditions throughout the world begs the question, “Is the cost of cheap fashion too high?”
I’ll admit that I am the last person to look for, much less demand, ethically-made clothing. I buy what I like and what I can afford wherever I can get it with little regard for where it originated.
Maybe that’s because only approximately one percent of the $1 trillion global fashion industry consists of clothing that is ethically made. An article on NPR.org explains that often times retailers use such diverse networks of suppliers that they themselves don’t know where their goods originate.
Some American retailers have promised to cut ties with any factory that failed safety inspections. But many retailers including Wal-Mart and Gap have shunned union-sponsored proposals to improve safety through Bangladesh.
So what can we do if we want to shop more socially conscious?
In 1998, a nonprofit called Fair Trade U.S.A. was founded to audit products, make sure workers are paid fair wages and to make sure workers are working in safe conditions.
To use the Fair Trade label, companies are required to follow strict safety and wage standards established by industry auditing groups, like the International Labor Organization.
Unfortunately, less than one percent of clothing sold in the U.S. is stamped with the Fair Trade label, which is typically about five percent more expensive than similar items without the label.
Other retailers like L.A.-based American Apparel are making a “Made in USA” pitch. American Apparel publicizes that they pay decent wages, offer subsidized lunches, free onsite massages and medical clinics, and most importantly that their working conditions are “sweatshop free.”
Here are some of the labels that are made in the U.S.A. or that are stamped with the Fair Trade label.
- American Apparel
- New Balance (footwear)
- The Row (Mary Kate & Ashley Olsen label)
- Lane Bryant
- Steven Alan
- Spanx (intimates)
- Nannette Lepore
- Jack Rogers (footwear)
- Earnest Sewn (denim – both Wranglers and Levi’s are now made overseas)
- Stormy Kromer (Outdoor apparel)
- Pierrepont Hicks
- All American Clothing
- Left Field (menswear)
- Chocktaw Ridge (men’s underwear)
- Hanky Panky (intimates)
- Rancourt & Co. (footwear)
- Bollman Hat Company
- Second Base (intimates)
- Impact Fitness Wear (women’s athletic clothes)
- Sundance Sheepskin & Leather (leather goods)
- Japanese Weekend Maternity
While this is by no means a complete list of all American-made or Free Trade apparel, you can find a more comprehensive list here.