Consumer pressure forces clothing sellers to reveal more

Accountability demands foster greater disclosure of product origins

New York TimesMay 11, 2013 

The revolution that has swept the food industry is expanding to retail: origins matter.

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. The issue has been brought to the forefront by the garment factory collapse in Bangladesh, which killed more than 800 people.

And some retailers are doing what was once unthinkable: handing over information about exactly how, and where, their products were made.

Everlane, an online boutique, last week added paragraphs to its website describing the factories where its products are made.

Nordstrom says it is considering adding information about clothes produced in humane working conditions.

An online boutique breaks down the number of workers involved in making each item and the cost of every component, while a textiles company intends to trumpet the fair-trade origins of its robes when Bed Bath & Beyond starts selling them this month.

And a group of major retailers and apparel companies, including some – like Nike and Wal-Mart – with a history of controversial manufacturing practices overseas, says it is developing an index that will include labor, social and environmental measures.

Research indicates growing consumer demand for information about how and where goods are produced. A study last year by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard showed that some consumers – even those who were focused on discount prices – were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices.

“There’s real demand for sweat-free products,” said Ian Robinson, a lecturer and research scientist at the University of Michigan who studies labor issues. Consumers “don’t have the information they need, and they do care.”

The garment factory collapse in Bangladesh last month has added urgency to the movement as retailers have seen queries stream in from worried customers.

“In the clothing industry, everybody wears it every day, but we have no idea where it comes from,” said Michael Preysman, Everlane’s chief executive and founder. “People are starting to slowly clue in to this notion of where products are made.”

Major retailers have long balked at disclosing the full trail, saying that sourcing is inherently complex – a sweater made in Italy may have thread, wool and dye from elsewhere. Another reason: Workplace protections are expensive, and cheap clothes, no matter where or how they are manufactured, still sell, as H&M, Zara and Joe Fresh show through their rapid expansion.

But labor advocates note that consumers’ appetite for more information may put competitive pressure on retailers who are less than forthcoming. In recent weeks, government officials, including Chancellor Angela Merkel of Germany, and labor and consumer advocates have cited the Bangladesh collapse in calling for fair-trade standards or labeling. In direct response to what happened in Bangladesh, Everlane added information to its website about the factories where its clothing is made.

“This factory is located 10 minutes from our L.A. office,” one description for a T-shirt reads. “Mr. Kim, the owner, has been in the L.A. garment business for over 30 years.”

Everlane says it will soon add cost breakdowns for all of its clothing, along with photographs of factories where that clothing is made and information about the production.

An inexact science

Preysman says Everlane has long received questions from customers “around where the products are sourced from and how we can tell that the labor is good.” It is an inexact science, he said, but he looks for factories certified by independent outside organizations, and he has executives spend time with factories’ owners to see whether they are “decent human” beings.

Nordstrom said it had provided factory information in response to shoppers’ calls, and was considering going a step further, said Tara Darrow, a spokeswoman. The Nordstrom website specifies eco-friendly products, “so how can we do the same with people-friendly?” Darrow asked. “Hearing from customers and knowing they care definitely compels us to want to do more.”

A variety of groups are working on new apparel industry labor standards.

The Sustainable Apparel Coalition, which includes big names like Nike, Wal-Mart, Gap, J.C. Penney and Target, has been testing the Higg Index. It started last year with environmental goals, but the new version due this fall will include social and labor measurements.

The coalition was formed in 2011 to create one industry standard for sustainability and labor practices, rather than a patchwork approach. Some of the companies supporting this index have had sourcing problems – Wal-Mart subcontractors were using the Tazreen factory, a Bangladesh plant where a fire killed 112 workers last November. Gap, Target and Penney produced clothing at another Bangladesh factory where a fire killed about 30 workers in 2010. Nike, which faced a global boycott over sweatshop conditions in its overseas factories, was among the first major apparel companies pressured to disclose the factories it uses.

Getting information out

For now, the index is just for companies’ internal use. But Jason Kibbey, executive director of the coalition, said the goal was to give the information to shoppers, too, through a label or via the Web or apps. Labor advocates like Scott Nova, executive director of the Worker Rights Consortium, however, say that self-regulation may be ineffective.

Another certification, Fair Trade USA, began in coffee and only recently moved into apparel. PrAna, a yoga company that is among the first American apparel firms to be fair-trade certified, said the process included tours of its cut-and-sew plant in Liberia and other factories, a review of factory books and systems, and an assessment of workers’ pay relative to local salaries. PrAna sold one fair-trade T-shirt in 2011, and now sells nine such products.

Those products are priced 10 percent more than comparable items, Chief Executive Scott Kerslake said, and they have been selling well, but PrAna has to be careful not to “completely chase away consumers on it” given the more expensive process. Now, it is trying to do more to alert consumers to the certification: The logo is only on PrAna’s tags, plans are to put it on garments.

For some shoppers, the fair-trade pitch goes only so far. Marci Zaroff, founder of Under the Canopy, which is introducing a fair-trade-certified bathrobe this month at Bed Bath & Beyond, said it could be hard to convey the message, and “that’s why we sell on style, quality and price.”

Shoppers like Lauri Langton, 62, of Seattle, plan to push retailers for more information.

“You should be able to tell, right away, where the product is produced so that you can walk away from the product and not buy it if you do not believe it was produced in a humane way,” she said. “That’s where we have power as consumers.”

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