Students gathered outside the doors of Gap on 34th and Walnut streets on the University of Pennsylvania’s campus May 15 to protest the American company’s use of Bangladeshi factories.
In light of the recent collapse of the Rana Plaza garment factory in Savar, Bangladesh, where The New York Times reported a death toll of 1,127, a collective of leading international fashion retailers have signed an agreement to initiate safer working conditions for laborers. That collective includes heavyweights such as H&M, Primark and Marks & Spencer; PVH, which manufactures Tommy Hilfiger and IZOD, and Inditex, the parent corporation of Zara.
Meanwhile, Gap Inc. has refused to the sign the contract, which would require these brands to fund regular inspections and hire qualified individuals to conduct overviews for fire and structural hazards. According to reports from The Associated Press, further investigation after the collapse revealed that the top four floors of the factory had been illegally constructed, which contributed to the structural faults that caused the collapse.
After clothing and invoices found strewn among the wreckage were traced to numerous Western brands, the American public began to take notice and demand action, as these students were last Wednesday. But while the primary ethical responsibility of the source product falls on a parent company such as Gap, what role can consumers play in supporting the ethical production of garments? The most one can do is make an effort to become an educated shopper. Due to the globalization of the garment industry, only 1 to 2 percent of clothing available for purchase in the United States is currently produced under conditions that meet ethical standards, according to the AP.
The average American consumer is likely to be more focused on price than on any other aspect of a garment’s production. This means there is little incentive to conduct research prior to purchasing something as commonplace as a cotton shirt or pair of jeans. The current fast-paced store environment also poses a challenge, as there is minimal information readily available beyond the country of origin tag sewn into a hidden seam. Looking for clothing with the United States or Canada as the country of origin can ensure, although not entirely, that production conditions meet safety standards for both factories and individual workers. Brands such as Splendid, Bailey 44, AG Jeans and J Brand are all manufactured in the continental United States.
A notable disadvantage to buying fashions made on-shore is a comparatively higher price tag. But beyond the initial value of a new pair of jeans, consider that the $99 wholesale price of a $220 pair of jeans is how much it costs to ensure safe factory conditions along with fair compensation and benefits for laborers. So ask yourself: How much is ethical garment production worth to you?