Fatal fashion. That's the derogatory new label dangling over the U.S.
clothing industry following a deadly fire and a building collapse that killed
more than 1,200 garment factory workers in Bangladesh in recent months.
The tragedies in November and April ripped open the unseemly side of the global clothing supply chain, where hundreds of American brands and companies, from H&M to Tommy Hilfiger, from Disney to Wal-Mart, use overseas factories in countries with woeful working conditions.
But now, in the wake of the tragedies, a new movement is being stitched together to change the way our T-shirts, tops and trousers are made and labeled.
Global sellers such as Wal-Mart are signing on with groups like LaborVoices that promise to get more candid assessments of factory conditions. Bangladesh's government is being prodded by the United States and others to beef up worker safety. U.S. clothing companies are working on a new labeling system that will track a garment's manufacturing history.
And many consumers are starting to take a closer look at where their clothing comes from.
"I don't ever buy anything that says 'Made in China.' It doesn't work for me," said Lorna Belden, browsing the racks on a recent weekday at the Cotton Club store in midtown Sacramento.
Wearing a green L.L. Bean top made in Peru and a summery scarf from India, the retired dietitian from Davis said it's often impossible to find non-China labels in large stores.
As much as possible, Belden said, she prefers to buy apparel made in the United States, Vietnam or South America.
"That's what the consumer wants: transparency and traceability," said Teresa Nersesyan, an Orange County-based global clothing consultant who's done more than 600 garment factory inspections in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala and other countries. "People want to know the story behind the garment: They want to know it was made in a socially responsible way and that the environment wasn't polluted as a result."
But retailers say they often have trouble finding clothes from brands they can trust or at prices customers will pay.
When Cotton Club owner Deborah Jackson started in business 22 years ago, she bought only organic cotton, made-in-U.S.A. labels, but found the choices increasingly limited and pricier, especially after cotton prices soared in 2005.
"It's very hard to find U.S.-made at a price that people will pay," she said.
Jackson, who travels to four or five garment shows a year, mostly in the Bay Area and Las Vegas, has a global lineup of natural-fiber clothing: brands such as Eucalyptus from Guatemala, Flax from Lithuania, Goddess Gear from Colorado or Cut Loose from San Francisco.
"You talk to vendors and hope they're telling the truth about their factories," the longtime business owner said. "I want to know that what I'm buying was made under the right circumstances."
Likewise, Jan Sweeney, co-owner of Fleet Feet Boutique, a women's store on J Street, said that in trying to be a "socially conscious" retailer, it takes time to find the right products, particularly those using recycled or ecological materials.
Her 5-year-old clothing boutique, an offshoot of the larger Fleet Feet running store chain, offers handbags from Aspen, Colo., Grass Valley and Napa, and a
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