Facing pressure, clothing retailers reveal more


Published May 9, 2013 at 05:00AM / Updated Nov 19, 2013 at 12:31AM

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.

New research indicates a 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 the adoption of 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.

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 added that he looks for factories certified by independent outside organizations and has executives spend time with a factory’s owner to see if he or she “is a decent human being.”

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 an index called the Higg Index. It started last year with environmental goals, but the new version due this fall will include social and labor measurements.