Debate over ethical clothing has erupted since Bangladesh factory collapse last month

Published: Wednesday, May 15 2013 9:15 p.m. MDT

Pairs of brand new denim jeans are strewn over rubble from the collapsed garment factory building, Saturday, May 4, 2013 in Savar, near Dhaka, Bangladesh. In the aftermath of last week's building collapse that killed more than 530 people, Bangladesh's garment manufacturers may face a choice of reform or perish. Home to five factories that supplied clothing to retailers in Europe and the United States, the shoddily constructed building's collapse has put a focus on the high human price paid when Bangladeshi government ineptitude, Western consumer apathy and global retailing's drive for the lowest cost of production intersect.

Wong Maye-E, Associated Press

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After more than 1,100 people died in a Bangladesh apparel factory collapse last month, companies, policymakers, consumers and analysts plunged into a debate over ethical clothing.

Some blamed Western clothing companies for not properly vetting their retailers. Several clothing retailers, including H&M, Primark, Tesco and Zara, agreed to sign a contract "that requires them to conduct independent safety inspections, make reports on factory conditions public and cover the costs of fire and building safety repairs and improvements. It also requires them to stop doing business with any factory that refuses to make necessary safety improvements," according to CBC News.

Other companies, including Wal-Mart, received criticism for not signing on. But at Forbes, contributor Anushay Hossain said the responsibility ultimately lies with the people of Bangladesh.

"(The collapse) exposes how rampant and deep corruption run in a country where a bribe can buy you what you want, and laws are generally not implemented. … The truth is, we all have blood on our hands," Hossain wrote.

"From the Western brands to the Bangladeshi factory owners to the consumer hungry for cheap clothes, we are all guilty. But pointing the finger at the Western buyers is not the solution. If they cannot get their products made in Bangladesh, they will just go somewhere else, like the textile factories have done all through history. The solution has to come from us."

Others said that factories bring jobs and relative wealth to an impoverished place, and consumers shouldn't boycott an entire country based on some corruption and unsafe conditions.

"Garment factory workers in Bangladesh, China, India, Mexico and other corners of the developing world are not victims. They have sought out this work, and they want to be agents of their own fate," argued Doug Saunders at The Globe and Mail. "They often get a raw deal, but they’re enduring these jobs because the jobs are an improvement over any other alternative — and their engagement with the West’s consumer markets can be the vehicle to greater empowerment."

In a competitive market, it will always come down to prices, but Bangladesh might be on the up and up. Adam Davidson wrote in New York Times Magazine that as the world's second-largest clothing exporter and with a rising middle class, "Bangladesh is in that moment when the race to the bottom coincides with the beginning of a race to the top." The next step for the country may involve ditching wholesalers for higher quality goods, which would also likely include better working conditions.

Only time will tell if altruism or shifting demographics will trump the bottom line. Meanwhile, conflicted shoppers face tricky choices when trying to buy clothes ethically.

"It is hard for American shoppers to avoid buying clothes made in unsafe factories abroad … Ninety-eight percent of clothes sold in the U.S. are made overseas, according to the Apparel and Footwear Association," CNN Money reports. "Also, companies don't tell consumers if any of their suppliers violate safety standards."

But concerned shoppers can check sites such as GoodGuide.com to see if brands and companies rely on regulated labor in safe conditions. And consumers can still purchase ethically by not overshopping.

"Sometimes it's about how you shop and not where you shop," Elizabeth Cline told NPR. "So if you buy something cheap that doesn't mean that you have to have a disposable attitude to it ... or a disposable relationship to it."

EMAIL: kbennion@deseretnews.com

TWITTER: @katebennion

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