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After the Bangladesh Tragedy: Six Ethical, Eco and Fair Clothing Manufacturers

Leon Kaye | Thursday May 9th, 2013 | 14 Comments
fashion, eco fashion, ethical fashion, lucy siegle, Bangladesh, Rana Plaza factory collapse, Bryce Covert, Think Progress, Timberland, Lands End, Fabindia, New Balance, Mark Paigen, Osmium, EthixMerch, sweatshops, Leon Kaye

Fabindia has produced fairly traded clothing for 50 years

As the death toll from the Rana Plaza factory collapse climbs over 800 [Ed note: it has now reached 1100], it is easy to heap blame on the factory owners and the companies who source in a country where the average monthly wage is $70 to $100–and often even lower. But consumers also ought to look inward: our desire to have a cheap t-shirt in every color or desire to purchase an outfit at H&M or Zara and wear it only once is part of this vicious circle.

The Guardian’s Lucy Siegle minces no words: “Fashion still doesn’t give a damn about the deaths of garment workers.”

So that begs the question, where on earth can one shop where workers are not exploited, locked into factories, or forced to work long hours or else lose the only opportunity to support a family? Obviously any list is going to be subjective. And the solution is complicated. My personal M.O. is to do most of my shopping at thrift stores, though the obvious retort is that plenty of those clothes were made in sweatshops (though I always seem to find blazers and other garments made in the U.S. or Italy–and I know, sweatshops exist in the U.S. and Italy).

Bryce Covert from Think Progress issued a solid and thoughtful list of ethical clothing manufacturers yesterday, though many of the article’s readers voiced a huge concern: is what a company says about their supply chain really the reality? Do they really know whether workers in those far off factories are really treated ethically and equitably? Nonetheless Covert’s list is an excellent jumping off point.

Here are a few suggestions of more eco, fair, ethical, and local companies from which to purchase clothing. Remember one point–it is easy to object to spending $100 on a pair of trousers, but if they are made well, they will most likely outlast the five pairs for which you spent $20 a pop. 3p and I invite readers to share their ideas in the comments section.

EthixMerch: Have an event coming up and you need a bevy of t-shirts? Consider EthixMerch, which is a great clearing house of eco-friendly, fair trade and union-made clothing.

Fabindia: For 50 years, Fabindia has manufactured sublime clothing, accessories and housewares sourced from artisan workshops resulting in beautiful clothes that are ethically made–many of their products are crafted in rural areas where employment is limited. Many of their garments have a modern, edgy touch yet use traditional techniques and are woven and cut by hand. Most of their stores are in India but the company has stores in five additional countries. Best of all–the shirts I bought have buttons made out of shells, which I thought had not been done in 100 years.

Land’s End: They still have a line of menswear made in the USA. It’s shrinking, but the prices are fair and this midwest mainstay has always crafted excellent clothing.

New Balance: Again, another manufacturer that no longer exclusively makes all of their athletic wear in the U.S., but still has a respectable collection. By the way, Zappos makes it easy to search online for shoes made on this side of the pond (including New Balance!)

Osmium: Not only is this menswear collection hot: Mark Paigen’s company manufactures all of his clothes in the U.S. using the finest fabrics sourced from across the world. The prices are a happy medium between cheap big box stores and the boutiques out of reach for the majority of us. Plus those Mariner pants are to die for.

Timberland: Yes, they have a few factories in Bangladesh, but Timberland is one of the more proactive companies when it comes how they work with employees within its supply chain. We would love to hear from this venerable outerwear company about the projects they have completed in Bangladesh.

So that is just the start, and yes, I realize this list is heavier on the men’s side (for once!). Take a holistic view of trying to shop smarter and strategically instead of more frequently: less carbon emissions, providing decent work at decent wages and buying fewer but higher quality products. Fair trade fashion, eco-fashion, ethical fashion–you can still look edgy without racking up credit card debt and contributing to even more misery abroad.

Again, give us a shout out over your ideas of companies who manufacture ethically or locally.

Based in Fresno, California, Leon Kaye is the editor of GreenGoPost.com and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).

[Image credit: Leon Kaye]


▼▼▼      14 Comments     ▼▼▼

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  • http://twitter.com/brianphiggins Brian Higgins

    TS Designs in Burlington, NC manufactures organic cotton t-shirts here in the United States. They even have a line of t-shirts that sources organic cotton from the Carolinas.

    • http://twitter.com/LeonKaye Leon Kaye

      Excellent, thanks for sharing!

  • Mark Paigen

    It is not hard to insure that the factory that makes your goods is reputable when they are just down the road. Osmium is fortunate to have a great factory partner close by. Ideally, business is personal.

  • http://twitter.com/MataTraders Mata Traders

    Hi there! We’d like to nominate ourselves for your list. Our ethical clothing is designed in Chicago and handmade at fair trade women’s cooperatives in India and Nepal. Find us at matatraders.com and independent retailers near you (see our store locator). Thanks!!

  • http://twitter.com/BAMworksorg BA Mansfield

    Can’t believe you didn’t mention even one fair trade company — there are so many!! Global Girlfriend, MarketPlace: Handwork of India, Dsenyo, One Mango Tree, Ganesh Himal Trading, Global Mamas … to name just a few. American Apparel is made in US and its new ad details their labor conditions (http://www.americanapparel.net/presscenter/ads/images/a9000/type3/9479_Ad_The_Coast_060513-Large.jpg). Also, Eileen Fisher is a well-known, high-end clothing company that has always been committed to ethical production & sustainability.

    • http://www.triplepundit.com Nick Aster

      We should get a more comprehensive list going. Interested in a guest post on the subject?

      • http://twitter.com/BAMworksorg BA Mansfield

        Absolutely! Thank you for asking. I’ll submit soon. (Coincidentally, you have my contact info thru Manish, whom you met at SVN. :-)

      • JeffMowatt

        Nick, Increasingly we see the media coverage on sustainable business being occupied by an elite mutual appreciation society who don’t welcome intrusion. The Guardian is particularly protective as I discovered when I offered an opinion on Creating Shared Value: http://www.p-ced.com/1/node/93

  • Zyxomma

    Vaute Couture makes recycled polyester coats and other outerwear in Chicago, Tara St. James makes clothing in NY and with a women’s collective in Peru, and also does lots of zero waste designs, Linda Loudermilk in CA makes organic cottons that are terrific and stylish, and I could go on and on. Check websites like Juno and Jove, Nancy’s Gone Green, and Kaight (kaightshopnyc.com) for many more designers and manufacturers whose lines are ethical and sustainable. Thrift shops, etsy, and eBay are great for gently used clothing.

  • JeffMowatt

    If the truth be know, CSR grandstanding trumps activism and even human life http://www.p-ced.com/1/node/115

  • Mark Povall

    I worry about this discussion. I do not know a great deal about labour practices in the various countries mentioned, but it seems there is a simplistic conclusion being driven here, something along the lines of boycotting eastern countries – Bangladesh, Vietnam, China etc. Yes we may be in some small manner addressing the ills of sweat shops, but what about the livelihoods of people in those countries? All this action contemplated in this website will end up favouring workers in the USA and developed countries. Is this fair trade??

  • Michelle

    This new company – Imagine Goods. http://www.ImagineGoods.com They value empowerment through employment!

  • Greg Stemler

    Patagonia makes top of the line clothing for casual and sports wear. They have a very detailed program for investigating and ensuring standards along the entire supply chain. see http://www.patagonia.com/us/footprint

    As Mark Poval correctly points out, it isn’t as simple as avoiding certain countries as manufacturers, rather we will do better to support specific brands that we trust to deliver products that meet the intent of social and eco justice. For example, Patagonia uses cotton grown organically in many “3rd world” countries, as well as sewing factories. The difference is that the are active participants in the auditing process to ensure standards are met.

    Supporting specific brands is also the only way to “vote with your money.” Only when a brand sees that there is a market and financial opportunity for them in providing products that meet these goals, will they consider it worth their while. That is how capitalism works!

  • MoDare

    Nice idea, but anyone who characterizes $185 for a shirt as ‘affordable’ is part of the 1%. Osmium is a FORTUNE. Jeez.