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

India 2013

By Leon Kaye

May 09, 2013

Also published at Triple Pundit

As the death toll from the Rana Plaza factory collapseclimbs 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 averagemonthly 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).

Fabindia has produced fairly traded clothing for 50 years.

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 and frequently writes about business sustainability strategy. Leon also contributes to Guardian Sustainable Business; his work has also appeared on Sustainable BrandsInhabitat and Earth911. In 2013, Leon traveled to India as a Fellow with the International Reporting Project. You can follow Leon and ask him questions on Twitter or Instagram (greengopost).