Disasters like the recent Bangladeshi factory collapse (and a fire that happened just today) are highly publicized reminders of the inhumane working conditions in which many of the products we use and wear are produced.
The only silver lining: According to the New York Times, such incidents increase demand for ethically produced products, and the urgency with which retailers must respond to that demand.
The fair trade movement that has become standard with coffee and food could come to encompass clothing, as more and more retailers have become open to disclosing more information about how and where their products are produced.
Of course there are retailers like Everlane, whose business model has always incorporated ethical production. But apparently bigger companies are following suit: H&M has begun releasing factory names; Nordstrom is apparently considering releasing information about humanely produced products; and a new version of the Higg index--which includes labor, social and environmental measures and has on board a group of retailers including Nike and Wal-Mart--is being released this fall. For now, the index is just for internal use, but the hope is that Higg will create an industry standard. Additionally, Fair Trade USA has recently expanded from just coffee to also include apparel.
A few weeks ago, H&M hosted a panel on sustainability and our biggest takeaway was probably that companies will only start producing their clothes more ethically when consumers demand it--and it sounds like they're at least starting to. The Times cites a MIT/Harvard study, which showed that consumers were willing to pay more for clothes that carried signs about fair labor practices. The founder of sustainable fashion e-commerce site Honest By told the paper he saw a spike in sales following overseas factory disasters.
Meanwhile, Joe Fresh, one of the retailers found to have been using the collapsed Bangladesh factory, has seen an outpouring of upset Facebook commenters.
So does this mean fast fashion is on its way out? Not necessarily--according to a study by Neeru Paharia, an assistant professor at the McDonough School of Business at Georgetown, consumers don't give much thought to how something is produced if it's something they really like. "If the shoes are cute--if they like the shoes--they actually think sweatshop labor is less wrong.”