Fatal fashion. That's the derogatory new label dangling over the U.S. clothing industry following a deadly fire and a building collapse that killed more than 1,200 garment factory workers in Bangladesh in recent months.
The tragedies in November and April ripped open the unseemly side of the global clothing supply chain, where hundreds of American brands and companies, from H&M to Tommy Hilfiger, from Disney to Wal-Mart, use overseas factories in countries with woeful working conditions.
But now, in the wake of the tragedies, a new movement is being stitched together to change the way our T-shirts, tops and trousers are made and labeled.
Global sellers such as Wal-Mart are signing on with groups like LaborVoices that promise to get more candid assessments of factory conditions. Bangladesh's government is being prodded by the United States and others to beef up worker safety. U.S. clothing companies are working on a new labeling system that will track a garment's manufacturing history.
And many consumers are starting to take a closer look at where their clothing comes from.
"I don't ever buy anything that says 'Made in China.' It doesn't work for me," said Lorna Belden, browsing the racks on a recent weekday at the Cotton Club store in midtown Sacramento.
Wearing a green L.L. Bean top made in Peru and a summery scarf from India, the retired dietitian from Davis said it's often impossible to find non-China labels in large stores.
As much as possible, Belden said, she prefers to buy apparel made in the United States, Vietnam or South America.
"That's what the consumer wants: transparency and traceability," said Teresa Nersesyan, an Orange County-based global clothing consultant who's done more than 600 garment factory inspections in Bangladesh, Cambodia, Vietnam, Guatemala and other countries. "People want to know the story behind the garment: They want to know it was made in a socially responsible way and that the environment wasn't polluted as a result."
But retailers say they often have trouble finding clothes from brands they can trust or at prices customers will pay.
When Cotton Club owner Deborah Jackson started in business 22 years ago, she bought only organic cotton, made-in-U.S.A. labels, but found the choices increasingly limited and pricier, especially after cotton prices soared in 2005.
"It's very hard to find U.S.-made at a price that people will pay," she said.
Jackson, who travels to four or five garment shows a year, mostly in the Bay Area and Las Vegas, has a global lineup of natural-fiber clothing: brands such as Eucalyptus from Guatemala, Flax from Lithuania, Goddess Gear from Colorado or Cut Loose from San Francisco.
"You talk to vendors and hope they're telling the truth about their factories," the longtime business owner said. "I want to know that what I'm buying was made under the right circumstances."
Likewise, Jan Sweeney, co-owner of Fleet Feet Boutique, a women's store on J Street, said that in trying to be a "socially conscious" retailer, it takes time to find the right products, particularly those using recycled or ecological materials.
Her 5-year-old clothing boutique, an offshoot of the larger Fleet Feet running store chain, offers handbags from Aspen, Colo., Grass Valley and Napa, and a number of American-made clothing lines.
"We want to feel good about the products we carry," she said. "But it does mean that it may not be as inexpensive as a Wal-Mart piece."
The factors that contributed to the Bangladesh disasters are a combination of global, economic and fashion-frenzied forces.
As recession-clobbered customers clamored for ever-cheaper prices, clothing manufacturers started looking for places to cut costs.
That led to Bangladesh, where the average garment factory worker's salary is $38 a month. China's average is $138.
The desire for "fast fashion," the trendy, low-priced clothing seen in major chains like Forever 21, H&M and Target, also has played a part. Consumers have become accustomed to spending very little on clothing, particularly compared with other household budget categories.
"When you walk by a huge display of $1.99 camisoles with thousands of sizes in thousands of different colors, you know somebody got screwed in that supply chain," said Nersesyan.
There's no way, she said, that a clothing brand's suppliers can grow the cotton, then process, dye, cut, sew and get that T-shirt or tank top shipped to market at such drastically low prices.
Last week , two months after the deadly building collapse, President Barack Obama announced that Bangladesh was suspended from U.S. trading privileges for not enforcing worker-safety standards in its garment industry.
In response, the Bangladesh garment manufacturers' association announced it is stepping up factory inspections and has closed 20 factories. The government's textile minister also promised that officials will meet with labor groups and factory owners to discuss raising the garment industry's minimum wage, which was last upped in 2006.
On multiple fronts, the Bangladesh fatalities have "pushed all these efforts forward at a breakneck pace," said Nersesyan, ticking off a number of new developments.
LaborVoices, a Silicon Valley startup with financial backing from Wal-Mart, is attempting to get more candid assessments of factory conditions, using cellphone technologies to allow garment workers to report in anonymously, rather than in front of their bosses.
Companies like Nike and Patagonia, considered leaders in adopting "life-cycle" assessments of garment manufacturing, have formed the Sustainable Apparel Coalition, with 80 partners such as Kohl's, Levi's, Nordstrom and Target.
The goal is to develop a consumer label that will rate apparel, from a jacket to a pair of jeans, based on a company's adherence to environmental and worker-safety practices.
Will the Bangladesh tragedies cause a shift in how consumers buy clothes?
"In the short term, yes," said Kimberly Elsbach, professor at the UC Davis Graduate School of Management. "But people tend to slip back into old habits. It's tough to keep people vigilant, especially when so many other things fight for our attention."
Elsbach said consumers would need more constant reminders, such as a "humane trade" label, similar to the "fair trade" tags found on edible products in grocery stores or organic food vendors.
"If an entire (apparel) chain can guarantee humane trade, it's easier for someone to say, 'OK, I'll just shop at 'XYZ' chain, because I know their products are produced humanely,' " said the UC Davis professor.
Clothes-shopping on a recent summer afternoon in midtown Sacramento, elementary school teacher Suzy Brusca said she typically doesn't spend too much time checking labels, partly because it's hard to know how to judge a company's adherence to worker safety or environmental concerns.
"When I look at labels, I don't know which ones are ethical and which aren't," said the Carmichael resident. "But it's just like with our food, where people started reading labels and following where it came from and what's in it.
"Maybe that's where we need to go with clothes."
'SUSTAINABLE' CLOTHING If you want apparel produced in environmentally friendly and/or humane manufacturing conditions, here are starting places.
Look for these labels:
Bluesign: Typically found on outdoor clothing; certifies that fabrics are produced in "green" textile mills.
Fair Trade Federation: It adheres to practices ensuring decent wages and humane conditions for farmers and workers in developing countries.
USDA Organic: Made from 95 percent organically grown materials.
Check these websites:
CleanClothes.org: Its Clean Clothes Campaign works with international unions and groups to promote better working conditions in the garment industry.
GoodGuide.com: Evaluates major companies in dozens of categories, including clothing, based on their commitments to environmental, health and worker-safety concerns. Of the 182 apparel companies listed, the best-ranked is Patagonia; worst is Armani.
GreenAmerica.org: Its "Responsible Shopper" section advises consumers on buying decisions and rates companies including major clothing brands like Macy's, JCPenney and others on social and environmental impacts.
Call The Bee's Claudia Buck, (916) 321-1968. Read her Personal Finance blog, www.sacbee.com/personalfinanceblog.