NEW YORK — Before purchasing a shirt, shoppers will run their hands over the fabric, look at the price tag and wonder how it will hold up in the washing machine. Some might even ask if it makes them look fat.
The one detail, however, that is rarely considered: What are the conditions like for the workers making the shirt?
A horrific fire that raced through a Bangladesh garment factory Saturday, killing 112 people, has put the spotlight — at least temporarily — back on those workers and their sometimes treacherous work environment.
The factory, owned by Tazreen Fashions Ltd., made clothing for several retailers around the globe including Wal-Mart, Sears and The Walt Disney Co. All three companies have distanced themselves from responsibility for the incident, saying they didn’t know that their subcontractors were using the factory.
Holiday shoppers have also maintained their distance from the tragedy.
“Truthfully, I hadn’t even thought about it,” said Megan Miller of Philadelphia as she walked out of the Disney Store in Times Square. “I had Christmas on my mind and getting my kids something from New York.”
Shoppers from Cincinnati to Paris to Singapore all said the same thing: They were aware of the fatal factory fire, but they weren’t thinking about it while browsing stores in the days since. Brand name, fit and — above all — prices were on their minds.
“Either our pockets get lighter or we have to live with more blood on our hands,” said Amy Hong, a college student who was at a store in Singapore. “I try not to think about it.”
Experts who survey shoppers say the out of sight, out of mind attitude is nothing new.
“When you talk to them about their biggest concerns, where something is made, or the abuses in some country, almost never show up,” said C. Britt Beemer, chairman of America’s Research Group, which interviews 10,000 to 15,000 consumers a week, mostly on behalf of retailers. “The numbers are so small, I quit asking the question.”
Convenience is much more important to shoppers.
Take Tammy Johnson who was at a Walmart in Bloomington, Minn. this week. She lives nearby and appreciates that the store has a large grocery section in addition to clothing and other goods.
“It’s easier and it’s cheaper,” she said of her decision to shop there. “I hate that, but it is true.”
Even those who want to make socially responsible purchases a priority have little information available to work with.
There’s no widespread system in place to say where all the materials in a shirt come from let alone whether it was made in a sweatshop or not.
A label saying “Made in USA of imported fabrics” doesn’t provide as much information to shoppers as they might think. Maybe tailors assembled it under good working conditions, but what about the people who wove the fabrics? Another label saying that a shirt is made from 100 percent organic cotton fails to say anything about the conditions of the factory in which it was made.
“What do they know at the point of sale about where it comes from, other than the tag?” said Paco Underhill, founder of Envirosell, which studies consumer behavior. “Our hearts are generally are in the right places. It’s the question of making sure we have the knowledge and pocketbook to follow.”
And it’s not just clothing. It is hard to tell where televisions or laptop components are made.
Companies selling products say they even struggle to tell. Work is often given to subcontractors who themselves use subcontractors. While many major companies stipulate ethics and standards that their subcontractors must follow, policing them is a costly, time-consuming process that sounds easier than it is.
In the case of the Bangladesh factory, Wal-Mart said it had received a safety audit showing the factory was “high-risk” and had decided months before the blaze to stop doing business with Tazreen. But it said a supplier had continued to use Tazreen without authorization.
In recent years, consumers have become much more aware about the food they eat, and where it comes from.
Supermarkets are full of eggs laid by free-range chickens, organically-grown apples and beef from grass-fed, hormone-free cows. Some upscale restaurants now name the farm that provided them with pork chops. And customers pay a premium for these foods.
The difference: They perceive a direct benefit, since the food is going into their bodies.
Ethical choices when buying clothing — or the latest version of Apple’s iPhone — are much more blurred.
Jean MacLeod, who was shopping at a Walmart on the south side of Indianapolis, is willing to pay more for goods if they are made in an ethically responsible manner and does it all the time when she buys food.
Walmart wants the best prices for its customers, she said, but the company also has power as a buyer to make sure factories have decent working conditions.
“They should be able to say, ‘Look it, we don’t want to buy from you unless you do things a little more our way,”’ MacLeod said. “If they don’t want to buy from them, then that means that factory will go out of business.”
Arguments have been made that producing items with cheap labor isn’t necessarily a bad thing.
Factories in the Third World can provide jobs with wages well above a region’s average. They can help lift families out of severe poverty. The catch is that there are fewer safeguards to protect workers from being exploited from unscrupulous employers.
At the Bangladesh factory, locked exits prevented many workers from escaping after fire broke out.
It draws eerie parallels to New York’s Triangle Shirtwaist Fire of 1911, where 146 people died within 18 minutes of a fire starting in a factory with locked exits.
That fire was the catalyst for widespread changes in labor laws in U.S. But in the 100 years since, the desire for cheap clothing hasn’t abated and costly labor has just shifted to factories overseas.
“To put it maybe too frankly, profit and efficiency and competition always trump safety and health,” said James A. Gross, a labor relations professor at Cornell University.
Not every company sees things that way.
Los Angeles-based American Apparel promotes itself as a line of “sweatshop free” clothing. Its founder and CEO, Dov Charney, said that companies can control working conditions — they just need to bring production closer to home. American Apparel knits, dyes, cuts and sews all of its products in-house.
“When the company knows the face of its worker, that’s important,” Charney said. “You can control working conditions and quality.”
Yes, American Apparel spends more on labor, but it isn’t as much as you would expect. Charney estimates that an imported T-shirt selling for $6 at Walmart would cost about $6.30 if produced domestically thanks to the company’s massive scale.
“The consumer can care. They can buy from companies that are committed to fair trade and try to seek out those companies,” he said.
In the mid-1990s, the sneaker giant came under pressure to change its ways after numerous reports of child labor, low wages and poor working conditions. Eventually wages climbed, minimum age requirements were put in place and Nike increased monitoring at its factories.
But such change only comes after persistent public pressure.
“Clothes makers will always do what they want, but the buyer should educate himself,” said Paris shopper Pierre Lefebvre.
Not all buyers have that luxury. Family budgets are tight.
“Especially with this economy, we like our money to go as far as it can,” said Lesley Schuldt, who left a Cincinnati Macy’s this week with five shopping bags worth of jewelry, cookware and gifts. “I have no idea where half the stuff I bought was made, but I imagine it was not in the U.S.”
Associated Press reporters Amanda Lee Myers in Cincinnati, Josh Freed in Bloomington, Minn., Tom Murphy in Indianapolis, Meghan Barr in New York, Heather Tan in Singapore and Thomas Adamson in Paris contributed to this report.
Scott Mayerowitz can be reached at http://twitter.com/GlobeTrotScott.