The death of more than 300 people in a garment building collapse in Bangladesh has renewed concerns about the conditions of workers who make clothing for some of the biggest brands in the Western world, including Canada’s Joe Fresh.

But analysts say the supply chain of the modern garment industry makes it hard for consumers to determine whether the shirt or pair of pants they bought was the product of sweatshop labour.

"As a consumer, it’s really difficult to learn what were the conditions of the production of a specific garment," says Adriana Villasenor, a senior advisor at the retail consultancy J.C. Williams Group.

In recent years, major brands such as Wal-Mart, the Gap and Canada’s Joe Fresh have outsourced the manufacture of clothing to cheap labour markets such as Bangladesh, where the national minimum wage stands at $38 US a month. According to the Institute for Global Labour and Human Rights, Bangladesh has the lowest labour costs in the world.

'It would be very unfair to describe all of the manufacturers in Bangladesh as having the same bad conditions for workers. There are very good manufacturers there that fall into compliance.'—Adriana Villasenor, retail advisor

But there are concerns that in satisfying the demands for low prices from Western consumers, factory owners in Bangladesh are compromising the health and safety of workers.

More than 300 people died when the garment building collapsed in Savar, a suburb of the Bangladeshi capital Dhaka. Officials said Thursday that police ordered the building evacuated on April 23 after discovering deep cracks in the structure.

Many factories in the building ignored the order and kept more than 2,000 people working on April 24, which is when the collapse occurred.

It is considered the deadliest incident for Bangladesh’s clothing industry, surpassing a fire in November that killed 112 people.

What consumers should look for

The issue for consumers who want to buy goods without exploiting foreign workers is that it's often very difficult to figure out where a piece of clothing came from and how it was made.

Buying a major brand or shopping at a well-known store chain, for example, is no guarantee that the item wasn't made under questionable working conditions.

Villasenor says large retailers such as Wal-mart or Sears either work with a distributor, which in turn finds manufacturers to produce an item, or else they deal with the manufacturer directly. Working with a distributor could mean less oversight of conditions on the factory floor.

A strikingly low price on an item of clothing might suggest that it’s the product of sweatshop labour, but it’s not a precise indicator, says Villasenor. She says there are "many, many conditions" that could lead a store to settle on a sale price.

"It really depends on the margins the retailer decided to put on that garment," she says.

Consumers worried about sweatshop labour should inspect the name of the country printed on the label, says Cheryl Hotchkiss, senior manager of advocacy and public engagement at World Vision Canada.

If the name of a country such as Bangladesh appears on the label, "I think you have reason to be concerned," says Hotchkiss.

But Villasenor points out that this, too, is an imperfect gauge. A label will only specify the country of origin, but not whether the product may have involved an unscrupulous factory owner or distributor.

"It would be very unfair to describe all of the manufacturers in Bangladesh as having the same bad conditions for workers," Villasenor says. "There are very good manufacturers there that fall into compliance."

Last night, Julija Hunter, a spokesperson for Joe Fresh's parent company, Loblaws, released a statement saying that it "has robust vendor standards designed to ensure that products are manufactured in a socially responsible way, ensuring a safe and sustainable work environment. We engage international auditing firms to inspect against these standards. We will not work with vendors who do not meet our standards."

Establishing international standards

Osmud Rahman, a professor at the Ryerson School of Fashion with an expertise in consumer behaviour, says that the average person doesn’t have enough information at hand about where, and how, their clothing is made.

He proposes a system like the International Organization for Standardization, or ISO, for the garment industry. The ISO establishes standards for a wide range of consumer products and services, and Rahman says a similar system for clothing would help ethically minded consumers decide what to buy.

"We could say, if [a manufacturer] passes that standard, then we’ll give them a rubber stamp," says Rahman. "Then, they could indicate that on the label of the garment. It would give the consumer more information, so they can make a better judgment."

Despite the lack of such a classification, Hotchkiss says consumers are becoming increasingly aware "that the supply chain, which they may be implicated in, is causing damage to other people."

A 2012 survey commissioned by World Vision and conducted by Ipsos-Reid found 79 per cent of Canadians want to "make an effort to ensure they know how and where things they purchase are made."

One organization that reflects this awareness of ethical manufacturing is Ten Thousand Villages, the largest non-profit fair trade organization in North America.

Ten Thousand Villages, which has 34 stores in Canada, sources and sells accessories, home décor and gift items from artisans around the globe. According to general manager Ryan Jacobs, Ten Thousand Villages is committed to "direct trade," which means no middleman.

"We know the people who produce the products," says Jacobs.

He adds that the organization regularly travels to the regions where its suppliers live to confirm the safety and fair treatment of staff in their workshops.

Hotchkiss says the best bet for consumers concerned about ethical fashion is consulting a site such as GoodGuide.com, where you can look up specific products and the labour practices of the companies that make them.

"If it’s really important to [consumers]

to ensure that they’re using their money wisely and make sure they're buying an ethical product, it’s best to do your research ahead of time," says Hotchkiss.