A new fair-trade issue: clothing

Where clothing is made matters to consumers, says Michael Preysman, CEO of Everlane, shown in a Vernon, Calif., plant.
Michal Czerwonka/New York Times
Where clothing is made matters to consumers, says Michael Preysman, CEO of Everlane, shown in a Vernon, Calif., plant.

NEW YORK — The revolution that started in food is expanding to clothing:

Origins matter.

With fair-trade coffee and organic fruit now standard on grocery shelves, consumers concerned about working conditions, environmental issues, and outsourcing are now demanding similar accountability from their T-shirts.


And some retailers are doing what was once unthinkable, handing over information about exactly how and where their products were made.

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Everlane, an online boutique, last week added paragraphs to its website describing the factories where its products are made.

And Nordstrom says it is considering promoting clothes produced in humane working conditions.

New research indicates a growing consumer demand for information about how and where goods are produced. A study last year by professors at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology and Harvard University showed that some consumers — even those who were focused on discount prices — were not only willing to pay more, but actually did pay more, for clothes that carried signs about fair-labor practices.

‘‘There’s real demand for sweat-free products,’’ said Ian Robinson, a lecturer and research scientist at the University of Michigan who studies labor issues. Consumers ‘‘don’t have the information they need, and they do care.’’


The garment factory collapse that killed more than 800 workers in Bangladesh last month has added urgency to the movement, as retailers have seen queries stream in from worried customers.

‘‘In the clothing industry, everybody wears it every day, but we have no idea where it comes from,’’ said Michael Preysman, Everlane’s chief executive and founder. ‘‘People are starting to slowly clue in to this notion of where products are made.’’

Major retailers have long balked at disclosing the full trail, saying that sourcing is inherently complex, workplace protections are expensive, and cheap clothes, no matter where or how they are manufactured, still sell.

But labor advocates note that consumers’ appetite for more information may put competitive pressure on retailers who are less than forthcoming.

Shoppers like Lauri Langton, 62, of Seattle, plan to use their money to push retailers for more information.


Clothing should be like grocery items, where ‘‘you should be able to tell, right away, where the product is produced, so that you can walk away from the product and not buy it if you do not believe it was produced in a humane way,’’ she said.