TORONTO - The tragic collapse of a Bangladeshi garment factory which has claimed more than 300 lives has brought renewed focus to the manufacturing practices of brands that sell affordable goods for mass consumption.
While low-priced garments may prove alluring for many cost-conscious consumers, there has been a growing movement among many to be more mindful in their buying habits.
Dara O'Rourke is a professor at the University of California, Berkeley and the co-founder of GoodGuide, an online resource which provides information about the health, environmental and social performance of products and companies.
In his book "Shopping For Good," which looked at ethical and green consumption, O'Rourke said the fastest-growing segments of almost every product category were eco-friendly items, such as hybrid cars, green cleaning products and natural beauty care items.
"More and more people are looking for more socially responsible, more ethical products," O'Rourke said from San Francisco.
"Apparel is one where it's been a little bit of growth and kind of concern about sweat-free clothing and more environmentally friendly clothing, organic clothing."
O'Rourke and other experts share suggestions of five ways consumers can be more socially conscious and ethically minded in making purchases.
1. Get educated. In its online resource "Shopping for Change," World Vision Canada offers suggestions for places consumers can consult such as GoodGuide and Fairtrade Canada to find out more about companies and their practices, said Cheryl Hotchkiss, senior manager of advocacy and public engagement.
But the education process doesn't end there.
"I think if you're a consumer of a product and you want to find out more information about that product, it's really best for you to be directly in touch with the company that made the product," said Hotchkiss, who is also manager of World Vision's End Child Slavery campaign.
"In our case, we ... ourselves reached out to chocolate companies to say, 'Can you tell us about your supply chain?' And they were very happy, many of them, to answer our questions. We asked our supporters to do the same which provoked more information. Companies are willing to answer the questions if consumers ask them."
2. Hold companies accountable. O'Rourke said the big challenge for consumers is to go beyond the information on tags and ask retailers and brands to disclose where products are made, including details on factories and subcontractors.
"We really can't in this day and age, in 2013, we can't have the situation where high-tech, super-smart, global multinational brands and retailers literally don't know where their products are being manufactured. That's just not acceptable."
Beyond making inquiries in stores, consumers should also use public forums to ask questions about company practices, he added.
"We know from experience here, sending an email to a corporate website or a general web form essentially gets filed away and has very little impact," O'Rourke said.
"The thing that we've seen in the U.S. that is most effective actually is people tweeting their questions or putting their questions on Facebook or circulating their questions among their friends and using social media."
3. Shop local. Even if a garment says it's manufactured in Canada, the components of the item could come from elsewhere, said Brenna Donoghue, president of marketing for Ethical Ocean, a Toronto-based online marketplace for fairly traded, organic and eco-friendly products.
"The tricky thing is when you're shopping in really big stores, getting that information is quite hard," she said. "You can obviously find out the country that manufactured it on the label, but finding out where the components came from is often not knowledge that the staff has.
"I recommend, when possible, shopping at some of the small local shops that you have available to you, and that can really give you a far better sense of how those products were made, even the conditions of the factories where they were made."
4. Check certifications. Donoghue said while buying clothing, she tries to seek out garments made of fabrics like organic cotton — and not just because it's environmentally friendly.
"I know that the workers that are growing that cotton in the first place aren't being exposed to really atrocious chemicals, and often, when something is organic it also comes fair trade," she said.
"The great thing about that combination is that you know that the company is paying fairly for those items, and as well, you can trust that it's not filled with chemicals that will make you sick."
Donoghue also cited Oeko-Tex, an independent test and certification system for textile products at all stages of processing.
Items that can be certified in this system include yarns, fabrics, treated fabrics and manufactured articles like clothing, bedding, towels and soft toys.
"Big certification bodies aren't perfect, but what they do is they at least provide some standard so that you know that someone is looking into the details of these practices."
5. Buy secondhand ... or be prepared to possibly spend more. Donoghue said there are many ways to make inexpensive purchases when it comes to socially responsible shopping.
"It can be really cheap to go and buy a pair of jeans at Walmart or any big-box store like that. Similarly, you can go down the street to a thrift store and buy a pair of jeans even cheaper," she said. "You're helping the environment by doing so, and that can actually save you quite a bit of money."
For those who would prefer not to go to thrift shops, Donoghue said another option is to purchase items posted on online classified sites like Craigslist and Kijiji.
Instead of buying a lot of clothing, she said she's opted to buy fewer items of higher quality from companies she's confident in.
"It really changes, one, the waste that we're producing by buying less. But it also means you can afford to spend more on a pair of shoes or on a bag because you know it's going to last and it's something that you're investing in for a few years rather than just a few months," she said. "I think a lot of it comes down to also changing the way that we think about shopping.
"It's not always the case, but if you want to buy something that's either locally made or that's made overseas but in environments that you're very confident that workers are treated well and that they're being paid a fair wage, sometimes those items will cost more. And in my mind that's OK, so long as those products are of high quality and, as a result, will last you."