04/29/2013 10:36 EDT | Updated 06/29/2013 05:12 EDT

Clothing Brands Can Be Big and Ethical

Last week more than 300 garment workers in Bangladesh died, forcing Canadians to take a hard look at where their T-shirts and yoga pants come from, how they were made, and by whom. It's easier for a small-to-mid-sized company such as us to source at home. But can you manufacture ethically overseas?

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Last week more than 300 garment workers in Bangladesh died when their factory building collapsed on top of them. The news that Canadian clothing brand Joe Fresh was among the international clients of that factory should have Canadians taking a hard look at where their T-shirts and yoga pants come from, how they were made, and by whom.

So how does a company ensure the clothing it sells is socially responsible -- produced by fairly-paid workers in safe and sanitary conditions with no child labour?

In 2005, I founded Me to We Style with Craig and Marc Kielburger and today act as its CEO. Me to We Style is a social enterprise clothing company that generates profits to support the work of Free the Children. We wanted to produce items like uniforms and custom clothing for schools, as well as our own line of retail apparel.

Obviously, ensuring our products were responsibly sourced was one of our top priorities. After much research, we came to the conclusion that the most effective way to do that was to source our garments domestically -- buying from manufacturers right here in Canada.

The benefit of working with Canadian manufacturers is that we are able to remain in near-constant contact with them. Lines of communication are always open and we are able to spot potential problems quickly. It is relatively easy and cost effective to make spot checks and pay surprise visits to our manufacturers. That vigilance is essential for any clothing company interested in ensuring its products are made as ethically as possible.

Even then, however, we felt it was not enough to rely on our own ability to keep tabs on our suppliers. So Me to We Style works with a third-party organization -- the Fair Labour Association. The FLA is an international organization dedicated to protecting workers' rights. We report to them all factories that we use, and benefit from their knowledge and ability to independently monitor these producers.

All that being said, it's easier for a small-to-mid-sized company such as us to source at home. Many big companies that sell large volumes of garments and similar fabric products, such as backpacks, continue to use manufacturing facilities based abroad -- mostly in developing countries.

So can you manufacture ethically overseas? Absolutely. It simply takes more work and a greater investment in due diligence.

The constant contact and frequent visits that we undertake with our domestic suppliers become even more essential for a company dealing with overseas manufacturers. These businesses must build strong internal control mechanisms for keeping an eye on their sub-contractors.

And at the international level businesses can still look to third party organizations such as the Fair Labour Association and Social Accountability International to help ensure they are dealing with ethical suppliers.

Businesses sourcing overseas must also be prepared to continually adapt as the field is always changing.

After the Bangladesh disaster, Loblaw Inc, Joe Fresh's parent company, insisted it audits its suppliers for socially responsible production -- fair pay, and good health and safety standards. However the reality is that most standards for socially responsible manufacturing right now don't include infrastructure; in other words, no one checks to see if the building the workers are in is structurally sound. So Bangladesh is also a wake-up call that it's time to broaden the parameters for measuring ethical production.

Business critics may argue that ethical production makes the business less competitive because factors like higher wages and better benefits increases production costs. That doesn't have to be the case. Production cost is only one piece in the puzzle. In the past, businesses had to factor distribution costs, and the cost of maintaining accessible storefront locations, into their product pricing. But new sales channels, including the Internet, ensure companies can often increase their margins by selling directly to the consumer -- this increase in margins can also be used to help offset some of the increased production costs.

And consumers have to play their part in promoting ethical manufacturing practices. Look at the aspects I've outlined above and ask your favourite brands: Are you doing these things? Do you source your products here or overseas? Do you stay in constant contact and make frequent visits to check up on your suppliers? Do you work with an independent third party like the FLA or SAI to oversee your supply chain? Reward ethical businesses with your consumer dollars.

There is no reason we cannot have a global clothing industry that is both successful and socially responsible.

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