Which Factory Made That Shirt? Even the Retailers Don't Know

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Walmart store
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In April, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than a thousand people. The factory had been making apparel for numerous American fashion brands and retailers.

In the wake of the tragedy, Walmart (WMT) -- which had previously sourced clothes from the factory -- touted its commitment to worker safety by releasing an extensive list of factories it had stopped doing business with out of safety concerns. But a ProPublica report released last week found that at least two of those factories were still making clothes sold in Walmart stores.

In one case, the company told ProPublica that it had simply accepted clothing shipments that had already been produced. The other factory was making clothes for Fruit of the Loom that were subsequently sold in Walmart stores, and the company says that there was confusion about which company's standards should apply.

It's not the first time Walmart has found itself having to explain why it was sourcing clothes from unsafe factories. After a fire killed 112 Bangladeshi garment workers in a factory fire last year, reporters found Walmart-brand clothes in the wreckage; the retailer subsequently claimed that it had stopped doing business with the factory, but that one of its suppliers in the region had not complied.

So why is Walmart having so much trouble figuring out where its clothes are coming from?

In short, it's because supply chains aren't a simple matter of factory-to-store. The Huffington Post's Peter Goodman offers a good look at how lax oversight and a complicated tangle of contractor and subcontractor relationships can lead to companies sourcing goods from suppliers that they might otherwise avoid. Ikea, for instance, purchased furniture made with illegally logged wood, while an Indian firm that Benneton had hired to make its clothes subcontracted the job out to the Bangladeshi factory that collapsed in April.

Further complicating things is that a single item may combine parts from multiple far-flung sources.

"If you're selling sunglasses, you may buy the temples from a different supplier than the screws, and then they're assembled in another factory," points out Brett Rose of United National Consumer Suppliers, a wholesale distributor. "There's a lot of hands in the mix."

That doesn't absolve Walmart and other retailers from responsibility, and it's clear that better oversight of its supplier relationships is necessary to prevent similar failures in the future. It does suggest, however, that consumers who wish to avoid companies that do business with unsafe factories will face an uphill battle.

Socially conscious consumers do have one option: They can boycott companies that refused to sign the Bangladesh Factory Safety Accord, a binding agreement to chip in on safety upgrades for factories in the country. Both Walmart and Gap (GPS) are among those that declined to sign, citing prohibitive costs.

But if you do decide to boycott those brands, just keep in mind that this isn't a foolproof way to avoid wearing clothes made in unsafe factories. If massive multinationals like Ikea and Walmart can bungle their supply-chain management, then anyone can.

Matt Brownell is the consumer and retail reporter for DailyFinance. You can reach him at Matt.Brownell@teamaol.com, and follow him on Twitter at @Brownellorama.


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38 Comments

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Hi Gram, Ty&Dill

Here's an idea...buy AMERICAN MADE!!!

June 18 2013 at 11:12 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
mtwonjack

There are NO men's shirts made anywhere in the US today.

June 18 2013 at 1:57 AM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
byourb2

In a very poor country, where everyone is as poor as dirt the profit is what comes first. We can quote laws and who profits from those, follow the money all the way to the top.

June 17 2013 at 10:50 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
jelun

It would be a whole lot easier to track who made it if the items were made in the USA.

June 17 2013 at 10:44 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
B.Gee

I'll still buy the best quality I can get for my hard earned money and not give a damn who made it. This country needs to figure out how to do it.

June 17 2013 at 8:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
setanta54s_back

bunch of DIPSTIX with this wallie world derangement syndrome--
so morons --WHERE DOES old navy,target,neiman marcus ON AND ON get their garments from ?
ILGWU ????? LOL

June 17 2013 at 7:39 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
jeanrci

The retailer buys from a supplier, like Nike, Levis, etc. Why would the RETAILER know exactly where every shirt comes from? Shouldn't the SUPPLIER know this?

June 17 2013 at 6:49 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to jeanrci's comment
jelun

I believe that they are referring to the store brand... Target = Circo
Kohl's = SO and whatever...

June 17 2013 at 10:45 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
ectullis

One thing is for sure, they weren't made in the US

June 17 2013 at 6:34 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
mrscdel

Unless it says MADE IN THE USA shame on you for selling it or buying it. YOU are the reason there is no job for your family!!!

June 17 2013 at 6:20 PM Report abuse +3 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to mrscdel's comment
setanta54s_back

I HAVEN'T SEEN AN ILGWU LABEL FOR DECADES.
no WHY WAS the garment industry FORCED OUT of the USA ?
wake UP.

June 17 2013 at 7:41 PM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply
lmaar2

There is a simple fix to this---impose the same recall rules on clothing manufacturers that are imposed on food manufacturers. I work for a food manufacturer. We have to know the source of every single ingredient and after the product is made, we have to know where every single case ships. This is if there is a recall for a foodborne illness, foreign material in the product, missing allergen labeling, or incorrect ingredient list on the label. Doesn't matter. All components, from source to end customer, must be traceable. Expensive? You bet. But it can be done and is done every day in the food industry.

June 17 2013 at 1:23 PM Report abuse +2 rate up rate down Reply
2 replies to lmaar2's comment
thefacts22

lol

June 17 2013 at 5:10 PM Report abuse +1 rate up rate down Reply
setanta54s_back

DO YOU EAT SHIRTS etc ?
so exactly why to IMPOSE this bs on garments ???

June 17 2013 at 7:43 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply