In the wake of a factory collapse in Bangladesh last week that killed more than 500 people, Maine retailer L.L. Bean, which sells clothes made by contractors around the world, said it is stepping up monitoring efforts and factory visits of overseas production sites.

L.L. Bean joins many retailers and manufacturers that are re-examining the standards and practices of their overseas suppliers after the factory collapse. The factory was also the site of a fire six months ago that killed more than 100 people.

Walt Disney Co., in March ordered an end to the production of branded merchandise in Bangladesh and four other countries, while companies such as Walmart Inc., J.C. Penney, Gap Inc. and the Children’s Place recently have looked at ways to improve working conditions in Bangladesh.

Making such changes can be expensive for a company, and it’s not clear that all companies — or consumers — are always willing to absorb the increased labor costs.

“It probably costs cents per garment, not 10 times the price, to make it in a safe, fair way,” said Jan Hammond, the Jesse Philips Professor of Manufacturing at Harvard Business School. “I would like to think people would take the economic hit and do the right thing. It’s an ethically easy decision for companies to make, but it can be costly.”

Many retailers have moved their clothing manufacturing to developing countries like Bangladesh as labor costs in China have risen in recent years. Bangladesh is now the world’s second largest apparel exporter after China, with about 4,000 garment factories paying workers less than $40 a month. That compares with 40,000 garment factories in China that pay salaries close to $200 a month, according to a report by National Public Radio.

In addition to Bangladesh, L.L. Bean also sells clothing and jackets made in countries such as Thailand, Malaysia, El Salvador, Vietnam, Sri Lanka and China.

L.L. Bean’s manufacturing monitors are in Bangladesh this week in response to the recent tragedies, Beem said.

“Following the tragedies in Bangladesh, most of the industry is thinking and rethinking sourcing practices. L.L. Bean has redoubled our monitoring efforts and factory visits,” L.L. Bean spokeswoman Carolyn Beem said in a written statement. “We do have one vendor in Bangladesh, however it is in a different part of the country from where the recent building collapse occurred, (and) is within an industrial zone and operates in a modern facility.”

The Freeport-based company has a code of conduct for best practices that include health and safety, as well as labor standards. All of the factories where it has production facilities are required to adopt that code of conduct, the company said.

Beem said in her statement that the company has monitoring staff who are in the countries of production, as well as staff who travel from Freeport. The company also works with third-party monitors who ensure no subcontracting takes place, she said.

Monitoring and enforcing codes of conduct in foreign counties can be difficult and costly for companies, but they are critical steps to protect lives and brand names, said Hammond.

“Monitoring is not trivial. You have to have a lot of people on the ground who really understand what’s going on in a facility and what’s going to a subcontractor,” she said. “It’s not impossible. It may be costly, but not as costly as losing hundreds of lives and the brand implications. These events have been quite damaging to brands over the years.”

Nike Inc., for example, faced a backlash in the 1990s over child labor used in the production of its sneakers. The backlash and pressure from the public forced the company to change its practices.

Consumers play a role in whether companies will change their practices. News coverage of the Bangladesh factory disaster may help raise awareness of the situation, but change isn’t easy, especially when it involves consumer spending habits, Hammond said.

“Consumers often pick the cheaper item,” she said.

Shoppers on Friday said they were aware of the Bangladesh factory disaster, but they were not sure whether that would prompt them to change their buying habits.

Cathy Daszkiewicz of South Thomaston said she looks at labels and doesn’t buy clothes from certain countries such as China because she feels the quality of the clothes and the dyes used may not be as good as those made in the U.S.

“If you pay for quality, things last. I work hard for my dollar,” said Daszkiewicz.

“I don’t really look at labels. If I’m thinking about it, I like when I see when it is made in the U.S.,” said Abigail Smith of Durham.

The Bangladesh factory collapse may seem far away from Maine, but every purchase of an ethically made product is an opportunity for a responsible decision, said Kevin Hudson, manager of Ten Thousand Villages in Portland.

Ten Thousand Villages is part of a chain that creates relationships with artists in developing countries, purchasing their products through long-term, “fair income” relationships. The chain, which sells products such as handmade silk paper lamps and pottery blessings bowls from Bangladesh, began in the 1940s in an effort to provide sustainable jobs and preserve traditions and cultures from villages around the world.

“Our mission is to provide stable and safe work environments so people don’t have to work in conditions like those,” Hudson said. “We have yearly trips to each area and have long-term ties to these artists to make sure things are done fairly. Fair trade is about providing an opportunity and not taking advantage.”

Pramod Shrestha, owner of Freak Street Imports in Portland, however, said he hasn’t given the tragedy in Bangladesh much thought, since he imports his goods from Nepal and India. Nor has he seen customers concerned about where his goods come from.

“It’s sad. A lot of countries like that don’t have code enforcement. Everything works on bribes,” Shrestha said. “But there are conditions worse than that in a lot of countries.”

L.L. Bean still operates a domestic facility that makes Bean Boots, Maine hunting shoes, tote bags, dog beds and furniture cushions. Additionally, most of its furniture and many of its home furnishings are made in the U.S.

A limited amount of apparel is made domestically, L.L. Bean said.

“We continue to seek domestic sourcing opportunities for products that can be made at a comparable cost and quality,” Beem said. “We do know from our customer that there is a growing interest in having more domestic production, though most realize this does not happen overnight.”

 

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