THE BLOG
05/10/2013 11:41 am ET Updated Jul 10, 2013

Dying for Fashion: Can New Biz Models Stop This?

The collapse of the clothing factories in Bangladesh has returned to the front page, as reporters and pundits consider the impact on consumer habits and the practices of global brands. Is it a game changer? At last count more than 1,000 workers died, double the number reported less than a week ago. The workers were paid very little, maybe as low as $40 per month, which, of course, is why Bangladesh is home to thousands of factories like this one, producing product for many of the apparel brands we recognize.

Have we learned anything? No doubt some of those same brands will feel the pinch as we, the consumers, pause at the thought of new clothes at the expense of someone else. Even if that someone is an anonymous factory worker with few options. We pause, that is, until our insatiable appetite for fast fashion returns.

This story is not just about Bangladesh and there are many culprits here besides the brands. They include lax government regulation, corruption and greed. But mass coverage of the event has failed to address one obvious source of the problem: the desire of consumers to have it all. Fashion at the ready, but cheaply.

Consumers come in different stripes and it's risky to generalize about shopping preferences, but from extreme behavior on Black Friday to the popularity of new kinds of retailers like H&M and many others that depend on high volume at low price, shopping is now like a drug. We expect new inventory every time we walk in the door, and discounts year around. For some consumers, the bargain is the objective. JC Penney just learned this the hard way.

When I was a kid, we shopped twice a year. We followed the "seasons." Back-to-School shopping in the fall, with a return trip for shorts, t-shirts and new tennis shoes in the spring. We cared about fashion, but we didn't own all that much more than we needed. Technology, just-in-time inventory and cheap goods from a complex chain of global suppliers that depend on low-cost labor have changed all that.

Fall and spring fashion collections have subdivided into a constant flow of new product. The window displays and inventory changes constantly. The antique question I pose to my kids: "do you really need that?" has little traction when you can secure a fashionable jacket in the latest color for $19 and another blouse to be worn once or twice, at $5.

Can consumers help? Frankly, it's hard to imagine a critical mass of consumers putting their principles first and opening their pockets to lead us out of this mess. Despite what we say in surveys about being willing to pay more for sweatshop free products, our behavior doesn't follow. And consumer power is a blunt instrument. Boycotts work, of course, but it's hard to get at the nuances of how a product is made - both the social and environmental inputs--on a clothing tag.

In spite of this complexity, companies like The Gap, Levi Strauss and Nike with important brands to protect, continue to push for greater transparency about the source of production and for higher standards on the factory floor. But the complexity of assuring that something like this never happens again is mind-boggling, and does not translate easily into point of purchase messaging, even for those that control their own supply chain.

One area of promise is the number of start-ups and seasoned brands that are experimenting with new ways of doing business. They are seeking a more thoughtful consumer. The give and take begins when a company leads with quality over price. And surprisingly, they are willing to raise the question about "sustainable consumption"--i.e., buying less.

Patagonia turned heads when it partnered with eBay to facilitate buying product that was previously owned. The message? This product is good enough to last and real fashion has staying power. Levi's, which, ironically, took a lot of heat for being the last of the big apparel brands to move off shore, is working to distinguish its product in terms of its durability and save-the-planet attributes, through investment in green cotton, lower water usage, and incorporation of recycled materials . Some firms are deliberately choosing to locate their production close to their consumer base: yes, we can still buy Made in the USA apparel and other durable goods. The company that makes my favorite running shirt, Atayne, bucks the industry model: performance apparel all made in the USA using just-in-time production that reduces inventory and waste, plus recycled materials to boot. There are many more examples and we can hope that this moment of reflection helps put wind to their sails.

I have mixed feelings about the value of consumer-led strategies, but in this case, we, the consumers, are complicit. There is no free lunch. It's time to put our money where our mouth is if we want to avoid future disasters like the heart-wrenching one on page one.

[Disclaimer: One of my staff here at The Aspen Institute is married to the majority owner of Atayne; Atayne was one of several companies recently named to B Lab's "Best for the World" list.]