(RNN) - Tragic incidents at sweatshops around the world in recent months have caused some people to think more about how their clothing was made.
Fair trade and ethically-made products have enjoyed increased sales recently, although buying those products remains difficult for the majority of Americans. In 2011, fair trade-certified sales increased by 63 percent in 2011, according to Fair Trade USA.
Worldwide, consumers spent $6.6 billion worldwide on fair-trade-labeled food - a 12 percent increase over the previous year, according to FairTrade International.
These numbers are small in comparison to the non-fair trade market, but they are growing. More awareness about poor working conditions and low wages in foreign countries is likely one of the main reasons people have been buying these products in greater numbers.
A recent study by MIT and Harvard indicates people respond positively to products with labels that explain workers are paid fair wages and have good working conditions. In the study, some higher-end products with fair trade labels in Banana Republic factory outlet stores - where customers are usually visiting to find a bargain - sold 14 percent more than the same products without the label.
According to Elizabeth Cline, author of "Overdressed: The Shockingly High Cost of Cheap Fashion," the clothing industry has been dominated by chain stores like Walmart, Target and Forever 21, which operate by cutting prices as they cut choices.
"These companies go around the world looking for places to produce clothes, wherever it's cheap," Cline said. "That's why they're in Bangladesh, because Bangladesh has the lowest garment worker wages in the world. And they have a very eager population because it's a very poor, very underdeveloped economy. So [the companies] are just going in there, exploiting cheap labor, and hooking us on a cycle of disposable consumption in order to make money."
Not only does this model encourage dangerous working conditions, the quality of the products declines because they are not meant to last, Cline said.
The process has been referred to disparagingly as "fast fashion."
"The whole fashion industry works on the same system, which is just everybody churning out cheap, trendy clothes and selling them at a low price," Cline said. "They sell really cheaply made products and try to sell a lot of it."
Even for people who would like to buy higher quality products made under good worker conditions, finding a place that doesn't use the "fast fashion" model is not easy. This is a result of the consolidation of many department stores during the 1990s, which forced many smaller, independent businesses to close down.
"It left this homogenous landscape, just like with food; it became difficult to shop anywhere outside of chain stores," Cline said.
But for shoppers who go online, it gets easier. At Fair Indigo,
a website that sells fair trade clothing from India and Peru, as well as union-made clothes from the U.S., 2012 holiday season sales rose 32 percent from the previous year.
"People have written in to say how glad they are that they're able to buy from a place that is not exploiting the workers," said Robert Behnke, co-founder of Fair Indigo.
Sales are up, but websites like Fair Indigo that sell ethically-made products still have a hard time getting the attention of casual buyers.
"About half of our customers visit the site specifically for fair trade products," Behnke said. "But the other half just like the products and the extra story is a bonus."
Behnke also said another result of "fast fashion" is the constant turnover of low-quality fashion items that "go out of style" after a few months.
"In the apparel industry, there's a disposable mentality that's overwhelming right now," Behnke said. "Clothes are getting cheaper and cheaper and promoted 50 to 70 percent off constantly and we are really focusing on trying to build quality items that last longer than one season."
Cline and Behnke are both optimistic that the clothing industry will develop more fair trade options by mimicking the food industry.
"There's Whole Foods, which is somewhat of a chain store version of the locavore movement, and then farmers markets and locally-owned restaurants that produce local food," Cline said. "I think we'll see all of those things in the fashion industry."
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