To avoid dealing with unethical garment factories abroad, Eileen Yap (standing), founder of online store Noel Caleb, works with a team of home seamstresses in Singapore including (from left) Ms Mgui Choon Keow, 46, Ms Jenny Tan, 50, Ms Yvonne Ng, 23, and Ms Audrey Ti, 29. -- ST PHOTO: RAJ NADARAJAN
Each garment knits a story - that of a nameless, faceless worker in a far-flung locale, sewing a piece of clothing that will soon find its way onto the stylish back of some city- dweller.
But recent accidents plaguing factories in Bangladesh and Cambodia have prompted home-grown fashion brands to take a closer look at where - and how - their pieces are made.
In April, a garment factory in Bangladesh collapsed, killing more than 1,000 workers. An accident in a Cambodian factory last month injured more than 20 workers.
To avoid "sweatshop-like conditions", local designers such as Esther Tay say going on a recce trip before signing contracts with manufacturers is a must.
Tay visits Chinese cities such as Guangzhou, Shenzhen and Shanghai, and Batam in Indonesia, where her designs are made. Once there, she scours the factory to suss out working conditions and employees' dormitories, and speaks to its managers and workers.
"It is quite hard to tell a 'good' factory from a 'bad' one, but if workers are happy and take pride in their work, it comes through," says Tay, 59, who runs corporate wear brand Esta. The brand designs uniforms for companies such as Scoot and Resorts World Sentosa.
Her team repeats the checks each season - every three months or so.
In the light of recent mishaps, she has reminded her team to be more vigilant when inspecting factories, such as whether the building has a seal of approval from the local authorities and if employees are working legally.
Working with a "reliable and responsible" producer, she says, makes good business sense.
She says: "If they get into trouble, we truly will be the ones in trouble because our orders will be left hanging, and this is not a risk I am willing to take."
Home-grown label Raoul meets factory management on-site to discuss working conditions before and after each production season, which is about three months, says a spokesman.
The brand's goods are produced in Italy, Turkey, China and Thailand. Quality control teams work as "our eyes on the ground on a regular basis, and monitor general working conditions", he adds.
Certain countries known for fast fashion may also have a downside, says Andrew Loh, 38, creative director of local label Depression, which has a shop in Cineleisure Orchard.
"We try to avoid countries such as India and Vietnam, which have a poor reputation, as it seems that working conditions in those places could be quite bad."
The brand contracts a Guangzhou factory to produce its clothes, via a middleman company in Hong Kong.
Designer Celia Loe, who declines to give her age, says dirty factories with "clothes strewn everywhere" is a danger sign. The founder of the eponymous label gets her clothes produced in a Batam factory.
"You have to be careful and really look around the factory, and stay away from the dirty and messy ones," she adds.
Another way to cut a good deal but stay accountable: use smaller factories, says designer Liu Weiling, 32, co-founder of clothes and leather accessories label Tezzo & Trioon, which has a store at Mandarin Gallery.
"Unlike factories in Bangladesh with hundreds of workers who do mass production, we use smaller ones with about 20 to 50 workers, which is more conducive to working well," she says.
The brand produces some of its stock locally, and the rest in factories in Batam and Bangkok.
But others say that a designer's reach is limited. Daniel Yam, who declines to give his age and founded his eponymous brand known for evening wear two decades ago, says: "Unless you own the factory or contract them at full capacity, there is no basis to insist on a check."
He makes about half of his products locally and the rest in Batam.
Also, all that effort put into finding a respectable producer might not have a direct commercial impact.
Consumers rarely ask about the source of the clothing, preferring instead to look at the quality and design, says Keith Png, 35, founder and co-owner of boutique Hide & Seek, who has designed outfits for local celebrities such as Fann Wong, when she registered her marriage to fellow actor Christopher Lee.
One surefire way to keep a close eye on production is to keep it in Singapore, like online outfit Noel Caleb.
Its founder Eileen Yap, for example, has a team of five seamstresses who work from home to produce her designs - a move to "empower local talent", she says.
Yap, 38, says about ordering from abroad: "Sure, you might receive a nice product at the end of the day, but you don't know what it was like working behind the scenes."
Shoppers such as Ms Tay Li Lin, 34, says that the popularity of fast fashion - buying cheap garments made of flimsy material to be worn just a few times - pumps the sweatshop industry.
She adds: "It hardly strikes me to ask how the clothes were produced, as long as they are wearable and affordable."
But for others, taking an ethical line is the way to go. Says shopper Melanie Ng, 40, who shops from ethical labels such as India's Fabindia or buys second-hand clothing: "The customer is king, so the more we ask, the more retailers will commit to fair practices."
This article was originally published on June 9 2013 on StraitsTimes.com. For similar stories, go tosph.straitstimes.com/premium/singapore. You will not be able to access the Premium section of The Straits Times website unless you are already a subscriber.