Nightly News   |  May 13, 2013

The real cost of cheap clothes

Americans now buy twice as many items of clothing a year as they did 20 years ago, but they are largely unaware of the environmental and economic costs of doing so. NBC’s Stephanie Gosk reports.

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This content comes from Closed Captioning that was broadcast along with this program.

>>> some big clothing makers are signing on tonight to a legally binding plan to improve safety conditions in bangladesh in the wake of the horrifying factory collapse there. that disaster serving as a wake-up call for big business and people here in the u.s. who love cheap clothing and lots of it, and don't always think of the conditions where it's made. our report tonight from nbc 's stephanie gosk.

>> reporter: for nearly three weeks the death toll from the clothing factory in bangladesh has been rising. now the search for bodies is over. more than 1,100 workers have died. there will be no more miracle rescues. a tragedy so large in scope it is already changing a global industry. today retailers including zara and h & m signed an agreement drafted by labor rights groups to pay for fire and safety renovations in any bangladesh facility that makes their clothes. neither zara nor h & m did business with the factory that collapsed. but each has been linked to separate deadly factory fires.

>> i think companies look at the current landscape and understand that the cost of their reputation of not signing this agreement is far greater than the financial cost of participating in the agreement.

>> reporter: bangladesh is one of the poorest countries in the world. today workers told nbc news they just want to be able to work in a safe environment. 4 million people, most of them women, work in roughly 5,000 factories for about $37 a month. 60% of what is made ends up in europe and the u.s. at popular stores like the gap, walmart and jc penney . americans buy twice as many itemses of clothing a year as they did 20 years ago. rapidly shifting styles at increasingly lower prices. like fast food we now shop for fast fashion.

>> reporter: insatiable demand for a product made halfway around the world in conditions most aren't aware of. journalist elizabeth klein posed as a clothing buyer in bangladesh for her book "overdressed."

>> do we need all this clothing and do we want to take responsibility for the costs associated with the cheap fashion habit?

>> reporter: with the rubble being cleared, customers and companies are taking a new look at the real cost of cheap clothes. stephanie gosk, nbc news, new york.