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Check your closets, those bargains don't come cheap

The Bangladesh factory tragedy should be the final straw for us to become responsible consumers.

IF YOU'VE BEEN paying attention to the deadly collapse of the Bangladesh garment factory, you know our dirty laundry just got dirtier.

Like a lot of you, I've followed the April 24 tragedy that, at last count, has claimed more than 1,000 lives.

I was haunted by the heartbreaking photo of the couple found under debris in a final embrace.

I was amazed at the rescue of the seamstress who lived 17 days trapped in the rubble.

But it was all from afar.

Until I went to my basement to do laundry, and noticed the tags on my clothes. Quick inventory: Linen printed blouse, Indonesia. Cotton V-neck T-shirt, Vietnam. Skinny white jeans, Bangladesh.

I don't know why I was surprised. Most of our clothes are made overseas, especially the cheap ones that I fill my closet with.

But in that moment, I was ashamed - and totally at a loss of what to do with those pants.

It's one thing to read about the dangerous, sometimes deadly conditions in which millions of Bangladeshis make clothes for American and European consumers. It's a sobering and embarrassing reality to admit that right there, in those $30 pants I once loved, is proof that I own some of this.

We all do. Go ahead, do a quick check of your own clothes.

Should I throw them away? I could, but doing that wouldn't change the working conditions in Bangladesh. And if we stop buying clothes made by Bangladeshi workers, they won't have jobs; they become poorer, and that's bad, right?

Should I keep them? Some admittedly morbid attempt to honor the dead, maybe? But then, that would be rewarding negligent factory owners and the American companies contracting for these clothes.

I guessed I wasn't the only one helplessly staring at her laundry basket, so I called Dara O'Rourke, a professor at UC Berkeley who wrote Shopping For Good , a book about ethical shopping. He also co-founded, a website devoted to the same cause.

In the wake of the factory collapse and a factory fire that killed eight workers two weeks later, many consumers are debating the ethics of their clothing, O'Rourke said.

Just the other day, his wife was going through their child's clothes and came across pajamas that were made in Bangladesh.

"It's shocking, but it also brings it home that we are all connected to that tragedy," he said.

And that we all have a responsibility to finally do the right thing here.

We can start by owning our part in an industry where workers make about $38 a month to keep us in fine, cheap clothes with dangerous, often deadly consequences. Five months before the building collapse, 112 workers were killed in a garment-factory fire.

Before giddily filling our closets with inexpensive finds, we need to demand answers from retailers who are betting that as long as they keep us in cheap clothes, we'll look away. And that doesn't mean pressuring the companies to cut and run - that's the easy way out. O'Rourke said that the more responsible thing for companies to do is to stay and invest in improving conditions for the workers.

They clearly aren't going to do it without pressure. Yesterday was the deadline for American and European retailers to sign a Bangladesh fire- and building-safety agreement drawn up by labor groups. But as European retailers signed on, the largest American retailers, including Gap and Wal-Mart, were holding out.

So you know what that means? It's on us to put the pressure on retailers that are finding every excuse not to sign on and do right by workers.

O'Rourke suggested reaching out to them on social media: @Gap, @Walmart, why aren't you signing on to improve factories? @jcpenney, @childrensplace, we care about the people who make our clothes, we demand you do, too.

And about those pants - O'Rourke said that there isn't much use getting rid of them.

"At the very least they can serve as a painful reminder of the real cost of cheap clothes, and our responsibility to improve it."

On Twitter: @NotesFromHel