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After Bangladesh, what's the real cost of a cheap $8 shirt?

A Primark clothing shop in central London on April 25, 2013. U.K. clothing retailer Primark, which has 257 stores across Europe and is a unit of Associated British Foods, confirmed that one of its suppliers occupied the second floor of a building that collapsed in Bangladesh killing at least 228 people.

Paul Hackett/Reuters

What is the real cost of an $8 T-shirt?

Canadian consumers grappled with the guilt and confusion tied to that question Thursday as horror played out in Bangladesh. The sheer magnitude of the factory collapse outside Dhaka is unprecedented even in that poor Asian nation, where an estimated 700 people working in its booming garment industry have died on the job in the past eight years.

Experts on discount culture say that Westerners' craving for cheap clothes does not have to come at the expense of worker safety, and angry consumers took up that call on social media Thursday, condemning the brands whose garments were made at the collapsed factory.

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Those brands include Joe Fresh, the Brampton, Ont., based company that has been celebrated by fashion insiders and regular shoppers for providing the latest trends at bargain prices.

Hundreds of people wrote on the retailer's Facebook and Twitter pages, saying that the company's response to the disaster amounted to too little, too late.

Joe Fresh's parent company, Loblaw Cos. Ltd., released a statement Wednesday that said a "small number" of Joe Fresh items were made at the Bangladeshi factory.

"What constitutes 'a small number of … items?' Does sourcing slave labour on a small scale make you less responsible than those who do it on a large scale? Put on your humanity hat, dig into those massive Joe Fresh profits, grab your corporate shareholders and head over to help the recovery," wrote Kelly Penman of Brampton.

Others lobbed blame at each other, saying that anyone who pays $19 for a pair of skinny jeans should realize that the labourers who made them shoulder a greater human cost.

It is a common misconception that the only way to produce cheap clothes is to use substandard conditions for garment workers, said Ellen Ruppel Shell, a correspondent for The Atlantic and the author of Cheap: The High Cost of Discount Culture.

It is also a misconception that the only way to guarantee proper working conditions is to boycott clothes made in the developing countries, she said.

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"It's not a black and white situation. This is not: either the public has to pay a fortune for their clothes, or they have to put up with [these types of tragedies]. That is not the case," said Ms. Ruppel Shell, co-director of the graduate program in science and medical journalism at Boston University.

The easiest place for clothing retailers to minimize production costs is labour, she said. But if consumers demand it loudly enough, companies will respond by providing better wages and working conditions.

"You'll find now that most websites for apparel companies will have something about sustainability, and they'll say, 'We inspect our factories,'" says Kevin Thomas, director of advocacy for Maquila Solidarity Network, a Toronto-based labour and women's rights organization that supports workers in global supply chains. "But that doesn't tell a consumer very much about what they're finding, for one, and whether they're seriously addressing the risks in those factories."

It may sound counterintuitive, but better working conditions doesn't mean consumers pay much more at the register, he added.

"When we talk about making improvements in factory conditions, and even wages, the actual cost at the consumer end is going to be pennies per garment. It's not something that consumers need to fear," he said. "But it takes a company that's willing to forgo the massive profits and make sure that they're doing things right."

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