I do not think I thought for many seconds about what clothes I bought - or especially where I bought them - during the first 38 years of my life. Mainly because I was not interested, I had so much else to worry about. But I later understood that the ethical choice for the consumer is extremely complex and that very few, if any, are in the whole picture.
I know that I myself am not in the whole picture either, but in the next few minutes you will in any case get to share my thoughts based on over 20 years of work in Asia and soon 10 years in labor law, primarily in the textile industry.
How to choose the right clothes? I was asked the other day by a friend in France who sincerely wanted to change his consumption pattern. My answer was a bit rallied; Can you grow cotton? Do you like sheep?
My attempt at humor is ignored, there is something in this. I remember an occasion when I worked for the Swedish Environmental Protection Agency with projects in China and India. Colleagues worked to try to produce an ecological footprint for a car; from raw materials to manufacturing, sales, recycling / final disposal - that is, the product's life cycle. As you can imagine, this includes the origin and full traceability of tens of thousands of different products.
A t-shirt is not as complex, nor is a suit or a prom dress, but the basic problems are essentially the same - value chains are not transparent.
There is a bottom for how far down in control an individual company, or for that matter an organization, can get when it comes to production that includes more than a few thousand garments. There is no reasonable chance of controlling everything. Then, in my opinion, it is better to try to work with global organizations that have the opportunity to drive long-term change. For example, we learned that Uzbek cotton was bad. But what makes it worse than cotton from other production countries and how do you really know which cotton ends up in your particular garment?
The spinning mills collect cotton from all corners of the world, and just because your brand has banned cotton from a specific market, does not mean that a brand from China, for example, has done so. This is how you have - a little simplified - thousands of tonnes of cotton in two piles that will become thread and fabric, one with a durability stamp and one without.
What really ends up in the garments? I do not believe in punctual efforts, but rather that we consumers must stand up for our choices and instead work for poverty reduction globally - rather than believing that we have made an ethical choice when we buy clothes.
So back to my French friend and her question. As a consumer, you can with some certainty ensure that the materials you choose are durable (or less harmful), regardless of how you approach solid fashion, cotton farming or sheep farming. However, it is more difficult to form an opinion about the impact of your particular garment on workers' everyday lives, so here I personally believe most in pragmatics. I myself consume very few garments per year and I choose clothes I like. But I also opt out of some brands, mostly because I know they do not work ethically.
It is possible to make conscious choices, but there is no easy and safe way other than to use all your clothes for as long as possible and then make sure that they are recycled as much as possible. A large-scale production looks pretty much the same regardless of what ethical certification the garment has.
Small-scale production is more expensive, it is not really possible to get away from it. The question you should ask yourself is rather whether you want to pay for transport costs for small-scale production outside Sweden, or if you want to turn your attention to what is manufactured around the corner. My French friend left our conversation without clear answers, but with a lot to think about.