Back in the day, before Starbucks and baristas, coffee was an industrial commodity which almost entirely ignored the very farmers who produced the precious bean. Not until did fair trade best practices and transparent supply chains become industry standards—true certified provenance tracking—did the marketplace realize that consumers would pay a premium for coffee humanely sourced and fairly bought and sold.
The clothing industry is where coffee was 20 years ago.
Provenance, the traceability and trackability of a piece of clothing, from cotton seed to finished blouse, today barely skims the surface of the energy inputs alone for a fabric, never mind the toxicity of the dyes used or the working conditions of the artisans and loom operators employed to produce the fabric.
Until there’s a global standard—like the initial coffee breakthrough of free trade, which certified farmers weren’t getting ripped off by coffee brokers and distributors—that defines the energy and ecological footprint for a piece of clothing, then there’s little even the most activist consumer can do to differentiate an ethical piece of clothing from a sweatshop product.