It'd be cool if we lived in a world where all fashion companies were as honorable as Ned Stark, but if that were the case, then there'd be no need for the "ethical" qualifier in ethical fashion brands.
There is one inarguable fact about all of fashion in 2016, it's impossible to know, exactly, where our textiles come from unless we own our entire supply chains. To oversee the cotton supply chain -- one of the most ubiquitous in the world -- we'd have to:
This is impossible, which is why there are international certifications that I'll let you read about in your own time: ISO, Fair Trade, GOTS, Fairmined, and the Soil Association. Not all certifications are created equal, as some have more stringent requirements and strenuous oversight, but they're a place to start on a brand's journey to sustainability and ethical production.
What doesn't matter -- like, at all -- are signed pledges denouncing slavery. I'm specifically talking about the 263 fast fashion and designer labels (from American Apparel to Zara) who printed their names on the Company Pledge Against Forced Labor in the Uzbek Cotton Sector. Here's a paragraph from the pledge:
As a signatory to this pledge, we are stating our firm opposition to the use of child and adult forced labor in the harvest of Uzbek cotton. We commit to not knowingly source Uzbek cotton for the manufacturing of any of our products until the Government of Uzbekistan ends the practice of forced child and adult labor in its cotton sector. Until the elimination of this practice is independently verified by the International Labor Organization, we will maintain this pledge.
This would be akin to signing a pledge to only drink in bars we know that don't purposely play Taylor Swift. The problem is the bar has a jukebox, so we have no control over how other people use their quarters.
The laymen's explanation of the cotton supply chain looks like this:
Unless you're purchasing a Fair Trade garment, there's no way to actually know where the cotton was grown, because this entire process is shrouded in non-disclosure agreements . It's entirely possible to buy a shirt from American Apparel that is woven from cotton fiber from 5 continents -- including Uzbekistan's government-run industry that forces students out of school and into cotton fields to meet fast fashion's weekly trend cycle.
The only real effect signing a pledge has on our supply chains is it doesn't make us look like complete dickheads among our peers. No one wants to be the guy who doesn't denounce slavery, especially if everyone else is doing it. It costs nothing -- not even the time and effort to follow through -- and gives companies a golden PR opportunity. These are the same companies who regularly shift the blame for their human rights abuses (Rana Plaza and Kentex to name two well-known tragedies), onto factory owners and subcontractors. If they don't know or care who makes their clothing, how are they going to know or care about who harvests it?