Not Sexy: Victoria’s Secret 'Fair-Trade' Cotton Harvested by Child Slaves

Victoria’s Secret is in the business of selling fantasy. Its elite team of supermodels (called “angels”) are painstakingly selected and considered some of the most beautiful women in the world, and its fashion show is a major television event, this year attracting musical performances from Jay-Z and Nicki Minaj. It is about glamor and exceptionalism, and its marketing is centered inextricably around making women who wear Victoria’s Secret’s lingerie feel equally glamorous and exceptional.

But the company cannot ignore the increasing demand for sustainable products, and so when it began using “fair trade, organic cotton,” the sexy-seeking, environmentally minded could ostensibly feel better about their choice to patronize Victoria’s Secret. Little tags in tinier thongs noted: “Made with 20 percent organic cotton from Burkina Faso.”

Which sounds comforting, only an expose published this week by Bloomberg reports that the cotton at that farm in Burkina Faso is harvested by children, who are not only forced to work long hours in the grueling sun, but are beaten if they don’t perform up to par.

As Victoria’s Secret’s partner, [fair trade leader Georges] Guebre’s organization, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers, is responsible for running all aspects of the organic and fair-trade program across Burkina Faso. Known by its French initials, the UNPCB in 2008 co-sponsored a study suggesting hundreds, if not thousands, of children like [13-year-old laborer] Clarisse could be vulnerable to exploitation on organic and fair-trade farms. The study was commissioned by the growers and Helvetas. Victoria’s Secret says it never saw the report.

The report goes on to note that because organic, fair trade cotton sells at a much higher price than cotton that is not stamped as such, the potential for exploitation increases. “The program has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don’t have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without forcing other people’s children into their fields,” it says. The Bloomberg reporter spent six weeks in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso, investigating the lives of six children as young as 10, who work in conditions of slavery, with no possessions, and who live in fear of being whipped. The 13-year-old named Clarisse who’s the focus of the story lives with her cousin, the farmer who beats her, and eats once a day at the most, without access to education though school is legally mandated for her.

Fairtrade International, a German organization that certifies organic and fair-trade farms across the world, told Bloomberg it had certified the farms Victoria’s Secret was using as fair trade, but that they would review them following the story. The US State Department has named Burkina Faso as one of the worst places for child trafficking in the world—with the offenders often connected to the cotton trade. “On small-plot farms like Kamboule’s across Burkina Faso,” reported Bloomberg, “researchers sponsored by the growers federation in 2008 found that more than half of 89 producers surveyed had a total of 90 foster children under the age of 18.”

The report is appalling, and should be read in its entirety. It not only raises the perpetual question of whether those of us living in richer countries are exploiting poorer people just to amass goods on the cheap, but also whether it happens with companies that assure us we’re doing good. (Recall the Whole Foods drive against healthcare.) Many of us mistrust major corporations anyway, but when major, global corporations are engaging—even unknowingly!—in business practices that harm others, it’s all of our problem, particularly if they’re as iconic and attractive to consumers as Victoria’s Secret.

Fairtrade International issued a press release disputing parts of the Bloomberg story, asserting that equating higher farmer wages with increased child exploitation was wrong. But it generally commended the piece for bringing attention to child labor, as well as trumping its own efforts to end child labor, supporting “Fairtrade producer communities to establish child-inclusive community-based monitoring and remediation systems."

Yet at the crux of the story is extreme poverty. Farmers quoted in the expose said they wouldn’t need child labor if they had enough money to buy farming equipment, but in lieu of that, working children would continue. And Fairtrade International, in its press release, expressed fear that decreased demand for cotton from Burkina Faso would harm an already delicate economy:

We are concerned that the article may discourage people and companies from sourcing cotton from Burkina Faso or from other impoverished areas, which would have a devastating negative impact on cotton producing communities and their families, including girls and boys. Regions where producers struggle against high levels of poverty and lack of stability are exactly where investment is most needed, which must be accompanied by strong community based monitoring and remediation systems integrated where possible within government action plans to eliminate child labour, rigorous detection methodologies to identify child labour and strong partnerships with NGOs to remediate them.

Victoria’s Secret is currently investigating.

“Our standards specifically prohibit child labor,” said Tammy Roberts Myers, VP for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”

The reality, it seems, just smacked the fantasy across the face.


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