An investigative report from Bloomberg reveals that the "fair-trade, organic" cotton used in many of Victoria's Secret's products is actually produced by a company that largely relies on forced child laborers.
The report follows the heartbreaking story of 13-year-old Clarisse, who works at a Burkina Faso farm that supplies much of Victoria's Secret's cotton. Clarisse recounts the back-breaking working conditions she endured, which had her help dig over 500 rows to sow the cotton "with only her muscles and a hoe, substituting for the ox and the plow the farmer can’t afford." If she slows down in the 100 degree heat, she says the farmer, her cousin and foster parent, "whips her across the back with the tree branch and shouts at her." She is not paid and most times she is fed but once a day. Other days she doesn't eat at all. The result of her toil, and the toil of many "foster children" in similar situations in Burkina Faso, went into the colorful thongs and undies that Victoria's Secret is so well known for--the company purchased all of Burkina Faso’s organic crop from last season, and was expected to get most of this season's crop as well.
What's worse, Victoria's Secret once marketed the garments made with Burkina Faso cotton as “good for women, good for the children who depend on them”--the result of a 2007 deal by the company to buy fair-trade and organic cotton to support "sustainable raw materials and benefit female African farmers." Unfortunately, according to the report, the premium prices associated with fair-trade and organic cotton have created fresh incentives for farmers in Burkina Faso--a country whose population largely lives off of just $2 a day--to exploit child laborers.
It's unclear whether Victoria's Secret knew the extent to which the child labor laws were being violated. After all, Burkina Faso's crop was labelled as "fair-trade" and "organic," and was found by Fairtrade International, the world’s largest group of its kind, to be up to standards. However a study done by Victoria's Secret's partner, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers (or as it's known by its French initials, the UNPCB), in 2008 found that "hundreds, if not thousands, of children like Clarisse could be vulnerable to exploitation on organic and fair-trade farms." And growers across the country say that while they regularly received technical training on how to maintain organic purity in their crop, nobody from the program gave them rules or training about child labor on their farm--even after the 2008 study was conducted. On the other hand, both Victoria's Secret and Fairtrade International say they never saw the report.
While an executive for Victoria’s Secret’s parent company claimed that the amount of cotton it buys from Burkin Faso is minimal, the company said it is doing everything in its power to address the child labor allegations. "Our standards specifically prohibit child labor,” Tammy Roberts Myers, vice president of external communications for Limited Brands Inc., which owns Victoria's Secret, said in a statement. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.” Fairtrade International has said it is reviewing its certification of the farms in the area.
Earlier this year, Zara was caught in a similar scandal, when reports surfaced that their Brazilian factories were using child laborers.