Victoria’s Secret is the sole customer of Burkina Faso’s fair trade organic cotton program, which you would think would be something the company could feel good about. But some investigative reporting has revealed the the program forces hundreds, if not thousands, of children to plant and pick its cotton and doesn’t pay them for the work, which is something the fair trade label is supposed to make impossible.
Bloomberg reports that over the past few years, Victoria’s Secret has been buying more and more organic and fair trade cotton from Burkina Faso, and last year it bought the entire crop. This is despite a 2008 study done by one of its partners, the National Federation of Burkina Cotton Producers, suggesting that children all over the country are pulled out of school and made to work on cotton farms. And the unfortunate circumstances for these kids, many of whom are foster children, don’t simply stop there. One 13-year-old girl told Bloomberg that she gets beaten if she doesn’t work fast enough.
If she slows down from exhaustion, “he comes to beat me,” she says. He whips her across the back with the tree branch and shouts at her. “I cry,” she says, looking down as she speaks and rubbing the calluses on her hands.
Clearly, there’s a flaw in the system — the fair trade label is supposed to ensure that no one gets exploited or taken advantage of in the production process, but it also creates incentives for producers to abuse the system. Some farmers who participate in Burkina Faso’s program say they don’t have the resources to avoid violating fair trade rules, like the one about forcing kids to work for no pay.
For its part, Victoria’s Secret says a minimal percentage of its cotton is sourced from Burkina Faso and that it will “vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter,” but that’s the sort of comment that you would expect when a company is exposed for building its fortune on the backs of disadvantaged children half a world away. We’d like to see the company come down a little harder on itself — and make an commitment to right these wrongs, instead of just figuring out who to blame for the oversight.