Bloomberg Markets went to Burkina Faso, where Victoria's Secret usually buys up the entire fair trade and organic-certified cotton crop to make the lingerie it sells in the West. There, the magazine found children of 12 and 13, laboring in the fields on pain of being whipped with switches by their bosses the cotton farmers. Burkina Faso-grown cotton is shipped to India and Sri Lanka, where it is milled into cloth, cut, sewn and finished (Sri Lanka and India, it is worth pointing out, also have their issues with child labor in the garment industry). From there, finished underwear made of the fair trade organic cotton is shipped to the U.S., where it used to be sold by Victoria's Secret with hang-tags that read, "Pesticide-free, 100% rain-fed cotton. Good for women. Good for the children that depend on them." (The company has since dropped the "good for children" part.) Bloomberg, which spent six weeks in the country, reports:
In Burkina Faso, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has — perversely — created fresh incentives for exploitation. The program has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don't have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without violating a central principle of the movement: forcing other people's children into their fields.
Victoria's Secret's partners in cotton-sourcing, including the Swiss organization responsible for certifying the cotton and auditing producers, say they have raised concerns about child labor since 2008. Victoria's Secret says it never saw the relevant report. Cotton is produced thanks to forced and child labor in more countries than any commodity except for gold; the fair trade program is supposed to ensure fair labor standards are met. But this is hardly the first time that certification standards for organic and fair-trade cotton have been thrown into doubt: last year, the German Financial Times uncovered fraud "on a gigantic scale" in the production of "organic" cotton originating from India. One of the children Bloomberg interviewed, a 13-year-old girl named Clarisse, took a reporter into the field where she works and demonstrated how she turns the soil with a hoe: