It’s hard to imagine a more blistering lede than the one on top of Bloomberg’s Cam Simpson’s expose of the mistreatment of children harvesting cotton in West Africa for undergarments eventually sold by Victoria’s Secret.
“Clarisse Kambire’s nightmare rarely changes. It’s daytime. In a field of cotton plants that burst with purple and white flowers, a man in rags towers over her, a stick raised above his head. Then a voice booms, jerking Clarisse from her slumber and making her heart leap. “Get up!”
The 13-year-old’s nightmare is based on the reality of routine beatings with a tree branch, the story tells us. The piece documents other degradations on a long grueling day harvesting the organic crop. Videos such as this one of Clarisse’s “Sparse Mud-Walled Hut Home” are heart-wrenching, as is the statement of the president of the organic and fair-trade cooperative in the village in Burkina Faso. It’s his understanding, he tells Simpson, that it’s acceptable for his farmers to use children in their fields if they’re not their biological offspring, and they’re at least 6 years old.”
“Your own children, no, but somebody else’s child can work,” he says.
The New York Post’s Leonard Greene cites a tagline Victoria Secret used to market a lingerie line in 2008 that the company it said was made from fair-trade cotton: “Good for women. Good for the children who depend on them.
“The company even went so far as to boast that each purchase improved the lives of women and children in Burkina Faso, the destitute African nation where the cotton is picked,” Greene writes.
Limited Brands quickly reacted to the story on its website. Under a “Responses” tab in its drop-down menu, it states: “If this allegation is true, it describes behavior that is contrary to our company’s values and the code of labor and sourcing standards that we require all of our suppliers to meet. These standards expressly prohibit child labor.” The company says it is investigating the charges and “depending on the findings, we are prepared to take swift action to prevent the illegal use of child labor in the fields….”
Limited Brands also gives the background of its involvement in the Fair Trade program which was organized by the National Federation of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso (UNPCB), citing accomplishments such as paying for school books and 32 water wells in poor farming villages and asserting its commitment to women workers.
“We, and others, are still learning and working with experts in Africa and around the world to figure out the best ways to further our goal of improving the lives of women and children in a country where a large portion of the population lives on less than a dollar a day,” the statement reads.
Simpson is using Clarisse’s story to expose “flaws in the system for certifying fair-trade commodities” that’s based “on the notion that purchases by companies and consumers aren’t supposed to make them accomplices to exploitation, especially of children.” It’s a market that grew 27% globally last year to more than $5.8 billion.
"The importance of children's involvement in the work of family-based production units, and the learning of skills required for their working life is recognized, but any involvement must be disclosed and monitored and must not adversely affect the child's well-being, security, educational opportunities and need for play," according to the "Charter of Fair Trade Principles" issued by the World Fair Trade Organization and Fairtrade International and cited by the Associated Press.
Indeed, commentators on the story point out on various sites that Victoria Secret’s is certainly not alone in selling products produced under harsh conditions, wittingly or not. Sarah Mahoney, who covers the retail beat for Marketing Daily, reminds us that Limited Brands has been “trying to do the right thing” by buying Fair Trade goods and that some major retailers –- Macy’s and Costco are cited in this campaign -– apparently still depend on a supply of “dirty” gold without major repercussions from consumers.
There’s no telling what will have legs. Nike is still recovering in some circles from a blistering campaign reacting to its use of sweatshops and child labor overseas in the ’90s –- a practice it apologized for in 2001. We can only hope that the story focuses attention on the larger story for brutal and dehumanizing conditions in the workplace around the world and doesn’t focus solely on Victoria’s Secret which, as one commentator to a New York magazine blog item puts it, has “13973979387y938793” other things not going for it.
Simpson’s story ends with Clarisse having a hard time falling asleep as anger wells within her. When she does, she says, the nightmares return. We now own those nightmares.