Victoria's SecretThe Victoria's Secret chain has a secret, all right, and it's a dirty one. Its undies that are purported to be made with "fair trade" organic cotton actually utilize some unseemly labor practices in the early stages of the supply chain.

In other words, many of their unmentionables are already sullied before the first wearing -- by child labor and forced working conditions.

Controversial Cotton

The issue is with the Victoria's Secret underwear bearing the following message: "Made with 20 percent organic fibers from Burkina Faso." Cotton is one of the major exports of the West African nation of Burkina Faso, second only to gold. Burkina Faso also happens to be one of the poorest countries in the world, ranked at No. 161 out of 169 on the UNDP Human Development Index last year.

Products that are organic and particularly those labeled "fair trade" are supposed to imply a better quality of life for the people involved in their manufacture or farming. Sadly, coerced workers and child laborers aren't uncommon in Africa, but merchandise that's supposed to be "fair trade" is the last place you'd expect to find child labor and forced working conditions.

According to a recent Bloomberg report, children as young as 12 or 13 were forced to work and subjected to beatings administered by the cotton farmers. (Burkina Faso cotton is sent to India and Sri Lanka after harvest to be transformed into cloth, sewn, and finished, and both those countries utilize child labor as well.) Meanwhile, Burkina Faso's entire organic cotton crop was purchased by Victoria's Secret, and it's also scheduled to purchase most of the next harvest too.

The Failings of 'Fair Trade'

Victoria's Secret has responded to the allegations by stating that this behavior is "contrary to our company's values and the code of labor and sourcing standards we require of all our suppliers," and that the company is "vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter."

Obviously, many stakeholders must be actively involved to make sure "fair trade" is truly fair -- and guaranteed free of blights like child labor and cruelty.

We can't entirely blame Limited Brands' (LTD) Victoria's Secret for the fact that the intended purpose and spirit of "fair trade" may be subverted at times. The largest certification agency for this segment, Fairtrade International, actually vouched for the Burkina Faso organic crop meeting standards.

Fairtrade International deserves a great deal of heat for this failure of the true spirit of fair trade, and hopefully the public attention will prove to be an impetus to improve the standards farms adhere to in order to gain a truly "fair trade" status.

Motley Fool analyst Alyce Lomax owns no shares of Limited Brands.

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Following its own investigation of the claims made by Bloomberg of child labour in Fairtrade certified cotton in Burkina Faso, Fairtrade International released its response today.

It can be found on the front page of (or directly at In particular, it refutes the claims that the person featured in the articles was involved in cotton production at all (Fairtrade certified or otherwise), any Fairtrade certified product, and that she was under the age of 18. It also raises serious concerns regarding the journalist's methods.

Nevertheless, it should be noted that no system can guarantee that a product is 100% child labour free. The Fairtrade system has standards against it, an audit-based monitoring system to catch it if it occurs, and clear protocols on what to do if it does that focus first on the safety of any at-risk children and second on mitigating the risk of it happening again.

Michael Zelmer
Fairtrade Canada

January 03 2012 at 3:03 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Great. Keep them from making money and living. Stop placing your lame morals on starving people. They like the money and child labor is not illegal there. VS pays better than most and this is a way to rise above starvation. It is a needed step to advancement. First work and food, then education, then industry, then a middle class. BABY STEPS.

December 31 2011 at 9:13 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Mitch Teberg, MA

When journalism makes an accusation of forced child labour with links to Fair Trade, there is a need to address the issue immediately and make reparations. However, when the link to Fairtrade proves invalid, there is a need to call for integrity in corporate media!

Mitch Teberg, MA
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant

December 29 2011 at 1:32 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Paige A.Christian

I really dont know from where Ms. Alyce Lomax got her information about Sri Lanka employing child labour for garments, especially Victoria's Secret, but as someone who has seen and worked with the garment industry in Sri Lanka I can safely say that all garments made for Victoria's Secret in Sri Lanka does not employ child labour in any form. 99.9% of the garment industry in Sri Lanka is extremely responsible when it comes to child labour, in fact, that's why most of them have highly reputed international brands working here. I strongly suggest Ms. Alyce Lomax to substantiate her statements so as not to loose her journalistic reputation instead of trying to gain one through articles such as these.

December 29 2011 at 5:00 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

It is typical of journalism to sensationalize a story by beginning an article with a negative view of a company, only adding in the last couple of sentences that it is not actually the fault of the company whose name is in the headline. Sadly many people look at a headline without reading the full article. As a result, it may seem that Victoria's Secret executives are well aware of the practices of this country, when in reality they believed in a company whose job it was to guide them to countries that do not utilize unfair labor practices.

December 27 2011 at 2:09 PM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply
Susan Wistrand

I remember a time when I shipped numerous truck loads of machinery to NC and other states back in the 80's and 90's to manufacture cloth and other textiles. All of these machines are now idle. Gibson Guitars in WV are being shut down because they are unable to import raw materials to manufacture their guitars in the US. People are unemployed, homeless and starving at our own back doors. We grow cotton and we have the machines and workforce to create products, jobs, income taxes, etc.............. How in God's name that we the layman can figure this out, but our so called "Representatives" cannot?????? As Americans, how many pair of underwear do we really need???? We have become such ravaging consumers that we have "bargained" our way out of the basement and onto the street. AMERICAN MADE FROM DAY ONE IS THE WAY!!!!!!!!!!

December 25 2011 at 10:06 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

What's wrong with child labor, didn't Newt say we should do away with child labor laws?

December 25 2011 at 9:19 AM Report abuse -2 rate up rate down Reply
1 reply to lowrodiay65's comment

Newt said that he would fire all the janitors and replace them with the poor black/hispanic children that attend the same schools.

December 25 2011 at 10:08 AM Report abuse -1 rate up rate down Reply

Susan, Susan,,,,,do not defend companies who are importing from China or any place else,,,,just Buy American...and that line about American Apparel locking up employees in L A ? how old are you that you remember that? 120? Spend your time worrying about the homeless families in America, go by most treed areas in any city and look closer than you normally do, you will find a tent pitched somewhere ,,,,families live there, kids live there, and you ask WHY? Because we worry more about helping China, Japan, Korea, Pakistan and countless other countries than we care about our fellow AMERICANS

December 25 2011 at 8:18 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

Cotton is one of the biggest exports of burka faso? The problem here folks is simple,,,,,,,Cotton is also one of the biggest crops in the United States State of GEORGIA. When we learn to BUY AMERICAN, then the manufacturers will also MANUFACTURE AMERICAN. think about it people,,,,,let the Chinese have their rice field, let the Japanese have ??? let the Arabs have their sand? AMERICA is the one nation on earth that is SELF sufficient,,,that means that WE don't need foreign goods....but the foreign countries NEED the U S to buy their goods....Why then are we always playing patsy with them? It's time to go to the polls and tell Washington what we need........Vote for RON PAUL..... he may be our last hope.

December 25 2011 at 8:10 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply

I'll be sure to post Victoria's Secret 'ignorance' and indignance to my facebook page.

December 25 2011 at 7:02 AM Report abuse rate up rate down Reply