Why Victoria’s Dirty Secret is a problem for all Fairtrade marketers

Burkina Faso? No, wait, it’s on the tip of my tongue – know that name, it’s been in the news hasn’t it? – Tunisian singer or something …

Wrong. It’s a small, landlocked country, dirt-poor, situated in the Upper Volta region of West Africa. And the only reason it has been in the news recently is because it has been giving global lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret a bad name. And, by implication, raised profound questions about the wisdom of the Fairtrade concept.

How so? A recent exposé by Bloomberg’s Cam Simpson revealed that Victoria’s Secret sources its cotton from plantations where child workers, some as young as six, are subjected to serial abuse, including routine physical beatings.

Still worse, for the glossy lingerie company that has up-and-coming supermodels such as Rosie Huntington-Whiteley and Candice Swanepoel clamouring to be on its books: Victoria’s Secret has in the recent past been actively boasting about its do-gooding activity in Burkina Faso. In 2008 it launched a lingerie line that made specific mention of the fairtrade deal: ‘Good for women. Good for the children who depend on them.’

Here’s the glossy brand surface.

And here’s the grimmer underlying reality.

In fairness to Limited Brands, the company that owns VS, it seems to have been conned along with everyone else. Its Fairtrade programme was brokered in good faith with the National Federation of Cotton Producers of Burkina Faso and arguably it has managed to produce tangible improvements for a labour force used to working for $1 a day, such as new school books and artesian wells.

Here’s the company’s response to the Bloomberg revelations: “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. Depending on the findings, we are prepared to take swift action to prevent the illegal use of child labor in the fields where we source Fairtrade-certified organic cotton in Burkina Faso.”

But that’s not really the salient point of this story. The Victoria’s Secret scandal is one of a number gradually unravelling the skein of public goodwill towards the Fairtrade concept. Nike has never quite recovered from an exposé over ten years ago of its use of sweatshop child labour overseas. More recently major retailers such as Macy’s and Costco have been accused of knowingly using ‘dirty gold’ for their jewellery.

At very least these stories reveal a woeful lack of micro-management on the part of companies signing up to these Fairtrade pacts; at worst, outright cynicism. Either way, the public is getting tired of the excuses. This reaction from Tom Mackendrick at direct marketer Rapp rather sums the situation up:

It has become increasingly difficult to purchase anything and know how it was made, who was involved and if anyone was exploited. I suggest that buying American, although difficult, is one way a consumer can usually be sure of fair working conditions. Until then, consumers will continue to research and expose. Brands need to ‘live in the culture’ and understand that they are culpable for their actions…especially in their striving for cheap labor and products.

Quite so. No member of the public wishes to feel that he or she is an unwitting accomplice of neo-colonial exploitation. On the other hand, buying American, or British for that matter, is not the solution. Yes, there might be a trade-off between higher prices and a cleaner conscience. On the other hand, shutting our eyes to ‘Third World’ poverty is not going to make it go away. Fairtrade, as a principle, is admirable. It’s the practice that is letting it down.

The reality is that it’s very difficult to be ‘fair’ in $1-a-day countries where simply staying alive is a daily struggle. Is ‘doing good’ an absolutist CSR injunction or should it involve companies getting their hands dirty from time to time and paying the inevitable penalty? It’s a poser.

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About Stuart Smith

Stuart Smith is one of the most incisive and knowledgeable commentators on global marketing. He was a long-time editor of Marketing Week during the period when it was the UK's leading marketing, media and advertising specialist publication. Visit Stuart Smith Blog.


  1. Avatar

    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

  2. Avatar

    Two quick points:

    1. None of the companies you’ve mentioned have been affiliated with Fairtrade certification nor produced a Fairtrade certified product.

    The link claimed by the Bloomberg article was that Victoria’s Secret purchased some of its cotton from a farmers’ coop that happened to be Fairtrade certified, which (in principle) only means the farmers’ coop was compliant with Fairtrade standards. Fairtrade certification covers the entire supply chain, and a company selling a Fairtrade certified product would also have to meet standards and be audited against them.

    2. Fairtrade International released a response today to the accusations made by Cam Simpson following their investigation prompted by his articles. In addition to citing some serious concerns about journalistic methods,it refutes the claims that the person featured in the article was involved in cotton or any other Fairtrade certified product, and that she was even under the age of 18.

    The response can be found on the front page of http://www.fairtrade.net (or directly at http://www.bit.ly/FIBlmbgResp)

    Michael Zelmer
    Fairtrade Canada