Victoria's Secret: Busted for Undies With an Ugly Past

Victoria's Secret
Victoria's Secret

The 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."

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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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