Why Victoria’s Dirty Secret is giving Fairtrade a bad name

December 17, 2011

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 is giving global lingerie brand Victoria’s Secret a bad name. By implication, it has also managed to raise profound questions about the wisdom of the Fairtrade concept.

How so? A recent exposé by Bloomberg’s Cam Simpson has revealed that Victoria’s Secret sources its cotton from plantations where child-workers, some as young as 6, 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 Naso. 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 a few tangible improvements for a labour force used to working for $1 a day, such as new school books and artesian wells.

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 10 years ago of it 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 Fairtrade pacts; at worst, outright cynicism. Either way, the public is getting tired of the excuses. This reaction from Tom Mackendrick at 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: what’s letting it down is the practice. In reality it’s very difficult to be “fair” in $1-a-day countries where simply staying alive is an unceasing struggle. Ought ‘doing good’ be limited to safe, bland and frankly unmemorable corporate CSR initiatives? Or should it involve something altogether more ambitious – taking risks, getting your hands dirty from time to time and paying the inevitable penalty for trying harder? It’s a poser.

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