Blogs & Comment

Victoria’s Secret and child labour

Child labour is always bad, but it’s not always wrong.

(Photo: Kimberly Vardeman/Flikr/Wikimedia)

Child labour is always bad, but it’s not always wrong. And here’s why.

Of all of the issues that fall under the very broad heading of “business ethics,” child labour is among those least likely to be seen as grey. Most people agree, I think, that play, and learning, rather than labour, should be the dominant features of a child’s life. For a kid, learning to tidy up your own room is a fine form of “work,” as is taking out the garbage or helping dad rake the leaves on the weekend. But kids, most will agree, shouldn’t be working in factories or toiling in the fields.

Unfortunately, the world isn’t like that. Bloomberg yesterday featured an utterly heartbreaking story about child labour in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso. The story, which focused on the hard life of 13-year-old Clarisse Kambire, resulted in an avalanche of tweets aimed at Victoria’s Secret.

Why Victoria’s Secret? Because the lingerie company buys almost all of the cotton produced by Burkina Faso, under a deal that features 3rd-party monitoring intended to ensure that the cotton is organic and fair-trade. The root of the story is that the monitoring system failed, and cotton that was supposed to be harvested without the use of child labour was not. Desperately-poor farmers in Burkina Faso, it turns out, have been using their children (and the children of relatives and neighbours) in their cotton fields.

In other words, the company tried to do something good, and the good stuff it did turned out to be less-good than it thought it’s effort would be. But if all you saw were the breathless tweets and the headlines of the me-too stories, you’d swear that Victoria’s Secret models themselves were out in the fields, beating children to work faster, faster, to feed the world’s hunger for thongs.

The case of Victoria’s Secret’s cotton supply illustrates a clear failure of third-party supply-chain monitoring, but it is also an illustration of the complexity of that monitoring. It’s a lovely idea to promise your customers organic, fair-trade cotton, but making good on the promise is another thing altogether.

The fundamental problem, though—the one that makes the life of a parentless child in Burkina Faso so miserable—is that Burkina Faso is a miserably poor country. The sad truth is that for some kids there, labour in the cotton fields is their best alternative; their families can’t really afford to feed them, let alone to send them to school. This is why I say that while child labour is always bad, it’s not always wrong.

So consider: what will the effect be of the spotlight currently being shone on the use of child labour in Victoria’s Secret’s supply chain? One possibility is that the rule will now be enforced. Clarisse Kambire will then be out of a job, and then what? Another possibility is that companies like VS will decide to keep their hands clean, and abandon Burkina Faso altogether. That would let them avoid nasty headlines in the future, but it would also mean a significant economic hit for a country that can’t exactly take it in stride.

But if Victoria’s Secret is truly committed to keeping its supply chain free of misery, couldn’t it simply offer to pay more for cotton, so that kids like Clarisse Kambire could get at least one solid meal a day and maybe attend a bit of school? Perhaps. But it’s not obvious how effective that would be. Pouring more money into a supply chain has complex effects. As I’ve pointed out before in regards to fair-trade coffee, paying more for something draws more people into the business, which increases supply, which drives down prices. Note also that if VS customers are willing to pay more for the cotton in their panties, that inevitably means they’re spending less money on something else—and spending less on something else means someone else, somewhere, is earning less money. Will that be someone who needs it more, or less, than Clarisse Kambire? I have no idea.

We should never, ever be complacent about child labour. But nor should we delude ourselves into thinking that good intentions, or a few extra pennies spent on a pair of panties, can make the problem go away.