Buyer, Beware: Even Certified Fair-trade Organic Clothing Items Are Made by Children

victoria's secret, child labor

Children laboring in Burkina Faso. (Newt Gingrich would love this.)

I walked into Brooklyn Industries yesterday afternoon with my daughter in tow, hoping to buy her a new winter coat. I wasn’t sure they’d have outwear for children, but I was sure that if they did, it would be “Made in the USA,” right here in good old Brooklyn, NY. Boy was I wrong.

When my daughter and I got over to the women’s section, I saw that there were no coats for kids, and that the adult-sized jackets said “Made in China” on the tag. The Brooklyn Industries tag. So much for “Live Work Create,” I thought.

My daughter already knows how I feel about the fact that it’s virtually impossible for the average person to buy goods that aren’t made in China, so I jokingly leaned over to her and said, “Look! This may have been made by a child your age!” The woman next to me chuckled, and the rest of the shoppers in the store began to take note of all the tags. Made in China, Made in China, Made in China.

I asked the guy working behind the counter if the “handmade” bags Brooklyn Industries is known for were made in the USA. I thought for sure at least the bags were sewn in Brooklyn. Nope! Turns out, they’re made in China, too. (For the record, I bought one as a Christmas gift to myself. They have a lifetime guarantee!)

I filled out a comment card describing the disappointment I felt when I realized that products being marketed as locally created were actually made in a land far, far away. I wonder if the company will respond. This Bloomberg Businessweek profile of owner Lexy Funk indicates that Brooklyn Industries bags used to be made in Williamsburg, but Funk decided to outsource to China after “doing her homework” on “labor disputes, exchange-rate inequities, and human rights abuses.” She closed her Williamsburg factory in 2001.

Bloomberg Markets published another fashion industry expose (on Bloomberg.com today), revealing that even clothing made of “pesticide-free, 100% rain-fed cotton” hailed as “good for women” is created through the use of child labor. Case in point? Panties sold at Victoria’s Secret.

Jezebel sums up Bloomberg’s findings like this:

Bloomberg Markets went to Burkina Faso, where Victoria’s Secret usually buys up the entire fair trade and organic-certified cotton crop to make the lingerie it sells in the West. There, the magazine found children of 12 and 13, laboring in the fields on pain of being whipped with switches by their bosses the cotton farmers ….

Victoria’s Secret‘s partners in cotton-sourcing, including the Swiss organization responsible for certifying the cotton and auditing producers, say they have raised concerns about child labor since 2008. Victoria’s Secret says it never saw the relevant report. Cotton is produced thanks to forced and child labor in more countries than any commodity except for gold; the fair trade program is supposed to ensure fair labor standards are met.

According to Bloomberg, certified fair-trade commodities and finished goods grew 27 percent globally in just one year to more than $5.8 billion in 2010. They say, “That market is built on the notion that purchases by companies and consumers aren’t supposed to make them accomplices to exploitation, especially of children …. In Burkina Faso, where child labor is endemic to the production of its chief crop export, paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has — perversely — created fresh incentives for exploitation.”

The good news is, Tammy Roberts Myers, vice president of external communications for Limited Brands Inc. (Victoria Secret’s parent company), says they take these allegations of child abuse very seriously. “Our standards specifically prohibit child labor,” she says. “We are vigorously engaging with stakeholders to fully investigate this matter.”

If you have time, explore the entire Bloomberg piece on what’s going on in Burkina Faso. They’ve created documentary video and taken amazing photographs profiling a 13-year-old girl named Clarisse who picks cotton for Victoria’s Secret. Bloomberg says Clarisse “is kept out of school, malnourished and beaten.” All so we American women can have a new lacy thong.

Photo via Bloomberg.com

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