With all of the challenges the cotton industry faced last year – volatile market, contract defaults, droughts and floods – Bloomberg’s accusations of child labor in Fair Trade cotton at the peak of holiday shopping was just another blow.
The December 15th, 2011 Bloomberg article, “Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton,” unfairly paints a negative image of fair trade and the cotton industry. The story centers on a girl, Clarisse, who was taken in by her relatives at the age of 9 and reportedly works on a farm that produces fair trade cotton for Victoria’s Secret.
The reporter oversimplified complex issues that are not unique to or a result of the activities in the cotton industry. The reasons behind Clarisse losing her parents were not thoroughly explained. While the depiction of the sparse belongings, hard work and limited food are, very unfortunately, is realistic in much of Africa. The reporter also failed to recognize the value that the cotton industry provides to rural farmers in such desperate conditions.
Targeting one of the few apparel brands that have made the effort to support to improve conditions on the farm in West Africa can deter other brands from making this important investment in the future. But the real damage is the lasting negative impact of cotton in the eyes of consumers.
And, if that weren’t enough, there is much speculation regarding age of the “girl” that was the central figure in the Bloomberg article. The reported stated she was 13 years old. In a January 3, 2012 public response to the allegations made in the Bloomberg article, Fair Trade International states “she cannot accurately be described as a child as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child (i.e., under 18 years old).” Fair Trade International also found that the she works on a family-owned vegetable farm and is not involved in cotton. They also state that there are no fair trade farms in the area. Bloomberg alleges that Clarisse is using her dead sister’s birth certificate.
I can’t help but wonder why would Bloomberg write such as discriminating article on cotton. It appears that Bloomberg did not conduct a sufficient level of due diligence regarding the “facts” they presented in the article. This raises the question of journalistic integrity. Naturally, there are laws that apply to Bloomberg and its reporters and editors so I won’t belabor that point. But what can we do as an industry to avoid this from happening in the future.
We can keep each other informed of investigations, exposés or other inquiries to ensure they have access to truthful and accurate information. We should also support each other clarify or defend accusations that do get in the public arena.
Questions to consider:
Are negative mdeia accounts - and at time with false statements - something on which the cotton industry should take action? Or just something we need to shoulder?