Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

Photographer: Chris Ratcliffe/Bloomberg

In The Fields

To understand the plight of Clarisse and others like her, Bloomberg News spent more than six weeks reporting in Burkina Faso, including interviewing Clarisse, her family, neighbors and leaders in her village. Her experiences were similar to those of six other children extensively interviewed by Bloomberg, such as an emaciated 12-year-old boy working in a nearby field.

Interviews around the country with fair-trade growers, officers of fair-trade cooperatives and child-welfare officials reveal that there is little training and few if any safeguards against using children, even after dangers were uncovered by the 2008 report.

Victoria’s Secret, whose supermodel “Angels” helped it set record sales and profit in the third quarter of 2011, agreed in 2007 to a deal to buy fair-trade and organic cotton from Burkina Faso. The aim was to purchase sustainable raw materials and benefit female African farmers.

In time for Valentine’s Day 2009, the retailer marketed a special lingerie line made from “pesticide-free, 100 percent rain-fed cotton” and sold with the claim that each purchase improved lives in the country.

‘Good for Children’

“Good for women,” read a booklet accompanying a white thong covered with blue and lavender daisies. “Good for the children who depend on them.”

The thong was labeled 95 percent organic. Today, such Burkinabe fiber is blended into lingerie at a much-reduced level, allowing the company to spread it across most of its cotton underwear lines, Lori Greeley, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, told a Wharton School publication in March.

Growers sell the fiber to the company with fair-trade certification, though the finished garments no longer carry the “good for children” marketing message, nor do they have a fair-trade stamp. Victoria’s Secret has more than 1,000 stores in North America, and sells through its famously risque catalogs and around the world via the Internet.

Mango-Tree Serenade

An executive with Limited Brands’ sourcing and production arm, Margaret Wright, visited Burkina Faso in April. Women who produce organic cotton serenaded her under mango trees in the city of Tiefora, according to a press release from the national growers group. In Tiefora, about a 130-mile (210-kilometer) drive from Clarisse’s village of Benvar, Wright told them that the well-being of women was the main reason the company was interested in organic cotton, the release said.

The company’s desire for fair-trade cotton testifies to the success of a labeling movement that began in the 1980s with small-scale Mexican coffee farmers and now boasts the involvement of consumer-goods giants such as Wal-Mart Stores Inc. (WMT) and Starbucks Corp. (SBX) The movement has boosted the profits of farmers in impoverished parts of the world.

Fairtrade International, the world’s largest group of its kind, certified that Burkina Faso’s organic crop met its standards, says Tuulia Syvaenen, chief operating officer of the Bonn-based organization.

Myers, of Limited Brands, says the company relied on that certification to meet its goal of “improving the lives of some of the world’s poorest women and children through the responsible sourcing of cotton — something we have been doing through our efforts with Burkinabe women cotton farmers.”

Program Under Review

Fairtrade International started a review in Burkina Faso after Bloomberg News raised questions, says Syvaenen, adding it would begin a training program for farmers. She also says the UNPCB never gave Fairtrade a copy of the 2008 study it co- sponsored on child labor, which identified concerns about the vulnerability of so-called enfants confies, a French term used in West Africa for a type of foster child — kids such as Clarisse.

Bloomberg News obtained a copy of the study, which has never been made public, and spoke to a field investigator involved, as well as farmers who were originally interviewed for the report.

With the exception of gold, cotton is produced with child or forced labor in more countries than any other commodity in the global supply chain, according to the U.S. Labor Department. One of those countries is Burkina Faso. In its reports, the department has repeatedly cited the country for the worst forms of child labor, while the State Department has done the same regarding child trafficking to conventional cotton fields there. None of those reports has ever specifically examined Burkina Faso’s organic and fair-trade crop.