The Pitfalls of Fair Trade? Sometimes, It Isn’t Fair

Here at Earth Divas, we’re passionately committed to fair trade practices with our artisans. Our owner, Ed, frequently travels to India and Nepal to meet with our artisans, and the co-ops they work with, to ensure that everyone is keeping their word and commitments to fair trade practices.

What’s scary is that sometimes, illegal practices still make their way into the fair trade circuit. Recently, a story broke on Bloomberg about this issue. The agency reports that Victoria’s Secret had been trying to do the right thing by purchasing fair trade, organic cotton for their lingerie line. However, Bloomberg discovered that the Burkina Fasa program, which sells certified organic and fair trade cotton, forced child labor is the norm.

It’s a heart-wrenching story. Bloomberg interviewed Clarissa, a 13-year old girl forced to work in the cotton fields in West Africa. The field manager frequently beats her with sticks if she goes too slow planting or picking. Instead of an ox, like most farmers use (and this farmer couldn’t afford), girls like Clarissa do the work digging the rows, picking the weeds, and picking the cotton. All by hand.

And, the “certified fair trade cotton” that 13 year-old Clarissa helped plant, grow, and harvest ended up in the panties and bras American women are buying at Victoria’s Secret.

The fair trade market is growing by leaps and bounds; according to Bloomberg, it grew 27% just last year alone. But this exponential growth has serious pitfalls. Namely, subsistence farmers are so eager to get a higher price for their goods by certifying it fair trade, that they’re illegally using child labor in order to cut costs and take advantage of the program.

A lot of times, even the most vigilant fair trade agencies don’t catch it all. FairTrade International had even certified the Burkina Faso program, saying that their practices met their standards.


As someone who cares deeply about fair trade, it’s astonishing to me that something like this could have slipped through the cracks. However, many certifying agencies are large. Like any bureaucracy, there is red tape, delays, paperwork, and probably under the table dealings. And the deeper I read into the in-depth Bloomberg article, the more I began to realize that stories like Clarissa’s aren’t that uncommon. Other than gold, cotton uses the most child labor, and forced labor, than any other commodity.

I encourage you strongly to read the Bloomberg article, which was incredibly thorough, fascinating, and sad. Only be exposing such organizations will the fair trade industry continue to improve, and ensure that every fair trade worker and farmer is treated fairly.

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One Response to “The Pitfalls of Fair Trade? Sometimes, It Isn’t Fair”

  1. Following its own investigation of the claims made by Bloomberg, Fairtrade International released its response today.

    It can be found on the front page of (or directly at In particular, it refutes the claims that the person featured in the articles was involved in cotton production at all (Fairtrade certified or otherwise) and that she was under the age of 18. It also raises serious concerns regarding the journalist’s methods.

    Nevertheless, it should be understood that no system can guarantee that a product is 100% child labour free. However, the Fairtrade system has standards against it, an audit-based monitoring system to catch it if it occurs, and clear protocols on what to do if it does that focus first on the safety of any at-risk children and second on mitigating the risk of it happening again.

    Michael Zelmer
    Fairtrade Canada