Victoria’s Secret and the Fairness of Fair Trade

If there’s anything in this world that grosses me out, it’s slavery and the word “panties.”

Maybe that’s why I’ve avoided discussing the recent news that a Fairtrade-certified cotton distributor allegedly sold products tainted with forced child labor to the lingerie retailer Victoria’s Secret.

(Oh yeah, I also hate the word “tainted.”)

No one has claimed that Victoria’s Secret was aware of the slavery problem, so you can continue judging them only for selling hooker clothes to preteens. But the controversy does bring up the power of Fair Trade certification, or the lack thereof.

When I interviewed Ugly Mug coffee in Memphis, I was stunned by their work in the communities that supply their coffee. Rather than spending all of their time and energy on certification from a group like Fairtrade International, they visit the communities personally and help through direct economic assistance. They support upstart farmers’ co-ops. They also blend Fair Trade and organic coffees into their products to support the movement in whatever way they can until their partnerships in South America become fully sustainable.

Groups like Fairtrade do not promise perfect compliance from all of their certified organizations, and how can they? I’m sure that as soon as they hear allegations about a certain product, they investigate it and, if necessary, withdraw the certification; but that can take a while. In addition, Fairtrade and other certifying groups are huge organizations, and things can slip through the cracks for them like any bureaucracy. Plus they require payment for certification and have high overhead costs.

We have alternatives to Fair Trade certification, including the movement toward locally-produced goods: When the company is based close to you and your community, it’s much easier to keep track of an organization’s suppliers, treatment of workers, and more.

Farming co-ops serve as another good example. Even in co-ops that aren’t certified Fair Trade, the farmers themselves own a part of the company and (most of the time) invest the profits in their own community’s needs.

Thanks to websites where organizations can show off and brag about their human rights records, we have a lot more power as consumers. We used to excuse our own ignorance, but now we’re forced to care a bit more. Whether or not we agree on how to help impoverished communities, we can explore and debate Fair Trade, child labor, sweatshops, and other consumer questions with relative ease. We won’t always make the same decisions; but we can all be compassionate and deliberate in how we make them.

Ultimately, it’s not Fairtrade’s responsibility to care about who makes what. It’s not their job to determine for you if a company treats the earth and the people in it with care. It is a helpful tool for being responsible consumers – which is our job. And the key to being responsible with what we buy and where we buy it is caring enough to look around in the first place.

(Photo: John Nyberg)

3 Responses to “Victoria’s Secret and the Fairness of Fair Trade”
  1. Selling hooker underwear (Fair Trade or otherwise) to pre-teens is bad – buying it for them is worse, especially as the people buying it are usually the people in charge of their care and education. If we won’t think out our responsibilities towards our own children, how much more unlikely are we to see our responsibility towards children half-way across the world.

    • JCM says:

      Not to be a prude, but yes exactly! It’s cool right now to care about Fair Trade certification and proper supply chains for our food/clothing/iPads, but ultimately change will require more than trendiness. It will depend on consumers having a more wholly compassion view of ourselves and other people, including both forced child laborers and overly-sexualized American kids.

      The more we learn to care about people around us, hopefully the more loving we will be to people elsewhere, and vice versa. I haven’t seen that happen all the time, but it’s been happening for me. Thanks for the input.

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  1. […] not the only option out there if you’re interested in ethical consumerism – there are alternatives to fair trade that can work as well or […]

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