The company that owns Victoria's Secret vowed a full investigation Thursday after a report said cotton used in some of its products is grown using child labour.
"We are very concerned," parent company Limited Brands said in a statement, noting that the cotton in question, which comes from the West African nation of Burkina Faso, is "used in a small portion of our Victoria's Secret panty styles."
"If this allegation is true, it describes behaviour that is contrary to our company's values and the code of labour and sourcing standards that we require all of our suppliers to meet," the statement said. "These standards expressly prohibit child labour."
The company said it immediately "began working with key stakeholders internally and externally to fully investigate this matter. Depending on the findings, we are prepared to take swift action to prevent the illegal use of child labour in the fields where we source Fairtrade-certified organic cotton in Burkina Faso."
Victoria's Secret, known for its underwear and lingerie, describes itself as "one of the most powerful, sexy and glamorous stores in the world." Its fashion show recently aired in more than 90 countries.
The statement from Ohio-based Limited Brands on Thursday followed an extensive report from Bloomberg that describes the life of a 13-year-old-girl who is beaten by the farmer she works for on a cotton field in Burkina Faso. The cotton picked by the girl went to factories in other countries, "where it was fashioned into Victoria's Secret underwear," the report said.
While forced labor and child labor are not new to African farms, Bloomberg noted, the girl works on a farm certified as organic and fair trade. Such farms "should be free of such practices," the report said.
"Perversely," the article said, the lucrative premiums paid for organic and fair-trade cotton have "created fresh incentives for exploitation. The programme has attracted subsistence farmers who say they don't have the resources to grow fair-trade cotton without violating a central principle of the movement: forcing other people's children into their fields. "
The report cited the leader of Burkina Faso's organic and fair-trade program and the head of fair-trade organisation Helvetas Swiss Intercooperation as saying that Victoria's Secret purchased all of Burkina Faso's organic crop from last season.
A report earlier this year from the US Labor Department found that child labor is used in cotton production in more than a dozen countries, including Burkina Faso.
A press attache for the Burkina Faso Embassy in the United States had no immediate comment.
In its statement Thursday, Limited Brands said that in 2007, it "established a pilot program to purchase Fairtrade-certified organic cotton from primarily women farmers in Burkina Faso, a landlocked country in West Africa that struggles with endemic poverty. We were committed to this initiative because of its potential to generate life-changing opportunities for some of the world's poorest women."
The "Charter of Fair Trade Principles," published in 2009 by the World Fair Trade Organization and Fairtrade International, states that the rights of children are to be respected. "The importance of children's involvement in the work of family-based production units, and the learning of skills required for their working life is recognised, but any involvement must be disclosed and monitored and must not adversely affect the child's well-being, security, educational opportunities and need for play," it says.
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