Bloomberg News Sucks Covering Victoria's Secret

Bloomberg:  Children Toil With Bare Hands in Burkina Fields

Bloomberg reporter Cam Newton gets attention for his story slamming "fair trade" cotton.   He reports that "Victoria's Secret" uses "fairtrade cotton" and that a 13 year old girl worked for 6 months in the fields.   Slate attempts to put the story in a little more perspective (organic cotton means that weeds are pulled by hand, the girl is not a "slave")... but still, "Tsk-Tsk" is the word.

View outside my best friends home in Cameroon 1986
I work with fair trade and attempts to organize and improve life in Africa.   Specifically, I had Burkina Faso refugee in my home for 6 months, and lived in DR Congo and Cameroon.   The Slate correction to this story needs to be amplified.   Women are typically/frequently married at 13 in Burkina Faso, and for a foster child to be forbidden to work means... I guess bad news for foster children.  Because the farm went "organic" and used manure rather than chemical fertilizers, the farmer let his foster daughter carry the manure to the fields and put it on the crops.   Bloomberg says "gotcha"... thirteen year olds should be in school.

So what does Cam Newton leave us with?  Companies like Victoria's Secret will see that "no good deed goes unpunished", and the neighboring Burkina Faso fields which are not participating at all in Fair Trade will be happy they used chemical fertilizers and never got involved with "do-gooders".

This "gotcha" journalism, man-bites-dog story, attacking people who are trying to make a difference, deserves no praise.  Bloomberg is the profiteer in this story.  The reporter gets interviewed on NPR (J School 101:  Reporter Becomes Part of the Story) like some kind of a Scott Pelly Jr.  Melissa Block speaks to him as if he had done something brave, not asking a single difficult question.  I've visited the cotton plantations in the Sahel, and know how brave it ain't.  This is not war-time footage, this is not child soldiering, or toxic mining. This is black faces growing crops.

"Sparse mud walled hut home to Burkina Child Worker".  How very brave of the reporter to visit.  We are so grateful.   Listen, I lived in a house like that, and all my friends (African friends) did too.   And to suggest that we should not buy cotton from people because they are poor is beneath contempt.  If we just DON'T buy fair trade cotton, I'm not sure Clarisse will live in a ranch house, go on to college and leapfrog the whole situation...

Tom Knudson, who I respect, did a similar story on FairTrade coffee in Eithiopia.   And it is fair to expose it if an organization like Fair Trade sells their label to the highest bidder and never follows up to see what is going on.  We have seen that with the "E-Stewards" label which tells everyone they are selling "tested working, fully functional" equipment but are too often just running everything through high speed shredders and telling Egyptian revolutionaries to eat cake and buy Iphones.

This is an incredibly easy story for a reporter, the "shark attack", the exposing of a company like Victoria's Secret for not having personally visited the end market for their products (er... the upstream.  I don't want them to visit the "end market" for lingerie).

My friend Yadji's "sparse mudwalled hut"
It is good and fair to analyze and criticize and hold FairTrade programs to scrutiny.  Just not like this.  What breaks my heart is how reporters like Cam Newton fly over and take face close ups of poor kids in the safety of progressive industries like recycling and fair trade organic cotton farming, and that it somehow passes as gutsy, as if they have actually gone to the tantalum mines, or met with child soldiers, or child prostitutes, or beggers who blind their infants.

The reporter goes someplace fairly tame and then contrasts it with the fancy expensive lingerie store at the mall.  It is becoming almost random, what reporters will take snapshots of "in poverty".  Recycling.  Car maintenance.   Fertilizing crops with manure.  Living in a mud wall  house.   It's as if recoiling from images of poverty is becoming equated with compassion.

People should not treat the poor as if they are contagious economic lepers.  We need to prioritize our cognitive dissonance:  child warfare, rape, women's rights, bushmeat hunting, genocide... all real problems, TODAY, in Africa.  Using hoes for crops (the new "by hand")... That is not a crime.

It would take moral courage by Victoria's Secret not to abandon the companies that do business in Africa.   USA's overseas supply chains that take back and repair computers, grow organic cotton, obtain ISO14001 for their recycling process in developing markets .. they need our support.   Bloomberg's reporter turns engagement into risk, and the liberals recoil, mistaking their own race apprehension for ethical quandry.

What is the number one cause of death of girls like Clarisse in Africa?  Death in childbirth.  Number one solution?  Computerized blood banks.  Computers like the ones seized as "e-waste", sold to Medi-Com (a hospital and med school computer seller) in Cairo.

13 year old field workers engaged to be married
Listen, Cam.  I'm not impressed.  I personally helped fish a 20 month old boy's body out of a well in Cameroon.  It was not a well I dug, personally, but I did help dig wells.  And I helped dig the kids grave.   And I'm ashamed to this day that we hit hard pan and made do with about 3 and a half feet deep grave.   Maybe the honorable Cam should do a story on Peace Corps volunteers who dig water wells, and how children drown in them, and how we don't dig the grave quite deep enough.  Come and get me.

We dug the grave with tools like the ones in the photos Bloomberg describes as "bare hands".  So I guess "bare hands" now means picks and hoes and shovels...  Poor African girls should be whizzing about on John Deere tractors, what were they thinking?

Use of children's photos to improve textile mills in Massachusetts led to textile mill investments in North Carolina... I wrote for essays (E-Stork I-IV) about the complexity of raising he bar on industry, without creating unintended consequences. Fear of capital flight could become an excuse to obfuscate any minimum standard for improvement.  There are moral grey areas, and close calls. What it demands is serious academic research, like brain surgery or bridge engineering.  It is difficult for a reporter to find the balance between rewarding competing arrogant self-aggrandizing watchdog claims (whether under the label "fair trade" or "e-steward") and still make the story interesting to an editor.  So they do it the easy way.  Gotcha.

As for this story:   If I found women of marrying age using manure to substitute for chemical fertilizer on a "fair trade" cotton field, I'd see it as a need for improvement.  I might write about it in January, after the Christmas sales.   It would seem to me immoral to show pictures of mud wall huts as some kind of an indication that people who buy Victoria's Secret aren't helping Africa.

Every day, Africans take what little money they get, and make hard choices.  People choose whether to spend money on vaccines vs. school books.  Boycotting them does not help, and "closing the book" on Africa is the absolutely worst choice an ethical liberal or conservative could make.   People making a living selling prohibitions as a choice are the "new church boss", like the ones who called leprosy "Gods Punishment" for past sins. Parasites of the poor.

Bloomberg runs a story to sell newspapers during the last week of the retail year.  It's a business publication, and the editor could well have run this story a month later if he/she was in doubt about the use of racial imagery to convey cognitive risk of ethical purchasing decisions.  In a way, it was bold of Bloomberg to run the story and risk alienating an advertiser... the editor probably meant well.   But take this as a warning to all journalism editors, you are not immune from racial profiling.   There is a thick grey line between using photos to correct a social blemish, and a Willie Horton campaign to destroy do-gooders reputations.  If editors cannot recognize when they are making this choice, and awarding "Polks to Pellys" without interviewing the accused, it  makes a very good case for the demise of journalism.   Volunteer bloggers should not be left with the responsibility to firefight your flames against fair trade.


Kyle said...

Thanks for that piece. That was my initial reaction too. Sensationalist story as an excuse to publish photos of underwear models.

But the plot gets thicker in Fairtrade International's follow-up on the story. You can find the story here .

Thanks again,
Kyle Freund
Web Editor at Fairtrade International and RPCV-Guatemala '03-'05

Rodney North said...

The Fair Trade certifier cited in the story yesterday released their own investigation.
According to them many of the key facts were fabricated, or otherwise false. see

~ Rodney North,

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Thanks Kyle. I just read it. I'm not sure how FT response thickens the plot. I'm just at a loss how orphan women of marrying age are "exploited", and maintain that Bloomberg's photos of mud houses could be taken anywhere in Burkina Faso. They could make doctors and lawyers look "exploited". Poverty is not evil, and working is the best way out of poverty. The Bloomberg story was in no way an "exploration" of the grey areas described in the FT link you shared, it was a slam gotcha piece delivered during peak retail season. No good deed goes unpunished. If the reporter wanted to explore it per the FT discussion he should have published the piece in January. The damage is done.

Ozma said...

This is honestly brilliant on a bunch of different levels. The reporters exploitation of the girl he is supposed to be 'saving' from exploitation is beyond belief.

SomervilleDan said...

Great observations.

Some of the others have already posted some of these links, but they are really worth checking out to see how messed up the reporting on this story really was.

Fairtrade International did an investigation and reports that the "girl of 13" was really 21, and wasn't even farming cotton or anything having to do with Fair Trade. She also says that the Bloomberg reporter falsely claimed that he was working for an orphanage.[tt_news]=268

Limited Brands (owner of Victoria's Secret) adds a few more details. While I personally think they need to have their people start making direct connections to the farmers in Burkina Faso instead of solely relying on third-party certifiers, they at least have taken an initial positive step, and further, haven't abandoned the program at the first sign of a PR scandal.

And the UNBCP, the group in Burkina Faso responsible for monitoring Fair Trade compliance, reports that only ONE of the three people listed as organic cotton farmers in the Bloomberg article are actually organic cotton farmers.

Bloomberg needs to launch an investigation, and if these allegations are proven correct, they need to issue a retraction and fire the reporter.

Dan Fireside,

home again said...

Another angle to consider is the fact that Victoria Secret is buying the entire production of Burkina Faso's fair trade and organic cotton in the form of fiber and leaving none of it in the country to be transformed and create jobs there. I happen to be working with artisans in that country and we had to go an entire year without access to organic cotton because the cotton union had given it all to Victoria's Secret. This hurts artisans across the country who are just beginning to develop markets with organic textile products. It is a familiar story as Africa is always exploited for its raw resources and nothing is invested into developing infrastructures to create sustainable jobs there. Only 3% of West African cotton in general stays to be transformed locally. Farming cotton is a grueling and badly paid job but if other cottage industries developed to transform the material, more value can be realized and invested in the west African economy. Instead, we go on making deals with the elite crust of a society and do not deal with the underlying issues effecting the real economy. This to me is crucial.

WR3A's Robin Ingenthron said...

Home Again - I think this is a very valid point, though I doubt that would justify the press focus in the articles. What you eventually want is a diversified economy. My expertise is in "e-waste" or used electronics repair, not cotton, and have seen people hurt badly by people shooting their cameras at collateral victims. Heck, what if the reporter took pictures of the "mud huts" of your artisans, and said people should not buy artisinal products? The methodology is cruel.