Child Labour and Victoria’s Secret, Again

Two weeks ago I blogged about a Bloomberg story on the use of child labour in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso, and the purchase by Victoria’s Secret of the resulting cotton. I argued that while child labour is always bad, always regrettable, it isn’t on net always morally wrong. Victoria’s Secret isn’t necessarily doing anything wrong, despite the fact that some of their cotton is, yes, the result of child labour. Burkina Faso is desperately poor, and persistent child labour is a sad reality there: poor families simply cannot afford a better life for their children. And both the children and their families would be worse off were it not for the livelihood provided by VS.

But a soft line in child labour doesn’t sit well with everyone. And so, last week, my Canadian Business colleague Samson Okalow took issue with my arguments and posted a response. The solution to child labour, Okalow argued, is not as complex as I’d made it out to be.

Okalow makes a number of good points, and his commentary is well worth reading. But I’m standing by my original argument, and I’ll make just two points by way of explanation.

The first has to do with the facts of the case. In my original posting, I questioned what the net impact would be of VS volunteering to pay more for cotton. Would the extra money improve the prospects of child labourers, or just draw more people into the business and drive prices (and wages) down? In his commentary, Okalow rightly presses me on the details. But the fact that neither Okalow nor I knows the answers to those questions is just the point: we should be cautious about prescribing medicine without understanding its side effects.

The second point has to do more straightforwardly with ethics, with what VS (and other companies in similar situations) is obligated to do.

Okalow rightly points out that the plight of Burkina Faso’s child labourers needn’t be quite so bleak. VS could certainly do more to help; in particular, the company could opt to pay even more than it already does for premium organic fair-trade cotton, and therefore to make a smaller profit. As Okalow rightly points out, maximizing profits isn’t the only option VS has. It’s also possible to settle for merely sufficient profits: there certainly are organizations set up to operate that way.

The problem, here, is that it confuses the good with the obligatory. Helping those in need is a good thing to do. If Victoria’s Secret opted to donate money to the poor of Burkina Faso, by over-paying for cotton, they might well deserve praise, just as you would if you donated money to a charity set up to aid the desperately poor. But so far I see no reason why VS, in particular, or their customers or shareholders, in particular, are obligated to do so. All of the above are certainly obligated not to make the lives of children in Burkina Faso any worse. That’s the moral baseline for business everywhere, the thing that underpins the very legitimacy of private enterprise. But that’s different from being obligated to help; an obligation to help doesn’t just spring out of thin air.

And remember, VS (and its customers and shareholders) are already doing more for the children of Burkina Faso than other companies (and their customers and shareholders) are. To criticize a company like VS for daring to help (by investing in) Burkina Faso, without helping as much as it could, is not just hypocritical but surely also counterproductive. After all, it would be simpler for VS simply to buy American cotton and avoid all this controversy. And that would certainly make plenty of “Buy American” zealots happy. But it would also make the children of one of the world’s most brutally-poor countries worse off.

5 comments so far

  1. Kirk Emery on

    This is a super difficult topic. The topic seems to reduce to a question of an obligation to do good. Indeed, the good and the obligatory are not easily separated. But conversely, it is difficult to propose an obligation to do good.

    For clarity, imagine yourself finding a baby that’s alive yet all alone. It is laying face down in a puddle. The baby will soon die if you do not help it. Helping the baby would impose a relatively small cost on you. You could just roll it over onto its back and it would survive.

    Saving this baby would be good, and most of us would do so. But are we obligated to do so?

    More pointedly, are we obligated to act for the benefit of others? Chris, as a good English style thinker, doesn’t reckon so.

    I can’t decide for myself. But the answer would lead to a similar conclusion in the Victoria’s Secret case, and every other like it.

    • Chris MacDonald on


      Thanks…that’s a useful elaboration.

      But it’s not true that I don’t think we are obligated to help others. I just don’t think we are always obligated to help all others, or that we are obligated to help to any specific degree. In the case at hand, VS is helping the children of Burkina Faso. They just are not helping as much as some would like. To bring it back to your example, the question becomes whether you are merely obligated to save the drowning baby, or save it and then adopt it. The hard question has to do with how MUCH we are obligated to help.


  2. Kirk Emery on

    Fair enough.

  3. kayr on

    You make an interesting point, but this type of investment is actually doing worse for the families and the economy on the long run. What is the impact of not investing in skills, training, and education for every child to the country’s economy?

    VS could indeed buy American cotton, which would be more expensive. However, they gain money from buying cotton elsewhere because the value of investing in the future of a child is not taken into account into the price.

    Furthermore, if VS really cared about child labour, they would put political pressure some way or another. If Burkina Faso really wants their investment, they would figure out a solution. It is in their business interest to ensure that Burkina Faso has labour laws. A stable economy in Burkina Faso means that it is safe to invest.


  4. gaylaofgaia on

    Bruna, I agree with the direction you are going with your comments about improving the quality of life in an area where you have labor producing materials as very sensible. Rather than an obligation to do good, it is about creating a context for businesses to be challenged to create in collaboration with the workers of a region solutions that the people of that region actually want and feel are beneficial to them over time. Social values not being a part of commercial resource supply operations actually makes very little sense… it is like farming land without ever renewing the soil and expecting someone else will come along and do it. There actually is plenty of room for productive conversation and improvement in developing social values with corporations who are keenly aware of how advantageous it is to everyone to direct a portion of profits to sustainable steps to improve conditions in ANY area of the world they are using labor or resources. This is not a judgment on anyone. It is taking the holistic viewpoint over time and balancing the spreadsheet to reflect this kind of growth.

    ~Gayla D’Gaia

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