Thursday, January 26, 2012

The Need for Organic Fairtrade Cotton in Burkina Faso

Since December 15th, when Bloomberg wrote an article on forced child labour in Burkina Faso (Victoria’s Secret Revealed in Child Picking Burkina Faso Cotton), there have been press releases, investigations and editorials with further information released about the journalist Cam Simpson's investigation. Bloomberg's Editorial response to investigations by Limited Brands and Fairtrade International came on Friday, January 14th. The following Monday I emailed Fairtrade International:

I am sure the new year is keeping you quite busy as you settle back in. Late last week Bloomberg published an editorial (Child Labor for Victoria’s Secret Cotton Examined by U.S.) in which they stick to their story and add a series of accusations and suggestions against Fairtrade International. Based on the feedback I have been getting online, this has been proving quite worrisome to many Fairtraders on all sides of the supply chain.

Having reviewed the editorial and what they provide as evidence, I would like to suggest a possible platform to air your response. I would like to interview one or two of you, and/or people in Burkina Faso to provide insight to what is going on there. It seems in the editorial that the waters get a bit murky due to accepted cultural norms and attitudes. I would like to offer an interview for posting on my blog as a means to clear things up as you see fit if this is acceptable to you.

On January 19th, I received a reply from Reykia Fick, Media Relations Manager of Fairtrade International:

Thanks so much for getting in touch and for your support on this and other Fairtrade issues. We’ve decided not to do a rebuttal to the latest Bloomberg article at this time. Our primary concern now is the safety, well-being and right to privacy of the people and the community featured in the article. The situation in Burkina Faso is complex and the story brings attention to a serious problem. Our work on this case continues, but even more important is ensuring that all actors work to address the broader issue of ‘enfants confies.’ We remain committed to tackling the wider issue of child labour in Burkina Faso and are finalizing the details of an intensive training and awareness programme, which will be rolled out among farmers and communities there. We feel that to comment more extensively on specific details in the latest Bloomberg article at this time could invite further attention toward the people and communities involved, which may not be in their best interest.

Clearly, Fairtrade International has chosen to move on and address the issue in Burkina Faso rather than spending the time and effort in exchanging words with Bloomberg Media. Throughout this process I have been reaching out to other Fair Trade advocates and those knowledgeable of the multiple environments in which Fair Trade is engaged. Admittedly, trying to remain neutral in this case is difficult and it appears that Rodney North of Equal Exchange stated it best in an email exchange we had concerning this issue, "We have a he said/she said situation. The journalist has said X, and the parties (included The Limited Brands) have said “anti-X”. Both parties, of course, have a very strong vested interest in sticking to their version."  

I am not certain closure with a definitive decision on "who is right and who is wrong" is possible in this case. However, this exchange does bring up two issues. Firstly, forced child labour as socially acceptable in impoverished countries; and secondly, the rationale for Fair Trade to be engaged with communities where child labour is known to exist. Let's be clear - forced child labour is slavery, and to engage with these communities is risky, but essential to bring about change.

Let's take a moment to look at the big picture and formulate a Basic Question to identify what factors contribute to the continuation of slavery in the 21st century. The Basic Question I propose is:
Why does the use of forced child labour continue to persist unabated in impoverished countries such as Burkina Faso?

To analyze this it helps to look at this from a Rights-Based Perspective; to recognize poverty as injustice and this includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty. Marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation have historical roots that extend back to the days of colonialism. To be colonized meant subjugation to foreign rulers, outright exploitation of natural resources and labor with second-class citizenship for much of the non-Western world. Entire continents were usurped of their riches through colonial policies aimed to expedite the transfer of local wealth to Western coffers and raw materials to feed the expansive growth of Western industries. Today the term globalization has come to replace colonization; and detrimental government policies of the West to replace gunboat diplomacy. 

In an attempt to answer the Basic Question: Why does the use of forced child labour continue to persist unabated in impoverished countries, let's look beyond the usual accusations and plug in a few facts. Cotton is somewhat salt and drought tolerant, and this makes it good crop for arid and semiarid regions. According to United Nations Conference on Trade and Development (UNCTAD) in Burkina Faso, "the Cotton production is concentrated in West Burkina Faso (the main producing areas are Comoé, Kossi, Mouhoun, and Kénédougou). Most cotton-farms are family-owned and small-scale (on average one hectare)".
Between 2001 and 2009, the price per kg of conventional cotton was $0.39/kg to $0.80/kg as seen on the graph above. On September 20, 2010, Bloomberg featured a story, Cotton Exceeds $1 for First Time Since 1995 on Supply Concern. The culprit for this unheard of increase according to Bloomberg: a shortage of raw cotton available to mills due to considerable losses caused by floods and longer than expected monsoon rains. In other words if you were a cotton farmer that year, and your crop wasn't destroyed, the market shined in your favor. But considering the last time this occurred was 1995, and it is now 2012, one good year for those fortunate farmers out of seventeen is not very good odds and highly dependent on the failures of a majority of the world's cotton farmers. 

In short, the conventional market is not a good bet to get out of poverty for the majority of the world's farmers, hence the continual government subsidizing of American producers so they never feel the pinch and keep global prices artificially low for major industry thereby perpetuating the poverty in developing nations. In other words, the market price is not reflective of the true cost of cotton as a result of Western government intervention by continually subsidizing their farmers. This is just one example of how Western governments facilitate the exploitation of natural resources and raw materials in developing nations. 

A second example of Western governments perpetuating poverty in poor nations is banning the purchase of Burkina Faso cotton in an already artificially low market. To eliminate trade with countries where use of child labour is socially acceptable and a regular occurrence further isolates the victims and perpetuates the practice since no other paradigm exists to counter the existing norm. According to the Bloomberg Editorial Child Labor for Victoria’s Secret Cotton Examined by U.S.:

Under regulations separate from those being examined by homeland security, the U.S. Department of Labor had determined the problem of forced child labor in Burkina Faso’s cotton sector was serious enough to ban its fiber from the federal government’s procurement system. It’s one of just 29 products from a total of 21 countries that U.S. agencies are forbidden from buying under those rules.

Victoria’s Secret executives have said their contract to buy cotton in Burkina Faso broke new ground by dealing directly with farmers. They have also said the program benefits farmers across the country, especially women, and that social premiums paid by the company help deliver clean water.

Since 2007, the company has been one of the top customers of the nation’s fair-trade and organic cotton program. The lingerie maker blends the fiber into millions of pairs of underwear, Lori Greeley, chief executive officer of Victoria’s Secret Stores, told a Wharton School publication last March. Earlier, the company had used cotton from the program to produce an all-organic clothing line sold to customers with the promise that garments were “Good for women” and “Good for the children who depend on them.”

This exemplifies the difference between Fair Trade and conventional trade - Fair Trade can be, and is often used as a means to bring about social change. In Burkina Faso, Fairtrade International offers an alternative business model by engaging communities in which poverty is so dire that the acceptable social norm is to utilize forced child labour. By entering into this challenging environment, they are directly tackling poverty which is a major factor in child labour. Taken a step further, when an organization utilizes a Rights-Based Approach they recognize poverty as injustice and includes marginalization, discrimination, and exploitation as central causes of poverty.  

When Fair Trade is integrated with a Rights-Based Approach it seeks to go to the root of a problem. Conventional trade has no such objectives, seldom considers the social or environmental consequences of trade, and does not consider the rights of producers; conventional trade concentrates on the profits to be made and the logistics to expedite the deal. 

In contrast to maximizing profits, the other extreme is a U.S. government regulation banning all trade in cotton with Burkina Faso due to the common practice of child labour in the impoverished nation. Banning trade only serves to deepen the existing poverty and provides an additional rational for the dehumanizing practice; it doesn't provide any opportunity or model for change. 

I applaud Victoria's Secret for stepping in this direction with Fairtrade International. One of the purposes of the global Fair Trade Movement is to bring to the surface the need for trade justice by challenging the Business as Usual model; to get corporations to reflect on their existing practices and consider the social and environmental impacts their business dealings have on the producers of the commodities they need; clearly Victoria's Secret has taken a step in this direction. For this Victoria's Secret gets a Bronze star in Fair Trade. If they use a majority of Fair Trade organic cotton in their products they get a Silver star, and for 100% a Gold star! (This Fair Trade Rating idea courtesy of Nick Savaidis of Etiko Fairtrade in Australia)

Whether or not the Bloomberg article with it's accusations of child labour on Fair Trade certified farms is true or not, and regardless if Clarisse's real age is 13 or 21, there is a valuable lesson to be learned here. 

Crunching the Numbers:

According to a 2008 impact study by the University of Berne, Organic Cotton Changes Producers' Lives: Impact study on organic and Fairtrade cotton in Burkina Faso, "the average conventional yield is 1,100kg/ha, whereas organic cotton reaches 675kg/ha, although elite organic farmers can potentially push yields above 1,000kg/ha. The factors limiting yields are the choice of marginal zones and plots of land, the lower productivity of new producers and women, and stricter quality criteria for organic cotton." 

For the sake of a long-term evaluation, the 2001 - 2009 data appears to be the norm with a high in March 2008 of USD $0.80/kg and a low in May, 2002 of USD $0.39/kg, and a nine year average of about $0.60/kg. However, this is not reflective of the price farmers receive for their crops. The same Helvetas study cites the price conventional cotton farmers received in 2008 as 165 CFA/kg for conventional cotton. In 2008, that amounted to USD $0.37/kg while the market price listed a high of USD $0.80/kg in March, and a low of USD $0.55/kg in December. In short, the price on the conventional market is clearly not indicative of the price farmers receive from the lowest rung of middlemen between the farmer and the ports.

A calculation here is quite simple with one harvest per year: The average conventional yield is 1,100kg/ha and the average family according to UNCTAD grows cotton on one hectare:

1,100 kg x $0.37 per kg = USD $407

$407 divided by 365 days per year is USD $1.12 per day for one farmer to provide for his entire family. This doesn't include conventional inputs such as the purchase of pesticides and fertilizers chemically engineered for genetically modified cotton which produce sterile seeds, thereby prohibiting farmers from replanting and further increasing input costs. Farmers in the conventional cotton trade are clearly on the receiving end of a system of exploitation. It comes as little surprise there is continued social acceptance of slavery in the form of forced child labour in Burkina Faso; within its own twisted logic due to the artificially low market prices made lower by middlemen, child labour is the obvious answer to keeping a family alive.

Organic Fairtrade Cotton in Burkina Faso
How is Fair Trade an alternative to conventional markets? In a 2007 World Bank publication, Strategies for Cotton in West and Central Africa, the authors write positively about a Helvetas program:

Organic fair trade cotton programs are very popular amongst small producers for several reasons. By definition, organic cotton programs exclude the use of chemical fertilizers or pesticides and thus circumvent the problem of accessing input credit. Furthermore, these programs take place on small lots (form 0.25 to 0.5 hectares) that can be cultivated by women (45 percent of organic cotton producers are female) in addition to their chores, or by any other family member willing to get some revenue that he/she cannot earn through family farming (which provides for his/her essential needs such as food and clothing, but is not paid labour). Besides organic and fair trade cotton benefits from a higher payoff… In Burkina Faso, where Helvetas supports a certified organic cotton program, the purchasing price to producers was around 252 CFA F/kg for the 2004/05 season… In Burkina Faso the Helvetas program reached 72 producers in 2003/04 and 818 in 2005/06. (Baghdadli, Cheikhrouhou and Raballand, 2007, p.17)

The Helvetas impact study above provides insight to the effect Fairtrade has for farmers in 2008:

Contrary to a widespread belief, organic production requires 23% less hours of work in the fields than conventional production. 30% of these are worked by non-family members in the form of mutual aid. However, organic farmers spend more time preparing compost. Nevertheless, farmers’ accounts of the advantages of organic production confirm that organic production requires less effort, especially since there is no pesticide spraying.

The gross profit per hectare of cotton is identical in organic and conventional farms. This is due to the lower organic yield being made up for by a higher price, i.e. 272 CFA/kg for organic cotton instead of 165 CFA/kg for conventional cotton. Organic farmers spend 90% less on inputs and this results in their gross margin being 30% better than for conventional production. 

Moreover, the lower cost of inputs also puts some in a more relaxed state of mind, as Yamdare Kaboré, an organic producer from Tenkodogo, testifies: 

“No more exhausting credit!” 

We should also note that the organic producer organisations receive a so-called Fairtrade premium of € 0.05/kg of seed cotton that they can use for community projects. This is generally invested in buildings that are partly used as schools, followed by boreholes for drinking water. Along with cotton, the producers can also sell products such as sesame, shea nuts and hibiscus on favourable terms, enabling them to earn some extra income.

The study reports a more positive perception of human health as well as animal and soil health since organic production started, and this is confirmed by the most experienced organic producers. No more chemicals is the main argument – especially for women – along with less hard work. Health is an essential issue in the Sahel, as Idani Célestine, a cotton producer in Fada, testifies: 
“As regards my health, conventional cotton gave me stomach aches every time I sprayed.” 

It is true that organic means that people do not have to spray their fields with chemicals up to 6 times, and they also see the rewards of the effort they put into production and transporting compost.

“I am proud of our organic cotton. It protects our health and gives us a better income.”
- Wimenga Kourita, organic farmer from Tenkodogo

The impact study clearly delineates the benefits to farmers in the project:
  • 7,000 producers (men and women) in 2008
  • More diversified crop rotations with a higher commercial value
  • An opportunity for women to earn an income
  • 39% lower yields, but a 65% higher price for the farmer
  • 90% less spent on inputs; a 30% higher gross margin
  • Less indebtedness from buying inputs
  • Farmers consider that both human and livestock health have improved
  • Three times more organic manure applied
  • Producers have observed a noticeable improvement in soil fertility

When we make a direct comparison between conventional trade and Fair Trade it becomes quite clear there is a need for Fair Trade to become a world standard versus simply an alternative to Business as Usual with the systematic exploitation of people and resources as embraced in conventional trade. However, that isn't going to happen anytime soon...

What is the future of Fair Trade in Burkina Faso?

To this I repeatedly say, "LOCALIZE FAIRTRADE!!!" Currently one of the obstacles faced in Burkina Faso is the dependence on conventional gins, traders, textile mills and garment factories. To localize Fair Trade requires a vision!

Create a Vision!

With over 7,000 organic Fairtrade cotton producers in the country, the future of Fair Trade is clearly to shift from selling raw materials for export, to value-adding in the locations where the cotton is grown. Imagine Fair Trade cooperatives working towards a common collective goal of raising awareness of Fair Trade locally and nationally while producing high quality products for local, national and regional markets! For the global movement to be sustainable, there needs to be a concerted effort to localizing Fair Trade in the Global South! In this model of localizing Fair Trade, we can progressively work towards ending social acceptance of forced child labour in the 21st century.

Mitch Teberg, MA
Sustainable Development / Fair Trade
Researcher / Trainer / Consultant

Feel free to add your comments, thoughts or ideas below or catch me on facebook. For those who prefer reading black on white, here is the downloadable version of this post on pdf:
The Need for Organic Fairtrade Cotton in Burkina Faso


  1. Mitch, an incredibly informative and clearly written post, I sincerely hope that action is taken to start localising fair trade, it certainly seems the obvious solution. Have a great weekend!

  2. Agreed, a well written piece bringing up some important aspects of fair trade and what it means for families. It's interesting to note people's intense opinions regarding child labor and yet their lack of understanding of what is truly causing/forwarding such cultural practices. I am sure no parents [or very few] would like to see their child slave away if they could afford to feed them on their own.

  3. Another brilliant piece Mitch. Ending child labour/slavery will be one mankinds biggest challenges due to the unfair practices of companies of wanting the cheapest deal when sourcing goods or raw materials so as to increase their profits. Fair Trade cooperatives are definitely going to have a huge impact in raising living standards in these communities. Thank you so much for sharing this information.