Bloomberg News’ exposé on the so-called fair-trade cotton used by Victoria’s Secret is being called into question by Fairtrade International, the nonprofit organization that develops and upholds fair-trade standards, particularly when it comes to certifying producers and facilitating relationships with buyers. In a heartbreaking account in December, reporter Cam Simpson detailed the abuses Clarisse Kambire and other child laborers faced toiling in the cotton fields of Burkina Faso in West Africa, despite programs designed to improve the lives of women through responsible sourcing. “Paying lucrative premiums for organic and fair-trade cotton has—perversely—created fresh incentives for exploitation,” Simpson wrote. The blame, he intimated, lay with Fairtrade International for not keeping a more guarded eye. After conducting its own investigation, however, the group fired back on Tuesday with a list of “substantial contradictions” to the facts presented in the article, chief of which was that Kambire was not 13 as previously reported but 18 or older—by no means a child as defined by the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child.

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Neither was Kambire involved in growing cotton or indeed any kind of fair-trade-certified production. Instead, notes Fairtrade International, she works on a family-owned vegetable farm, where she grows locally consumed produce for which there are no established fair-trade standards in the region.

The “girl” and her family reported that she was “woken up early one morning and asked to pose in the cotton field” by Simpson.

Worse, alleges the group, the “girl” and her family reported that she was “woken up early one morning and asked to pose in the cotton field” by Simpson, “who introduced himself as working for an orphanage project and needed to select three children to be part of this program.” Given these inaccuracies, Fairtrade International says it not only refutes the information presented in the Bloomberg article but also questions the methods used by the journalist to obtain it.

The organization agrees with Simpson on one point, however. Child labor is a global problem and more work is necessary to protect the well-being of children in the cotton-producing communities of Burkina Faso and beyond. “No person or product certification system can provide a 100 percent guarantee that a product is free of child labor,” it concedes. “What Fairtrade guarantees is that if we find breaches to our child-labor requirements, we take immediate action to protect children.”

As part of its ongoing efforts, Fairtrade International will be prioritizing further training on child labor and protection beginning in early 2012.

+ Fairtrade International