Non-profit group Nest is helping artisans across the globe overcome supply chain hurdles with direct programming to help them increase sales and profits. The organization is also an advocate of the global artisan community, which is mostly comprised of women.
In its most recent impact report, the organization said that craft-made goods is a $32 billion industry and is the second-largest employment sector of women in emerging markets. Researchers of the reported also said that the work is mostly done in homes. The organization’s steering committee of retailers and brands includes PVH, West Elm, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia and Jaipur Living, among others.
Founded in 2006 by Rebecca van Bergen, the New York-based organization said it will reach 170,000 artisans who live in impoverished areas across the globe in 2017. Here, Bergen talks about the impact study, the consumer market and why programming is needed.
WWD: What are some of the most pressing needs in the artisan community? What essential skills do they need to improve to succeed?
Rebecca van Bergen: Nest issues an intake survey to all artisan businesses with whom we partner to directly collect data surrounding their greatest hurdles to business growth and successful brand partnership. Across the board, quality control stands out as universal pain points that artisans face. When you are working with hand production, often in cottage industry settings, you inherently face greater challenges in achieving product consistency. It is also very rare that skill levels across a pool of artisans are perfectly equal. Beyond this, quality can be a somewhat subjective value that is subject to cultural standards and precedents for what a “perfect” product should look like. Artisan businesses are often very isolated from the contemporary export marketplaces they are producing for, so without that direct contact with the ultimate store floor, the barometer for the required quality that must be achieved can be difficult to calibrate.
Nest has created best practices for quality control solutions that are designed to help artisan business leaders implement simple systems for communicating product quality standards to artisans; implementing structured measures for review of product before it is shipped; incentivizing employees to reward high-quality work, etc. One of the most valuable actions that can be taken is to put artisan producers in direct conversation with professional experts through Nest’s Professional Fellowship Program. This empowers artisan leaders to learn firsthand the expectations of the global marketplace as well as to collaboratively work through solutions that are both industry standard and context-specific.
WWD: What are some of the implications of your impact study? What key takeaways should brands and retailers pay most attention to?
R.B.: The impact report makes a strong case for the tremendous impact that brands stand to make on their supply chains by investing even a minimal amount in development for homeworkers and artisans. Nest’s short-term and tailored trainings, mentorships, equipment upgrades, infrastructure improvements and workshop builds helped artisan beneficiaries to realize 76 percent increase in revenue and 45 percent growth in production in 2015. These numbers directly translate to increased economic opportunity for people, largely women, in developing economies around the world. And the results of this type of work are mutually beneficial.
By investing in developing decentralized supply chains, brands not only mitigate risk and do good, but they also lay the groundwork for more successful sustainable sourcing relationships with their vendors – i.e. production, product quality and smooth communications improve.
While most brands today are investing in bringing visibility and development to their factory workers, the informal sector has been historically left behind. This has largely been due to the fact that there are no universal standards to set barometers for what constitutes ethical, safe production in a home or small workshop setting. With our Steering Committee of brands (West Elm, Eileen Fisher, PVH, Patagonia and Jaipur Living), we have newly created a set of standards that we are piloting with artisan and homeworker suppliers within these brands’ supply chains so as to ensure their widespread applicability for the rest of the industry.
WWD: Consumers are increasingly driven to products that are ethically sourced, which Nest helps artisans achieve. Coupled with empowering women, this creates a powerful narrative. But how are these stories told to the consumer?
R.B.: Nest is focused on advocacy and awareness for artisans and homeworkers as part of our three-pillared approach to sustainable change. We know that consumers need more education about these types of topics in order to begin thinking about the clothing and home decor that they purchase in a more holistic way — i.e. considering who made it and how it was made. By having conversations with news sources like WWD, we start to bring attention to the tens of millions of women around the world who are artisans, and we help consumers understand that fashion can be an avenue for these women’s economic empowerment.
For consumers to palpably connect products to the stories behind them, the narrative is largely that of the retail brand to tell. The more that brands are willing to tell these stories of women’s economic empowerment and preservation of endangered craft traditions at point-of-sale and across their communications channels (like their web sites, their e-communications, social media, etc.), the more that consumers will be educated and enlightened — and the more deeply, we believe, they will connect to the products they purchase.
In an increasingly homogenized and mass-produced marketplace, we see a growing movement among consumers who crave deeper authenticity and quality craftsmanship that will last them not one season, but many years. The movement may be niche at this time, but our hope is to see education encourage its migration to the mainstream — just like the fair trade and local food movement, for example.
WWD: Do shoppers know the narratives behind the products made?
R.B.: This depends largely upon the brand positioning and marketing objectives of the retail and brand partners who are sourcing from artisan producers. Some of them see tremendous value in building connection with their consumers by sharing the artisan stories behind the products they make and sell (whether on their web site, via product inserts, or across other communications platforms). West Elm is an excellent example of such a brand.
In the fashion industry as well, we have seen an increasing desire to tell these types of stories, and have worked closely with partners like The Elder Statesman, Feed and Maiyet, to assist in collecting photos, quotes and other media directly from artisans (with the artisans’ full participation), so that these stories can be shared directly with shoppers. It is tremendously valuable to the progress of the entire artisan sector when a brand gives visibility to its homeworkers and hand-producers — suddenly, a population that has historically been very invisible is brought to the forefront of consumer consciousness — and this work is increasingly recognized as very valuable.
WWD: The Syrian refugee crisis continues to impact millions. Is Nest doing any work with Syrian women artisans? If yes, what does it involve?
R.B.: Nest currently partners with approximately 170 at-need businesses employing artisans and homeworkers across 40 countries. These businesses are incredibly diverse, practicing techniques that span a wide array of craft traditions. Nest is not an organizer of artisan businesses in the sense that we partner with pre-established social enterprises, businesses and cooperatives. So while setting up this type of project would be outside our wheelhouse, we would welcome introductions to businesses focused on employing women who are Syrian refugees — what an opportunity that would be for positive impact.
Also, one of Nest’s Artisan Guild businesses, The Sabah Dealer, employs three Syrians from Aleppo as guest workers in their workshop in Southeast Turkey. They all previously worked in shoes in Aleppo and have been with Sabah for a couple years now. One worker is responsible for leather-cutting (he previously cut leather at a high-heel shoe factory) and the other two are responsible for sewing.