Want To Know Who Made Your Clothes? This Is A Good Place To Start

The conditions in which garment makers are working can be worrying at best and deadly at worst. A fire in 2012 at Pakistan’s Ali Enterprises garment factory resulted in 289 deaths, while Bangladesh has experienced some of the most horrific incidents in recent history: that same year, the Tazreen Fashions factory went up in flames, killing at least 112 workers, and 2013 saw 1,129 people die after structural failures led to the collapse of the Rana Plaza factory. With events like these taking place year on year, there is no doubt that laws need to be made to keep factory workers safe. But with an estimated 60% of garment production taking place in homes, rather than regulated factories, what about the rights and safety of artisans in the craft sector?
What do you think of when you hear the words ‘craft’ and ‘artisan’? Pale ale and boujis coffee shops? Well, non-profit organisation Nest is here to school you. The craft industry is no small fry. With a net worth of £26 billion, it’s the second largest employer of women in emerging economies (further proof that ethical fashion is a feminist issue). Linking up fashion brands with makers from across the globe, Nest's aim is to provide "transparency, business development, and advocacy for global artisans, while preserving cultural traditions of craftsmanship".
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We spoke to founder and executive director Rebecca van Bergen about the invisibility of artisan women and the successes of a Kenya-based jewellery-making husband and wife duo.
Photo: Sara Otto
Tell us about your background and how that led you to found Nest.
For as far back as I can remember, craftsmanship was a part of my life. My great-grandmother and grandmother were both sewers and quilters, who passed down these skills to me. Craft was a fabric that connected us as women and united us across generations through its quality of tradition. Most women I speak to – regardless of where in the world they live or what their professional background is – share similar artisan-related memories: their mother knitting a sweater, learning how to sew a button for the first time, a school home economics or art class they’ll never forget – these tend to be very fond memories.
While studying, I took a trip to India as a volunteer yoga teacher and found myself struck by the craftsmanship surrounding me: women skilfully working with their hands to make beautiful clothing, jewellery, and objects for the home. I knew there must be a bigger market for this work than existed within these local villages operating on the periphery of the global economy. It was with these thoughts that the seeds for Nest were planted. I graduated in 2006 and entered my idea for Nest in a business plan competition for a social enterprise, winning money that became my seed capital for Nest.
Why did you set up the non-profit?
When I founded Nest more than 10 years ago, words like ‘artisan’ or ‘sustainable’ weren’t a part of the fashion lexicon. I saw that craft was an industry employing millions of women globally, but that these women were hidden, disconnected from one another, and cut off from the global marketplace. I wanted Nest to change this. I wanted to create a non-profit organisation that would help women use their hands and heritage to realise economic opportunity for themselves, their families, and their communities.
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Why is it so important for organisations like Nest to exist?
While the amount of data on the craft sector is alarmingly sparse (an issue Nest is working on fixing), Lucy Siegle’s To Die For suggests that as much as 60% of garment production is likely to be happening outside of regulated factories. Part of the reason why this enormous artisan workforce has been so invisible is because it is physically difficult to get to and tricky to track – for example, craftwork is often subcontracted and outsourced from factories without brands knowing. Unless systems are put in place to help brands map these complicated supply chains, and unless industry-wide standards are accepted for assessing ethical compliance in homes and small workshops, artisan invisibility will continue, increasing the likelihood that these women are not protected and advocated for.
Additionally, when a brand is left without means for ensuring the wellbeing of its home-based workforce, it may decide to pull production from artisans altogether, putting many people – largely women – out of work. For women in particular, this is devastating news, because the ability to work from home is one that is fundamental to their wellbeing and livelihoods. Working from home gives women living in some of the most challenging environments in the world the ability to provide for their families even when travelling to cities is dangerous; outsourcing childcare is not an option and factory work is undesirable. It is critical that this work continues, and Nest is creating the compliance standards that ensure it can do so in a way that promotes artisan wellbeing and artisan business growth over time.
Photo: Caroline Ashkar
In layman's terms, how do you work with artisans to ensure fair and sustainable production?
Nest has two assessments that help us identify the key hurdles. Our director of artisan compliance and programming, Sara Otto, is rarely in our New York offices and more typically in Africa, South America or southeast Asia, conducting interviews. The first is a series of questions and reviews that we use to guide conversation with an artisan business leader. It is important that we structure these interviews with utmost respect to the artisan leaders and workers they employ, observing cultural traditions like sitting down over tea first. The assessment helps artisan businesses with fair work policies and communicating those policies down to the artisan level.
The second assessment identifies key business hurdles like the need for new or upgraded production tools and equipment; the need for higher quality marketing materials and look books; the need for design elevation guidance; or the need for financial literacy training – the list goes on. Artisan participation is a key to success. We see our role as working alongside of artisan business leaders in driving their growth and success.
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How do you think the fashion industry has changed since the Rana Plaza disaster?
Rana Plaza shed a painful light on the realities of human rights issues in factories. At the same time, we cannot ignore the large portions of fashion supply chains that are based outside of factories. Artisans and homeworkers are one of the fashion industry’s most vulnerable populations. Until we have wider industry adoption of standards for ethical compliance beyond four-walled factories, we risk millions of people, predominantly women, being overlooked, unprotected, and underinvested in. Nest’s Ethical Compliance Standards are set to launch publicly in late 2017, and we are excited about making large strides in paving the way for sustainable development in the artisan and home-based production sector.
How can we make fashion businesses become more transparent with their manufacturing and production of clothes?
We believe in the importance of building a circular economy by which craftspeople, brands, and consumers are all generating increased social value through transparency, education, and commerce. To ensure this closed loop system, consumers must be educated about the people and processes behind the clothing they consume so that they are able to factor these qualities into their purchasing decisions. By giving consumers 'access' to artisans by sharing their stories on product tags and other point of sales channels, by sharing digital assets that take consumers behind the scenes of rare craft technique processes from around the world, and by explaining social impact, brands can improve artisan visibility and demand for artisan product.
What's your favourite Nest success story?
We just had a very special experience seeing our work come full circle on a project in Kenya. About five years ago, Nest began a project in Kenya to help support a husband and wife who were running a jewellery workshop from their home. The couple, Anton and Benta, are very community-oriented and had adopted several orphans into their family, along with their own children. As such, they were operating large jewellery-making machinery for brass casting and polishing inside a crowded home with children nearby. Not only did this present a health and safety issue, but it also created a difficult environment in which to ensure high product quality. Anton and Benta were producing for the luxury fashion brand Maiyet, and so it was critical that their product quality be a high standard. After multiple interviews on-site with Anton and Benta and the artisans they employ, we decided together to build a small workshop adjoining their home, in which they could safely produce. We also upgraded their tools and equipment to help them achieve the highest product quality standards.
Five years later, Sara from the Nest team returned to Kenya where she had the joy of visiting Anton and Benta again. Their workshop is thriving and they have taken on new clients like ethical jewellery producer, Soko. Sara said Anton likened Nest to a place where all the artisans, like birds, can come and grow – that with our help, his business is flying. It doesn’t get better than that.
Photo: Caroline Ashkar
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Further reading
...or find everything in 'Fashion Conscience' here.
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