Rebecca Van Bergen - founder of Nest
"That link between women and craft struck me as powerful on personal levels and community levels - and as I would realize with greater research - economic levels as well."
With an estimated 60% of garment production happening outside of factories, the handworker industry is the second largest employer of women in emerging economies.
Nest connects fashion brands with makers and artisans from across the globe to enable sustained economic development, access to new markets and preservation of artisan craft techniques.
REBECCA VAN BERGEN - NEST
Rebecca was happy to answer some of my questions and give us insight into how Nest works, their celebration of craft and skilled work, and the impact they make to the lives of artisans around the world.
Hi Rebecca, can you tell us a little about when you found Nest and what inspired you in this direction?
In 2006, I had just graduated with my Master’s in Social Work. It was the same year that Muhammad Yunis had won the Nobel Prize for his work in micro-finance and I was inspired by the idea of creating increased economic opportunities for women - particularly those living in challenging environments. But I wanted to explore debt-free means through which to do this.
I became interested in the craft-based economy through a number of forces that all seemed to converge on the unique relationship between handwork and women. My grandmother was often sewing and my great-grandmother in particular made beautiful quilts. As part of my studies, I had also traveled to India and noticed how the women in the communities I visited were always making things with their hands.
That link between women and craft struck me as powerful on personal levels and community levels - and as I would realize with greater research - economic levels as well. These ideas led me to the idea for Nest, which I submitted to a competition at Washington University in St. Louis. I ended up taking home the first prize, a meagre (but at the time, extremely critical) amount that became our startup capital for Nest.
Can you share how Nest collaborates and works with artisans to develop their business opportunities and capabilities?
Nest’s data-driven capacity building programs map directly to the most pressing needs faced by today’s handworker economy.
By combining grassroots support with macro-scale solutions, Nest is driving sustainable change on the global scale.
The Nest Guild is a Nest-organized global network of more than 450 artisan business based in over 90 countries around the world. While employing artisans practicing diverse crafts from shibori dying to hand reed weaving, Guild businesses are unified in their common goals for business growth and social improvement in their local communities. Bridging gaps in language, distance, and opposite time zones,
Nest supports the Guild with a custom suite of technology-embedded learning tools and pro-bono consulting designed to address the most common needs voiced by the artisan community. Serving as a hub of easy-to-access free webinar consultations, downloadable resource guides, expert personalized phone consultations, and intensive mentorship projects guided by Nest Professional Fellows, Nest is connecting and mobilizing the Guild with new opportunities for learning, collaboration, and growth.
What sort of opportunities does this work provide, for women in particular, in emerging economies?
Artisan and craftwork is the 2nd largest employer of women in emerging economies. According to Lucy Seigle’s research in To Die For it suggests that as much as 60% of garment production is likely to be happening not inside regulated factories, but inside homes or small workshops around the world.
Craftwork is often subcontracted and outsourced from factories without brands knowing and unless systems are put in place to help brands map these complicated supply chains then artisan work will be untraceable and unprotected.
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 traveling to cities is dangerous;
[When] outsourcing childcare is not an option; and factory work is undesirable. It is critical that this work continues, and Nest has created compliance standards that ensure it can do so in a way that promotes artisan wellbeing and artisan business growth over time.
Can you tell me about the value that artisan production brings to the fashion industry and the global economy?
Artisan production brings incredible value to the fashion industry as it is estimated that craft is a US$34B industry. While the amount of data on the craft sector is alarmingly sparse (an issue Nest is working on fixing), as quoted above Lucy Seigle suggests that as much as 60% of garment production is likely to be happening inside homes or small workshops around the world so artisans and handworkers are already deeply ingrained in the production of the items we purchase every day.
Artisans are largely women which means they are mothers and caregivers so their employment and wellbeing impacts families and communities at large. I continually find it remarkable that despite being such a massive economic force, artisan continues to be seen as “niche” or “non-scalable” and thus has lagged behind other sectors in terms of innovation, financing and development. At Nest, we are seeking to change that narrative and to help redefine and revolutionize how we see and define “work” globally.
Through your platform, you are able to partner small scale producers with brands and designers. How does this work?
Taking a stance against enterprises operating as unethical artisan brokers, Nest matches craftspeople and designers directly, ensuring transparency, sustainability, and stunning collaborations.
When we work with brands that are looking to begin sourcing with artisans or to increase their current sourcing from artisans, we seek to play a role in educating those brand teams on best practices surrounding the nuances of artisanal and home-based production.
Brands that take the time to understand the cultural context in which an artisan business operates, and those who are open-minded about the fact that home-based work cannot be treated in the same way that factory-based production is treated, tend to build far more successful relationships with artisan vendors.
We always encourage brand representatives to join us when we visit an artisan business to implement our training and assessment programs, so that the brand can get to know its artisan workers as people.
We are also big advocates for brands and artisans working directly together to discuss sourcing terms and we do not insert ourselves inside these conversations as a middleman. This is important, because it gives the brand and artisan business transparency to one another and negates broker models that can negatively cut into artisan wages. The artisan business has more agency and a bigger voice when it is not speaking through an intermediary. This allows for real relationship-building, which is a critical factor in helping artisans forge sustainable partnerships with brand clients.
With ethics and sustainability top of mind in the fashion industry right now, how does Nest ensure sustainable and ethical production and how can this can be communicated to consumers?
The Nest Standards for Homes and Small Workshops and Nest Seal of Homeworker Wellbeing work together to ensure industry-wide transparency and compliance for production taking place beyond the four-walled factory. Built and piloted in collaboration with brand pioneers including Target, West Elm, and PVH, Nest compliance stands to revolutionize the industry by making homework a safe and viable option.
Measuring compliance across a matrix of 130 Standards, the training-first program is tailored to address the wide degree of variation in decentralized supply chains, which may result from factors such as multiple layers of subcontracting, migrant labor forces, and broad geographic dispersal.
Nest Compliance stands apart for its dedication to cultural sensitivity and handworker ownership in decision-making every step of the way.
We launched this program publicly at the United Nations last fall following the program’s pilot phase where Nest Compliance assessments were carried out in partnership with 42 artisan businesses across 7 countries and it has continued to grow from there.
The Nest Seal for Ethical Handcraft is a symbol of assurance letting consumers know that the items they shop, from fashion to furniture, have been ethically handcrafted in a home or small workshop. It will launch on products at the end of 2018.
Nest in India: A group of confident and hard-working women spin yarn at a workshop in Gondal, India to produce Khadi, a fabric closely tied to the national spirit of India. Having originated under Gandhi’s leadership over 70 years ago, Khadi was introduced to promote local production.
Today, the Khadi industry employs and empowers thousands of women across India and reaches women in areas with high inequity and a dearth of opportunity.
Over the last two years you have been working with Ecopsis to develop an affordable solution for wastewater management designed for small workshop production. Can you tell me more about this project?
Roughly two years ago, Nest began our scavenger hunt for existing methods of treating water contaminated by textile dyeing. Our purpose in familiarizing ourselves with the intricacies of current practices was to identify those features with greatest promise for informing a globally applicable, affordable, and accessible wastewater remediation solution that could be used around the world.
Given the heft of our goal, we are fortunate in our pursuit to be joined by Patagonia and Levi Strauss & Co. (through our involvement in the LS&Co. Collaboratory), partners whose vision for a socially and environmentally responsible fashion industry aligns with our own ambitions.
In India and Bangladesh, our team met with multiple artisan businesses whose remediation solutions offer strikingly innovative approaches to what can inform a scalable model for other craft-based enterprises to make use of. We were joined on-site by our engineering partners at Ecopsis who are working to translate this work into viable schematics that could then be replicated. The final stage of this project will be to work with an artisan business to create a wastewater solution using the schematics and training materials we are creating so they can refined through this pilot experience.
Can you share a favourite Nest success story?
We just had a very special experience by which we were able to see 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 jewelry workshop out of 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 jewelry 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 of luxury standard.
After multiple interview assessments onsite 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. Nest 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 with Anton and Benta once again. Their workshop is thriving and they have taken on new clients like ethical jewelry producer, Soko. Sara from our team was beaming with pride as Anton likened Nest to a place where all the artisans, like birds, can come and grow. He said that with Nest’s help, his business is flying. It doesn’t get better than that.
Nest in Peru: The alpaca fiber is carefully cleaned and separated by quality before being spun. The method of laying out the wool seen here allows for more thorough inspection and thus higher quality fiber.
You work with some key global businesses to bring artisan and handcrafted products to mainstream markets. Is there any insight you can share about how these partnerships work benefits this can bring to a business?
Nest understands market access as fundamental to ensuring sustainable business growth for artisans. If we want to see artisan businesses able to pay higher wages or able to hire more employees, they need to be receiving orders from brands. Unfortunately, the way the artisan ecosystem has been historically situated has made market access very difficult. Artisan businesses have largely operated in silos without easy access to reach prospective clients.
One of the ways we address this issue is by uniting the global handworker population through our Nest Guild, a community of more than 450 artisan businesses across 75 countries globally. All Guild members are able to participate, free of charge, in a sourcing program that Nest created to match artisans and brands directly. Directly is the key word here. What you will see often in the marketplace today are operations functioning as artisan brokers, who are essentially middlemen between the artisan business and a brand. The brand and artisan are not given visibility to one another, which makes it impossible for them to grow a relationship. At the same time, these models are often financially structured so that payment to the middleman infringes on artisan wages.
To address these issues, Nest has created an Artisan Sourcing Directory openly listing contact details for the artisans in our Guild. Brand who join Nest as members have access to this directory along with guidance from Nest on best practices for identifying artisan partners and working together to bring handcrafted pieces to market. Through this program, we have fostered relationships with artisans and brands both large and small.
What advice would you give to companies that are interested in incorporating artisan craft into their collections?
Do it! There is no better time and the results can be both stunning and impactful. Nest’s goal is to make this doable for brands both small and large and to ensure that these programs impact the women artisans, their families, and their communities, in powerful ways.