The global handicraft industry (with handicraft being defined as instances in which the majority of the product is manufactured by hand) is estimated to be $527 billion annually. The growth in mass produced goods has been paralleled by a steady rise in demand for handcrafted products as consumers demand greater ‘authenticity’ – so much so that the sector is expected to grow to $984 billion by 2027. “Robotics and handwork will rise in parallel,” says Rebecca, “as the human psyche will continue to long for items that are touched by hands.”
It has been challenging to integrate handicraft manufacturers into global supply chains. Large brands and retailers have been cautious about interacting with these opaque, decentralized, unregulated supply chains often based in family homes where homeworkers, approximately 75% of whom are women, may weave wicker baskets, sew silk scarves or stitch embroidery. After agriculture, the handicraft sector is the second largest employer of women in the developing world and 90% of the income women receive is reinvested into the family through forms such as child education.
Nest, a non-profit, headquartered in New York, has the mission of increasing accessibility to these handicraft economies. Via its Artisan Guild of 500 handicraft businesses across 90 countries, Nest provides a sourcing window for its brand partners. Nest’s work has enormous social impact. “So many women around the world need homework,” explains Rebecca. “They have to care for their children and the elderly – they can’t migrate to a city or don’t have a husband who can support them. Unlocking a method to integrate these women into global supply chains is fundamental.”
Historically, brands and retailers would disengage from homeworker supply chains due to fears over their inability to meet traditional responsible sourcing standards. With children often present in the homes, for example, ‘no homeworker’ policies became common. Partnering with a group of global brands and retailers, Nest has developed a set of tools to enable brands to map these home workers within their supply chains before understanding and improving working conditions via training and assessments. Unlike earlier attempts at developing home worker tools, Nest’s focus is on operationalizing the program rather than simply developing the standard. “We make sure there are implementation bodies behind the standard. We are less focused solely on the standard; and more interested in building a movement around implementation – forming strategic partnerships with those supporting the homework sector.” Homeworker supply chains are characterized by numerous, informal subcontractors – and with minimal, if any, exposure to responsible sourcing requirements. “You have to acknowledge that the work is hard,” says Rebecca. “Our goal is not the passing of an assessment. It is to improve the current systems for transparency and wellbeing, all the way to the homeworker level.”
Nest’s first step is to carefully map homeworker supply chains, which are remapped on an ongoing basis as women step away from homeworking to have a baby, for example, or as production moves to a different village due to a monsoon. Nest invests heavily in customized training for both the business owners as well as for the homeworkers. Since the majority of homeworkers are compensated at piece rate, under informal cash-based arrangements, it is unlikely that verifiable procedures are in place to ensure that minimum wage requirements are met. Consequently, Nest trains all parties on how to perform a time and motion study, allowing them to understand how long each item takes to produce and mapping that to its minimum wage value. The wage gap can be common, but Nest encourages brands to understand that reaching minimum wage will be a journey with milestones met along the way. “Understanding the gap is a really good first step.”
Alongside minimum wage, child labor is another nuanced issue. While Nest prohibits children from working on products, as an advocate of the handicraft economy, Nest holds that children need to remain connected to craftsmanship for the industry to thrive. “Children learn at the hands of their mothers,” says Rebecca. “We want the skills to remain in the communities. Artisan craft is passed down generationally.” Once training has been performed, a baseline assessment is performed and opportunities for further improvement are identified. “Success needs to be measured both quantitatively and qualitatively. Nest conducts a Worker Wellbeing survey to understand how our work is elevating women’s empowerment and personal agency. We often hear from women who would not have employment were it not for homework.”
Given the plethora of competing interests responsible sourcing executives need to manage, how should homeworkers be prioritized alongside traceability, sustainability, structural safety, protection of migrant workers and so on? “To quote one of the brands we work with,” says Rebecca, “there needs to be a balance between volume and vulnerability. While high volume suppliers should be prioritized, of course, do not lose sight of where the most vulnerable members of your supply chain are. These women are really important, and although they may represent a small volume of production, the impact brands can have by working with these women is high. The social impact return on investment is huge.”
According to the Nest website, Nest Steering Committee members include Target, West Elm, Eileen Fisher and PVH. The Nest Steering Committee is a coalition of fashion and home design brands demonstrating extraordinary leadership by working alongside Nest to build the global sector solutions that are bringing unprecedented transparency, social responsibility, and economic development to handworker economy.
For more information on Nest, please contact Ashia Dearwester, Nest Chief Strategy and Partnerships Officer, firstname.lastname@example.org