When I founded Nest at age 24 in 2006, artisan was not the buzz word that it is today. Etsy was founded just a year previously and was a fledgling start up without global appeal (yet). While the fair trade movement existed, for most it brought to mind holiday ornaments and knick-knacks reminiscent of travels. Now our office keeps a running list of the funny ways that “artisan” shows up the world from potato chips to the name of the wine bar where I sit and write.
We know we’re not the only ones noticing – Research & Markets indicates that the global handicrafts market reached US $526.5 Billion in 2017 and is expected to reach $984.8 Billion by 2023, confirming that consumer interest in handcraft can further be translated into economic stimulation.
But what will this new surge in popularity mean for all of us – consumers and artisanal workers alike?
Artisan does not equal ethical:
When we fall into the trap of equating artisan with ethical, we fail to acknowledge the fact that craftwork is, in most cases, part of the informal economy. Craftspeople typically labor from home at the bottom of a complicated and dispersed web of middlemen, paid cash, and unprotected by labor law. It follows that transparency to ensure ethics and fairness is actually more complicated, not less so, than in a factory environment where workers are all under one roof, where their wellbeing can be more easily monitored, and where they are most commonly paid a salary wage. While the founding of most cooperatives or artisan businesses is rooted in ethical practices, when prices are determined per piece, they often do not account for minimum, let alone fair, wage rates. When women are hidden inside homes, it becomes harder to ensure that harassment, child labor or unsafe practices are not taking place.
The issue of verifying fair wages alone is an important one. A surprising 79% of the supply chains we work with at Nest were not able to demonstrate that they meet minimum wage when we first started working together, yet nearly 40% have closed the gap within a year of participating in our Ethical Handcraft Program- and 65% have implemented measures to do so over the course of the next year. These findings highlight that third-party accountability and standardization of wage-setting processes are critical. As consumers give more attention to handcrafted items, let’s ensure that the talented women who made our artisanal items not only make something beautiful, but are paid decently to do so. The Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft is now available on select products at West Elm, Pottery Barn (including Kids & Teen) and Target, to give us the ability to make these choices – to choose not only handcraft, but ethical handcraft.
We need a new lexicon:
To examine the term “artisan” itself is to come face to face with a complicated term lacking a universal definition that anyone, from the fields of art history to contemporary retail, have been able to agree upon. Throw in the new “maker’s movement” building momentum around our country and the terms lose even more meaning. UNESCO offers a lengthy, two-paragraph explanation including some rather general and vague terminology that allows ample interpretation, including the phrase: made by hand or “with the help of hand tools or even mechanical means.” How much technology or mechanization is allowed? As a handweaver, can punch card patterns be rendered by machine so long as the looming is done by hand? Or what about mechanical looms? Where do 3D printing and CAD fit in? Beyond these questions related to technical rendering, we also struggle to define what level of skill is required to allow for artisan anointment. Nest’s work has introduced to us to the “lesser” class of artisans who sew soles on shoes or stitch the pompoms to the tops of winter hats. While far from master craftswomen, is their handwork not also artisanal? How much does skill of the practitioner, or final output, matter? And what about the “maker’s movement”? Our research and programs have helped us realize that not everyone resonates with the term “maker”, making the movement limited in its reach and often skewed based on income and race.
At Nest, we have come to hold that a more inclusive definition allows us to ensure that programs aimed at supporting craftspeople reach as many people as possible with improved rights and wellbeing. By necessity, we launched a new lexicon that is not about marketing, but rather meant to speak to this inclusivity. We now refer to the global artisan workforce as handworkers, a direct translation of the German word for artisan, but, also, we feel, a more accurate moniker. These are workers using their hands. And whether she is practicing a time honed tradition or more basic sewing technique, the woman doing this work depends on her hands for her family’s livelihood and this, to Nest, is paramount.
Leave naysayers to a world of automation:
It was not a formal research study and so its findings are certainly subject to scrutiny, but we were curious what the philanthropic landscape looks like for the craft sector. We downloaded the 990s from the top 50 institutional funders in the United States and painstakingly went through them cataloguing where they made their investments and researching the beneficiary organizations. A shocking .02% of them invested in the craft sector. This is despite the research suggesting that there are 300M homeworkers globally, most of whom are women, and many of whom are estimated to be engaged in craft production. What we uncovered was to me, a staggering gender inequity that made me take a physical step backwards.
Artisanal work has long been stereotyped as “niche” to “not scale-able”, allowing it to be ignored or rejected by philanthropy for decades, despite a steady interest in agriculture and a growing interest in supply chain development and in the informal economy – worlds that share heavy overlap with that of craft-based employment.
We shout from the rooftops, publish data, and mostly say: “watch what happens in the next 15 years.” Watch as automation and robotics powerfully set off and spur forward a growing counter movement that demands a knowledge of, and craves a connection to, the producer. A movement that realizes that slowing down (at least for some things) makes us all happier. Join us then. Or now.
Let’s take our consumer power and demand something better from our companies and from ourselves. Ethical handcraft can be a place to start.