Wisdom//

Why Craft Making Has Incredible Value

Jim Brett, the CEO of J.Crew Group, weighs in on the enlightening world of art.

Set of artist accessories collection. Canvas, tube of oil paint, art brushes, palette knife lying on the blue table. Artist workshop background.
Set of artist accessories collection. Canvas, tube of oil paint, art brushes, palette knife lying on the blue table. Artist workshop background.

Jim Brett, the CEO of J.Crew Group, has been contemplating the idea around crafts and the “hardworking economy” ever since his days at Anthropology back in the early 2000’s. At this year’s Nest Conference, Jim spoke to a number of topics including his views around Fair Trade, how expansive and enlightening the world of crafts is, and what to do about how the systems of yesterday limit brands and consumers’ fight for what they believe is the future.

Thank you, Jean-Yves. I’ve been looking forward to today and in anticipation, I have been thinking a lot about craft.  I’m actually not sure who I would be had I not encountered craft. It has defined my understanding of the world. It’s expanded my perspective of all people, and helped drive my passion for diversity, equality, and social justice for everyone.  I was so fortunate to be hired by Anthropologie in 2003 to travel the world, find as many hidden treasures as possible and bring them back to America. I mean…that was by far the coolest job I’ve ever had – and potentially the coolest job on the planet.  But, beyond that – it introduced me to craft – which I have found to be one of the purest expressions of culture. Craft has managed to pass its way from the indigenous people of the world to modern day life. It’s still the 2nd largest employment sector in the world.  What else - in the world today - has been able to maintain that type of relevance – especially while remaining authentic?  It’s remarkable and embodies thousands of different cultural stories.

To experience craft is expansive beyond anything else I’ve ever encountered.  It’s really amazing how these simple – typically quite functional things— manage to hold the souls of the hands that made them, manage to tell the stories of struggles and triumphs, of pain and joy, of dreams.  

The most common conversation I have had over the past 15 years of working with craft collectives is about consistency.  As soon as they hear an American accent they say, we can’t make every piece the same. Each must be different as it is made by different hands that each have their story.  I would say this: The last thing we want is for all them to be the same. This was so contrary to all their other experiences with big American companies.

Imagine when I had to try and explain the concept of Fair Trade.  I’m still blown away by the concept of Fair Trade. Not all of the standards and requirements: But the idea that a percentage of every purchase will go directly into a fund that is collectively managed by the craftspeople.  They need to elect a committee – a President, a secretary, etc. And they need to conduct a needs assessment to figure out what they – as a group – need the most. Imagine – just imagine – if all of us here today were given a sum of money – and we had to form a committee and determine what is the thing that we need the most—really need.  That conversation is mind blowing. You gain more perspective from listening to that conversation than listening to anything or anyone else in the world.

It’s impossible for me to look at a Papier-Mache object made in Haiti without thinking about the fact that over 51% of the population is illiterate – and then to remember the literacy program that we did for all of the women making our products at west elm.  And finally, for those women to get dressed in their Sunday best – to attend their first graduation, standing with great pride as they each read out loud the first letters they had ever written. Telling us how it has changed their lives to be able to read.  

These experiences grow into a deep appreciation of the diversity of our global community, a tolerance for our differences, and the role that craft plays in social and economic cultures everywhere.  But, I remember the day when I found out that Fair Trade didn’t have the structure or resources in place to certify products made by women working at home. And I remember the day when Rebecca told me that Nest was going to figure out how to do it themselves – and that they would work with Fair trade to become a bridge to Fair Trade certification.  This was a massive win for the craft communities. The American standards that were intolerant of home working were – and still are breaking up families and causing urban migration that is overpopulating cities with scores of homeless people looking for work. But, Nest – Nest is figuring out a way to keep the family together – in the rural community that has been weaving silk for generations.   

What’s most exciting is that the consumer is voting for these products.  They are becoming more important commercially than ever before. Because consumers not only want excellent craftsmanship, they want to experience culture and at the same time, invest their dollars in the preservation of cultural heritage and most importantly – they want to buy products that are ethically sourced. The consumer of TODAY cares about sustainability and they care about social justice for the hands behind the work: the dignity of the folkways as well as the safety of artisan labor.

The first danger we face is craft-washing.  I still remember the day I saw a bag of Artisan Doritos at the grocery store and realized that without proper systems in place, ad agencies all over the world would de-value artisan or hand-crafted products by using these words – words that are fundamental building blocks for the future of conscious consumption - as mere marketing jargon.

The “craft” portion of handcrafted should not be overlooked. Because craftsmanship is a skill - one requiring sometimes years and years of dedicated apprenticeship. When we consume a handcrafted item, we support artistry and we vote for the value of technical expertise – passed down through generations, rooted in specific geographies, characterized by its regional nuances. So handcrafted items build bridges not only from human to human but also from culture to culture.

And in a world too often preoccupied by, and divided by, our differences, the unifying power of handcraft should not be overlooked. As an advisor to Nest, it has been my distinct honor to support this organization’s pioneering work for many years. And I have yet to see this dedicated team back down from a challenge. But they certainly cannot do this work alone, and that’s what these convenings are all about.

Today, we are here to discuss the challenges that stand in the way of funding innovations in the handworker economy that will help ensure that more handcrafted products can make it to consumer shelves ethically and responsibly.

As a tenured President and a relatively new CEO, I feel passionate about the role that industry can and should play in stimulating demand for handcrafted products; however, I recognize and personally experience the real dangers we face.  Let’s face it, there is an inherent conflict between the demands of TODAY’s consumer and the corporate mindset of YESTERDAY’S way of doing business. We are all ultimately accountable to a short-term market, and the short-sighted vision of YESTERDAY’s leaders who still hold too much power today.  

SO, how do you fight for what you know is the future, when you operate within systems of the past? You do it by relying on the power and the rallying cry of TODAY’s consumer.  Public opinion matters - and public scrutiny is unavoidable: USE THIS. Leverage the voices of your customers to fight yesterday’s leaders and yesterday’s way of doing business.  The people who are buying our products are interested in a fuller experience – they understand a different kind of value and they can smell authenticity from a mile away. SO, if you fight to work authentically – to work ethically and responsibly, TODAY’s consumer – they will support you – and when you have their support, you are unstoppable.  

So how do you start?  With programs like Nest Standards, Seal for Homes and Small Workshops, there are now ways that brands themselves can help invest in artisan supply chains.  So, you start here – at Nest. And use the voices of your consumers—the power of your consumers—to influence impact investors to better tap into this sector and realize both economic returns and social impact in the process.  Work with philanthropists focused on women’s economic development, cultural preservation, and ethical labor.

We all have the same goals, so how can we make sure that when we make the critical decisions about where to put our dollars, we are aligned? So that our investments are complementary instead of fragmented? So that we build a holistic funding ecosystem for the new handworker economy?  This is the work for today.

If we can do this, we can continue to generate employment opportunities for women in developing economies, for whom craft – to state it again - is the second largest employer globally. To me, and I hope you will agree, taking on these challenges is well worth it.


First and foremost, my hope is that we keep this sector alive and vibrant – keep families together and maintain the cultural heritage that has lasted for many generations before us.  But beyond that, my hope is that when we start to bring more authentic products into today’s market, that it will draw attention away from the obsessive focus on price – and much more importantly that it will expand people’s perspectives in even the smallest way.  That it will somehow help to promote tolerance. Something that is in short supply today.

This is such important work – life changing work.  I am so excited to welcome you today. The team has a thought-filled day of programming with industry leaders and esteemed panelists to help you explore all the ways you can make a difference.  Follow your passion, influence your peers, and leverage the power of the consumer – and we will have an outcome that is something to really be proud of.

Thank you so much.

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