Interview with Rebecca van Bergen, Founder & Executive Director of Nest

Source: Nest

Source: Nest

Apparel and textile products pass through the hands of many workers throughout the world: harvesting, extracting, processing, and transforming materials into the goods we buy. Products that require a certain skill set can have work subcontracted out to additional factories and even to homeworkers. It is in this informal sector that issues regarding wages, labor practices, and environmental sustainability become harder to identify and fix. Nest is working to change that by building a network of artisans and craftspeople that work directly with brands and retailers to stabilize incomes, promote crafts, and grow sustainable livelihoods in remote communities. We had the chance to discuss the work Nest does throughout the world with Rebecca van Bergen, Founder & Executive Director of Nest.

What is Nest and how did it begin?

Nest is a nonprofit 501(c)(3) building a new handworker economy to increase global workforce inclusivity, improve gender equity, and help preserve endangered cultural traditions around the world. I founded Nest in 2006 right after graduating with my Master’s Degree in Social Work from Washington University - I was 24 years old at the time. Muhammad Yunus had recently won the Nobel Prize for his work in microfinance, fueling my interest in economic development as a tool for social change. Having encountered craft in my personal life and through my travels as a means of both employment and personal empowerment, I was motivated to help make this global sector more economically viable in a way that would not create debt for women and families.

What type of brands are working with artisans and why?

Nest works most closely with brands in the fashion, apparel, accessories, and home decor industries. While many artisans fill these supply chains, handworkers can be found in other industries, as well. In fact, we’ve recently uncovered interesting applications for our work in tech industries that are exploring circularity and upcycling. Motivations for working with artisans are both social impact driven as well as product driven. There is an increasing body of data letting retailers know that consumers are interested in transparency, authenticity, and handcraft, more specifically. A 2018 American Marketing Association study found that consumers will pay up to 17% more for a handmade item. Craft is [also] a huge employer of women in developing economies. When these women work, they are better able to provide for their families, and entire communities stand to benefit. Brands are increasingly interested in connecting their consumers to the opportunity to do good by purchasing ethical handcraft.

Can you tell us about the artisans and homeworkers you are working with, how many there are and what they are working on?

We currently support our Nest Guild, a network of more than 650 artisan businesses across over 100 countries, with core programs that focus on both business development and business ethics. These businesses are eager to scale and find new points of entry to the global marketplace, but they are equally focused on improving their communities. All Guild members have a social mission embedded in their work, whether it be women’s employment, cultural preservation, or poverty alleviation.

How do you identify and/or select an artisan to be part of your guild?

What’s great about the Nest Guild is that there is absolutely no fee associated with it, and the application process is very simple. Our goal is to make the community as accessible to as many artisan businesses as possible.

How do you ensure an artisan or homeworker is following your standard?

Nest’s Ethical Handcraft Program is designed to help artisan businesses adopt the Nest Standards across their business operations. In many cases, artisan businesses are set up to operate ethically, but they lack a standardization and documentation of procedures that will allow for external validation to a prospective sourcing partner. Nest’s program begins with training - meeting with artisan business leaders in person to walk them through the Standards and making recommendations for how they can standardize processes to better meet them. Assessments are conducted with 1-2 Nest team members, the artisan business leadership, possible subcontractors, and artisan workers themselves. Most artisans work out of homes or small workshops, so our program is unique in that it is tailored to this type of work environment. Through interviews, observation, and document review, we assess how the businesses’ practices match up against the Nest Standards. Those businesses who show a high level of compliance with the Nest Standards become Nest certified, giving the artisan business, and brand partners who may source from the business, access to the Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft.

Nest is growing (Congratulations!) How do you approach scaling your network?

Thank you! We have scaled our operations rather significantly over the past 4 years or so and have seen our reach to artisans triple as a result. Our team itself has more than doubled to support this growth. Scale is important in our line of work, because there are so many handworkers in the world who are unaccounted for, unprotected, and without access to tools for economic empowerment. The International Labor Organization estimates more than 300 million homeworkers, many who are artisans. Nest has pursued a couple of concerted strategies that have allowed us to dramatically scale our reach and impact. One is our use of technology. Our Guild engages over 650 artisan businesses because we deliver so much of our programming remotely with the assistance of webinars, WhatsApp, and email. A second road to scale has been created through our Ethical Handcraft Program with which we are partnering with brands to access artisan producers within expansive existing supply chains.

How do you go about retaining your relationships and managing data from artisans and homeworkers?

Artisan production mostly takes place in the informal economy - it’s called “informal” for many reasons, but the name is apt in the sense that that this type of work is often very relational. Craft is tied to family and culture, so these relationships need to be respected when you enter an artisan community. We conduct our data collection with sensitivity and transparency, and this makes all of the difference. Our artisan partners also understand that poor data on the handworker economy is inhibiting investment and innovation that is desperately needed to push this sector forward. There are also ways that technology can aid data collection to make it more efficient and less intrusive. We recently signed on tech company, Ulula, to help us streamline our supply chain monitoring process, utilizing new innovations in mobile surveys and data aggregation and visualization, to make these enhancements.

What are the notable changes you noticed on how brands approach artisans since you started Nest?

There is undoubtedly a greater interest in global handcraft and gaining access to rare techniques with stories behind them. There is also a deeper awareness of the fact that artisan craftsmanship and home-based work are inextricably linked. So if brands want to increase their sourcing from artisans and to do it in an ethical way, they need to make sure they have a program in place to assess this. Unfortunately, some brands just aren’t there yet. They will tell you it’s not possible to assess homework, or they will tell you that they have no homeworkers in their supply chains. One thing we have learned, is that many (if not most) large fashion, apparel, and home supply chains do have homeworkers. While “no homeworker” policies can be created with the best of intentions, they tend to increase artisan invisibility and vulnerability by pushing this work further underground, where it’s more likely to continue illicitly. Nest and our brand partners feel it’s more important to acknowledge homework’s important role in our supply chains, and in the lives of women limited in their ability to work outside the home, and to put standards in place that will ensure it’s happening ethically.

What kind of changes have artisans experienced since partnering with some of the brands Nest works with?

A big order from a major brand or retailer can have a transformative impact on an artisan business and the individual lives of the artisans it employs. We’ve seen this happen many times (it happened recently for a group we work with in Rwanda) and the level of human transformation is rewarding for everyone - for brands and artisans alike. This is the meeting of social good and economic viability that we are striving for - and more and more successful partnerships between brands and artisans are proving that the combination is possible.

What's next for Nest?

Nest has hit our stride. What’s next is continuing to do what we do, but better. I’m excited to see how technology can play a role in this - in fact the intersection of craft and technology will be the subject of Nest’s 2019 New Handworker Economy Convening.

We are particularly excited to reach consumers more directly with the Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft, which is continuing to grow its reach in market in places like West Elm, Pottery Barn and Target.

For more information about Nest: https://www.buildanest.org/