developing standards for home and small workshop production
As a technical assistance provider for small and medium-sized artisan enterprises, Nest is driving systems change through shared standards.
NEST New York, United States
On a trip to India while earning her Master’s degree in Social Work, Rebecca van Bergen saw endless examples of impressive craftwork. But something bigger was on her mind. She thought about how “women and what they [make] with their hands are inextricably entwined,” and how there was “untapped potential to make [craftwork] visible and viable for women everywhere.” The women she encountered in India reminded her of her own grandmother, who sewed and quilted. “By observing my grandmother,” van Bergen says, “I saw the unique relationship a woman has to what she makes.” Both experiences influenced her decision to found Nest in 2006. The mission of the New York-based nonprofit is, in van Bergen’s words, “building a new handworker economy” through a mix of technical assistance and collaborative programming. Van Bergen, Nest’s Executive Director, is working to connect the aspects of the fragmented global
craftwork economy to ultimately “lift womens’ wellbeing beyond factories.” This focus on home studios and small workshops, outside of a regulated factory environment, is important because these “workers … [have traditionally been] outside of view and support, or were not able to join larger supply chains due to ‘no homeworker’ policies prohibiting that type of sourcing,” explains van Bergen. “I felt that change needed to come from giving power back to the women themselves, and in places of poverty, economic power–even if that just means having a job– is the first step toward becoming a force for social change.” Originally, van Bergen hoped to improve the structure of micro-finance that female craft workers were being offered. Nest suggested that craftworkers repay loans with product, rather than cash, to escape the debt cycles of other microfinance efforts, thus making the loans non-interest bearing. 3
While this approach to microfinance was promising, it was the organizational choice to live “outside the supply chain as an independent third party,” and concentrate on business development, that grew Nest into a thought and practice leader in the artisan sector. “[The sector] remains flooded with brokers and middlemen who insert themselves [into] the artisan supply chain,” notes van Bergen, “fostering … dependence.”
«[The artisan sector] remains flooded with brokers and
© Sara Otto
middlemen who insert themselves [into] the artisan supply chain. » - Rebecca van Bergen, Founder and Executive Director
Nest’s independent status positions the organization as a relationship-builder between artisan businesses and retailers. As of late 2018, Nest’s programming and support had reached 488 small and medium-sized artisan enterprises in 92 countries. The nature of Nest’s business development programming and support has broadened and deepened over the past decade to meet the varied needs of hundreds of artisan enterprises. Nest’s programming currently includes: 4
Nest Guild Guild members–artisan small and medium-sized enterprises–have access to a suite of learning tools and pro-bono consulting, delivered through webinars, resource guides, phone consultations, mentorship, and on-the-ground consultation. Nest also works to connect Guild members to retailers and brands who want to source from artisan enterprises; the organization takes no share. Professional Fellowship Program Nest connects its Guild members with mid-to-late career professionals, who deliver pro-bono consulting–focused on everything from production quality control to product design. In 2019, Nest aimed to use newly-obtained grant funding to expand the Fellowship program.
launched a training and monitoring program aimed at “transparency … beyond the four-walled factory.” Artisan enterprises that pass a post-training, onsite assessment are able to carry the Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft. Retailer/Brand Engagement Nest has facilitated partnerships and sourcing relationships between retailers and artisan enterprises, and continues to act as a convener for retailers seeking deeper, ethical engagement with the enterprises. The standards for homework come out of prior discussions with a Steering Committee of brands, including Target and Patagonia, with which Nest worked to design assessment tools to fit “the wide variation in [their] decentralized supply chains,” notes van Bergen.
Nest Standards for Homes and Small Workshops + Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft While some of the artisan enterprises Nest supports utilize factories, many of the artisans associated with those enterprises continue to make products and practice their craft at home. To “make homework a safe and viable option,” explains van Bergen, Nest 5
Training and Convening As a companion to its business development support, Nest facilitates several incubator/accelerator-style programs, including a recently launched program called Makers United, piloted in Birmingham, AL. The program engages “artisan businesses employing women, immigrant, disabled, and low-income populations in a series of skills-based workshops.” Additionally, it hosts an annual New Handworker Economy Convening, which brings diverse stakeholders together to explore topics relevant to the growth and success of the sector as a whole. Supply Chain Transparency The effects of this initiative to create standards in the artisan sector are already visible. To date, among the 45 artisan enterprises and 17 retailers participating in its Ethical Handcraft Program, Nest has seen a 50% increase in supply chain transparency (all workers identified and documented, which “minimizes the risks of child labor and ensures that all workers are being paid fairly”) and a 69% increase in the number of businesses using “industry standard methodology” to set fairer wages.
“Some of our businesses have multiple supply chains,” explains van Bergen. “They source pottery and metalwork, for example. We look at each supply chain separately; our certification only carries to the supply chain we’ve assessed. It’s not carried company-wide, unless the business only produces one [type of product].” The review is performed on-site by assessors trained by Nest. Assesors also double-verify information supplied by the business. They might, for example, review records and interview workers. Still, only 10 supply chains have “achieved certification.” Van Bergen believes this is “a reflection of [the] complexity [involved], but also underinvestment in this sector. [The sector has] not necessarily had the training or resources to put towards these efforts–” particularly for enterprises that operate on “decentralized or piece-rate models.” In reflecting on Nest’s growth over the past thirteen years, van Bergen notes, “I don’t think we would be where we are today had we not exercised a willingness to learn on the fly, stay attuned to the changing industry around us, and shift our strategies as needed.”
NEST’S IMPACT For a deeper delve into the impact of Nest’s Ethical Handcraft program, readers can view its “State of the Handworker Economy” report using the QR code below. The report speaks to progress in the areas of supply chain transparency, safe working conditions, and wages—including a 42% increase “in the number of businesses setting worker wages that meet or exceed [the] local minimum wage.”
« I don’t think we would be where we are today had we not exercised a willingness to learn on the fly, stay attuned to the changing industry around us, and shift our strategies as needed.»
- Rebecca van Bergen, Founder and Executive Director
REFLECTION QUESTIONS “We do not learn from experience; we learn from reflecting on experience.” - John Dewey, educational theorist and New School co-founder The DEED Lab’s case study series is meant to provoke dialogue among members, supporters, funders, and consumers of the global artisan sector—and to inform the next generation of designer-entrepreneurs. First, we hope that readers of any case study we publish will consider the overall state of the global artisan sector. Given that it is a $500B+ industry, why, then, are the majority of indigenous artisans living in poverty and socially isolated? And now that you’ve read about Nest, we invite you to further reflect using the short set of questions below. While some of these questions specifically reference the case study, all of the questions are meant to generate broader dialogue about the sector. •
Does Nest’s role as a convener—fostering collaboration around ethical standards with many stakeholders, including industry partners, come with any potential ethical dilemmas or challenges?
As more artisans move into factory settings, how might Nest continue to measure and track conditions faced by artisans—but in factory environments?
What does Nest’s work around supply chain certification reveal about the complexities and difficulties of achieving ethical standards in the handwork economy?
This case study was written in 2020 by Robert Burack, DEED Lab Fellow, with editing, compilation, and interviewing support from Elizabeth Bailey, Luciana Jabur, Alik Mikaelian, and DEED Lab Director Cynthia Lawson Jaramillo. It was designed by Silvia Garuti. Our gratitude to the NEST team, including Founder and Executive Director Rebecca van Bergen, for their participation. The information presented in our case study series is drawn from a combination of desktop research and qualitative interviews. The content and views in this document do not necessarily represent Parsons School of Design or The New School. This information is shared for educational purposes purposes and should not be read as a seal of approval.
DEED is a research lab based at Parsons School of Design that focuses on the future of indigenous artisans and their children. Through fieldwork programs, strategic partnerships, and research, our focus is on models that equally support poverty alleviation, artisan empowerment, and cultural preservation. This case study is one of several available at deed.parsons.edu