According to nonprofit Nest, handwork is the second-largest employer of women in developing economies, accounting for the jobs of 300 million people globally. And while that category includes everything from basket-weaving to table-making, the work of artisan craftspeople is perhaps felt most acutely in the fashion industry. Nest, citing Lucy Siegle's 2008 expose "To Die For," estimates that up to 60 percent of clothing is produced in artisan, rather than factory, settings.
"This is an economic force that needs massive investment," said Nest founder and executive director Rebecca van Bergen at the United Nations headquarters in New York City on Thursday.
Nest, which exists to build the handworker economy and support those who participate in it, hosted a U.N. summit to discuss the economic, environmental and social implications of this large sector. Gathering policymakers, brand leaders, press and artisans from all over the globe, the summit sought to educate and spur conversation amongst a range of stakeholders.
Director of women's economic development at Bloomberg Philanthropies Verna Eggleston made clear that she sees artisan work as a feminist issue, since the majority of the homecraft workforce is composed of women. She quoted the World Bank in saying that the average working woman will reinvest 60 percent of her income in her family, while working men will only reinvest 40 percent in the family — meaning that creating jobs for women through the artisan economy is one of the best ways to help whole families beat poverty.
"An investment in a woman is an immediate and sustainable investment in her community," Eggleston said.
Other speakers drew the connection between the artisan economy and the environment. While pressuring megalith fashion brands to create more eco-friendly standards is important, the fact that homeworkers make up such a large percentage of global apparel production means that ignoring their environmental footprint is dangerous. With fewer resources for learning about and dealing with their waste, some homeworkers may not even be aware of the toxicity of their manufacturing processes.
Regulating cottage industry production is notoriously difficult, but it's a must for bigger brands like Patagonia or Levi's that are interested in partnering with artisan groups but are accountable for ensuring high standards in their supply chains. The solution presented by a panel on managing wastewater (the contaminated water left over after dying or processing clothing) was made of multiple parts.
First, big brands that wish to work with artisan groups can help the artisans adhere to environmental regulations by funding the installation of technology that can handle the wastewater. Raihan Ali, an artisan from Bangladesh, noted that his UK client People Tree paid for 30 percent of his wastewater filtration system. Second, homeworkers should have a hand in choosing what system for treatment they will use. Not every technology is right for every setting, so getting the input of people on the ground about what works for them is important. Thirdly, regulations should be implemented slowly. Indian artisan Pradeep Sinha shared that he'd been running his business a certain way for years when laws about wastewater changed without warning.
"Suddenly, they came up with a bunch of regulations and we became criminals overnight," Sinha said. To avoid putting small business owners like Sinha in a vulnerable position where they may have to close down, regulations should be introduced with the expectation that it may take time for artisans to pivot toward more sustainable practices.
Besides delving into the responsibility that brands have toward artisans, the summit also asked what role the media ought to play in covering this segment of the fashion industry. The New York Times' Vanessa Friedman, Business of Fashion and Vogue India's Bandana Tewari and director of "The True Cost" Andrew Morgan all weighed in on the issue.
"I'm not just saying this to pay lip service — I think the handwork economy is still one of the greatest, most untold stories," Morgan said.
He outlined his belief that mainstream media reflects the wider population's values more often than it leads them, and claimed that as consumers continue to make their interest in artisan stories clear, the media will respond.
Tewari added that fashion media needs to shift from a focus on product to a focus on people.
"I'm overwhelmed sometimes at the level of invisibility of the people who make the things that we love," she said. To her, the challenge is looking for a way to make the artisan story "cool," especially in the context of an image-driven publication like Vogue. Tewari suggested that artisan stories should be presented in a manner as visually compelling as the National Geographic photo essays she used to pore over growing up.
Friedman asserted that part of the problem is that the fashion industry at large doesn't share a common vocabulary for talking about these issues.
"The people in this room, maybe, can talk about the difference between vegan and environmental and green. But for the general reader... that's all one thing," she said. "Until there is a language that is consumable that we can all agree on, I think it's going to be very hard to cover these stories in a consistent and digestible way."
Difficult or not, the rest of the conversations at the summit underscored the idea that covering artisan stories is important. Heidi Christ, artisan value chain expert at the U.N.'s refugee agency UNHCR, noted that handwork can provide refugees not only with an income, but also a path to emotional healing since repetitive work like weaving or beading shares therapeutic properties with meditation. Parsons dean of fashion Burak Cakmak shared his belief that artisan work will occupy an even larger part of the fashion economy in the future, based on the observation that more and more students are interested in incorporating handwork into their designs. And representatives from Target and Eileen Fisher noted that younger consumers' hunger for transparency means treating artisans well is only going to become more important for companies that aim to be around for future generations.
Despite the many challenges presented over the course of the day, many panelists and attendees highlighted the hope they had in the future of the artisan economy. At the end of the summit, Nest debuted the Nest Compliance for Homes and Small Workshops seal, which brands can place on products that Nest has certified as "ethically handmade." The goal is for the seal to function a bit like the Fair Trade or organic logos do, communicating quickly to customers that a product was made by well-paid and well-treated artisans.
"I think if we can get business and civil society and government working together, we're going to get to that tipping point to ensure a better tomorrow today," said senior responsible sourcing director at Target Ivanka Mamic. "No one organization can do this alone."