Letter From Brooklyn: west elm’s 2013 Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action
From west elm president, Jim Brett:
When a customer walks into one of our stores, whether a regular or first-timer, there’s no denying the power of our message: west elm has a broad attitude about design. Our engaging mix of global finds, design collaborations and everyday solutions doesn’t just come to us while we sit at our desks. Unlike many other retailers, we take a boots-on-the-ground approach to sourcing, and I’m fortunate because this aspect of my job syncs with one of the most significant influences in my life — travel.
Like many of you, I am constantly inspired by my journeys. I can track my design education country-by-country: I learned about modern in Scandinavia, vintage in Paris, reclaimed and industrial in Belgium, and found a great fusion of nature, culture and modernity in Thailand. But I found my greatest inspiration while traveling through India — where I came to truly understand the soulfulness of craft. Even more than a country’s culinary traditions, craft represents cultural heritage to me, a fascinating blend of local resources, both material and imaginative. I never tire of trying to capture the essence of each journey by bringing home just the right handcraft. It’s hard to tell what my life would be like — or certainly what my home would look like — without these meaningful mementos of my travels.
When I arrived at west elm a few years ago, we sold very little handcraft. But today that collection has grown to over 20% of our assortment through the efforts of a determined team. What changed our mix is not only my personal passion for craft, it’s also our team’s desire to connect our customers with the beauty of handcrafted pieces. We’re able to share the sense of discovery that makes craft come alive, igniting not just genuine enthusiasm for the products we sell, but ever-increasing interest in our artisan partners’ stories and the world behind their creative processes.
We’ve done exceedingly well because we’ve taken the time to truly listen to our customers, and there’s no reason to stop now. Today, west elm takes a historic step to build our brand and business, as well as many small businesses around the world, by announcing our 2013 Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action: a two-year $35 million handcraft purchasing plan, representing a 40% increase from $25 million in 2013, supplemented by a transparency pledge around the making and sourcing of those products. (To read our commitment, which is being published at CGI’s annual September meeting, visit clintonglobalinitiative.org/commitments.)
“Today, west elm takes a historic step to build our brand and business, as well as many small businesses around the world, by announcing our 2013 Clinton Global Initiative Commitment to Action: a two-year $35 million handcraft purchasing plan, representing a 40% increase from $25 million in 2013, supplemented by a transparency pledge around the making and sourcing of those products.”
Over the next two years, our travels will take us around the world to collaborate with more than 20 artisan groups in 15 countries including the USA, Mali, Peru, Nicaragua, Colombia, Haiti, Thailand, Vietnam, the Philippines and India. We will directly impact the lives of 4,500 artisan workers and 18,000 family members. Our company has worked hard to build a global network of handcrafted suppliers, expending a good deal of time and money. But the upshot gives us an enormous advantage: When we meet crafters with no ability to scale, we can use our supply network to produce their goods at an accessible price to our customers, while maintaining and preserving the handcraft techniques and all the traditions those techniques embody.
“When we meet crafters with no ability to scale, we can use our supply network to produce their goods at an accessible price to our customers, while maintaining and preserving the handcraft techniques and all the traditions those techniques embody.”
In strategic arenas from political to humanitarian, there is an ongoing conversation about handcraft as a way of creating more jobs in the face of the world economic crisis. However, craft is not only about preserving techniques, it’s about pioneering them — and that’s where the opportunity lies in the USA.
One of our first steps involves strengthening our commitment to artisans here at home. Through 2015, we’re introducing regionally sourced handcrafted assortments into each of west elm’s 50+ American stores, partnering with Etsy, individual makers, small businesses and organizations to feature local artists in each location. We’re also working with North Carolina manufacturers, including our own west elm upholstery workshop in Hickory, to keep handcrafted American furniture making alive.
Our willingness to invest in the well being of craft communities at home and around the world is what sets west elm apart. Where most other retailers see a trend, we see a retail revolution, an emerging consumer base of people who want to turn the clock back on quality and forward on availability, a demanding equation we are determined to balance.
That’s why we’ve taken the extra step of supplementing our financial commitment by launching a new section of our website, where we’re proud to offer a window into the world of west elm handcraft, connecting customers to our artisan and maker partners and giving them a better understanding of the process behind our products, the time-honored traditions and techniques of craft: westelm.com/handcrafted. We’re launching with stories from India and Nepal, and we will continually update our site with stories from our partners at home and abroad.
Our customers are the reason we’ve committed to the work we’re doing. They’ve told us they care about craft, and they want to know more about how and where their products are sourced, as well as who made them. I’m excited to be able to make this commitment to them, and I can’t wait to see how much further we travel together—for the next two years and beyond.