If you’ve ever doubted the power of a young person to make a powerful impact on the world, you haven’t met Rebecca van Bergen. In 2006, when she was 24 and had just graduated with her master’s degree in social work from Washington University, Rebecca founded Nest—a nonprofit aiming to bring economic development, worker protections and ethical production standards to home-based businesses and craft workers around the world.
↑ Rebecca van Bergen, Founder + Executive Director of Nest, with her daughter, Ella.
Microfinance was the big buzzword at the time, but Rebecca wanted to find a way to create economic opportunity for women—particularly those most impoverished—that would be debt-free. “I had spent time in India in communities where women were often making things by hand,” says Rebecca. Her grandmother and great-grandmother were devoted sewers and quilters, and “that link between women and craft struck me on a personal level, and I realized its power on a community and economic level as well.”
↑ An artisan in Peru applies sizing before gold-leafing a mirror frame.
↑ Cardboard templates for carving intricate mirror frames in the workshop. Beautiful carved wood mirrors are a Peruvian tradition that dates back to colonial times.
↑ A Peruvian artisan hand-carves a wooden starburst mirror frame.
More than 300 million workers worldwide are home-based, and craft work is the second largest employer of women globally, yet it is an almost invisible industry. “These workers are often paid in cash (and home work often pays 50% less than factory work); their workspaces are unregulated; and the work is subcontracted out so there’s little accountability or transparency,” says Rebecca. But on the plus side, being able to work from home allows women the flexibility to care for their children and elders, feel safer, and stay in their communities. In much the same way that Fair Trade USA helps protect and support workers in global factories, Rebecca created Nest to bring child labor protections, fair wages, health + safety protections, environmental stewardship and worker wellbeing to home-based businesses.
↑ A Filipino diver harvests windowpane oysters, also known as capiz shells.
“Our process focuses on training first,” says Rebecca, because there haven’t been standards in place before. “We train the vendors and subcontractors, and have a toolkit we open-source to them. Then we come back 6-9 months later to do a formal assessment, see where they need support, and work in partnership with them to make improvements.”
West elm had been looking for a way to bring accountability and traceable, clear supply chains for our handcrafted pieces that are made in homes and small workshops, not factories. Jennifer Gootman, west elm’s Vice President for Social Consciousness + Innovation, found and partnered with Nest to help develop ethical sourcing and compliance standards for home-based workers. “West elm was our first and founding partner,” says Rebecca. “We could not have done it without west elm’s buy-in and the leadership of Jennifer and Doug Guiley [west elm SVP of Global Sourcing].”
↑ Basketweavers in Bohol, Philippines, have the flexibility to work from home, but they also often meet at a community center to work together and socialize.
West elm wanted this program to do the most good possible, developing it not just for our own use, but as an industry-wide initiative, so we spent three years with Nest helping to develop ethical compliance standards, bringing in additional partners such as Eileen Fisher and Patagonia, and soliciting feedback from both companies and workers. The result of this pilot program: the Nest Standards for Homes and Small Workshops and the Nest Seal of Ethical Handcraft, soon to debut on a number of west elm products. The standards and seal were proudly launched by Nest, west elm and other partners at the United Nations this past December.
↑ A home-based Filipino weaver crafts placemats using locally grown fibers.
“West elm has a longstanding commitment to artisans and craft—from around the corner to around the globe,” says Jennifer Gootman. “Our work with Nest and our partners in the Philippines, Peru, India, and Indonesia is changing the industry. It’s very exciting to see how a west elm pilot program has become a public standard that other companies are adopting, bringing training and transparency to artisan supply chains and improving lives across the globe.”
To learn more about Nest, visit buildanest.org.
↑ Coming soon: the new Nest seal of Ethical Handcraft.