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In conversation with Rebecca van Bergen of Nest

In conversation with Rebecca van Bergen of Nest

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FASHINNOVATION held, in June, the second edition of Worldwide Talks. The event was full of very interesting and stimulating talks around some of the crucial issues that fashion is facing nowadays. We had the pleasure to talk with some of the guests invited and we are now sharing what came out of such inspiring conversations. Fashinnovation is a digital platform based in New York that aims at bringing together many creatives, designers, and entrepreneurs of the fashion system, creating exciting dialogues around several topics.

Preview interview from F/W 2020/21 issue

We had the pleasure to interview Rebecca van Bergen, Founder and Executive Director of NEST. This organization is a nonprofit 501c (3) whose aim is to build a new hand worker economy to increase global workforce inclusivity, women’s empowerment, and to keep cultural traditions alive. Rebecca participated in the talk named: “Fashion is: Sustainability & Artisanal Brands via Ethical Practices”.  Together, we discussed social sustainability, her work in promoting artisanal practices that are also ethical and culturally vibrant, the role of art and design in promoting the importance of diversity, and much more.

©Caroline Ashkar

You founded Nest at the age of 24. How did everything start? What was the spark that made you take this crucial decision that would eventually affect your professional and private life?

Having grown up with a great-grandmother and grandmother who were quilters and sewers, I was drawn to craftsmanship as a means of self-expression and opportunity. Following my passion to turn craft, the second largest employer of women globally, into a means to correct the gender and income imbalance in our world, I founded Nest at age 24. I was always passionate about the handcrafting community, but I realized how women, and artisans in general, were often paid significantly less than the value of their skills and as home-based workers, their treatment and working conditions tended to be invisible. Muhammed Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize the year that I founded Nest and I watched as microcredit swept the globe as a model for poverty alleviation and international development. While intriguing, the use of debt for business creation in high-risk communities worried me and so I founded Nest to provide more holistic business and market development for artisans and makers.

courtesy of Nest

Your partners are globally known- fashion and design brands, they span across different fields, but they are united under the same goal: a more sustainable way of living and producing, by supporting local artisans and less skilled laborers. I am thinking about Patagonia, PVH, West Elm, Eileen Fisher. How did the partnership with these companies start?

Nest has worked with incredible brands that have a deep commitment to artisanship. But beyond this more niche category, there are also millions of hand workers in many major global supply chains. This is a world of women primarily working with their hands: sewing soles on shoes, adding pompoms on the tops of winter hats, stringing tiny seed beads onto mass-market jewelry, making the tassels that adorn everything from clothing to pillow covers. Others look after the finer details of packaging: folding and inserting items into poly bags, twisting the paper strips to make the handles for paper bags, tri-folding tissue paper before it was slipped into the cellophane sleeve.

Production taking place in the home can be intimidating to brands because it often means that women are invisible, and their work is unregulated. As a result, brands may be inclined not to talk about home workers. Nest is helping brands to instead view homework as an opportunity recognizing that craft empowers them to earn economic independence, allows them to work from home while caring for their children, and mitigates the need for urban migration where women often find themselves living in cramped dormitories and working in overcrowded and unsafe factories. That’s why we spent the past decade working with these companies and more not the only source from artisan groups, but also create structure and framework for these transactions. This led us to the Nest’s Ethical Handcraft Program, which uses a matrix of over 100 standards to determine fair wages, safe working environments, and representation in decision-making for artisans.

© Tosha Gaines Photography

As the consumer demand for handicrafts continues to grow, more– and larger– brands have come forward in recent years, interested in buying from these communities, we’ve been able to help solidify an artisan economy that works almost entirely from homes or small, informal community workshops — and to provide the needed transparency to make sure this work is safe. For women, especially, this brings new hope and opportunity.

COVID-19 pandemic has crashed us like a wave does on a rock. How are you managing the survival of the small businesses and artisans you support? Did other companies also cooperate with Nest in recovering those businesses?

COVID-19 was obviously an unexpected hit to our economy, more specifically affecting a lot of the micro and small businesses that we help support. The survival of these artisans and businesses are what fuel Nest, so we knew that we had to be responsive to the economic impacts we were seeing here at home and all over the world. In April, we launched our PPE Purchasing Initiative in order to reduce the threat of unemployment for both artisans by equipping them to produce high-quality and/or medical-grade PPE. Nest would “purchase” the PPE which would then be donated to frontline workers and vulnerable citizens. We were thrilled our partners rallied to this cause as well. We joined forces with Quarate Retail Group (which includes QVC and HSN), Target, Etsy, Mastercard, Amazon, the Cordes Foundation, and the Winn Family Foundation and together we have produced more than 200,000 masks and counting. Companies are also able to source Masks by Makers for retail sale or to distribute to employees or partners creating the double impact of flattening the curve but also supporting vulnerable small businesses at a time where every order counts.

courtesy NEST

We can support scaleable sourcing for brands, corporate teams and frontline employees, custom mask development, prints or design illustrations, and add social impact to a company’s sourcing strategy. This speaks to a larger conversation that we feel is important to have as a society. Consumers, brands and governments need to talk about and recognize the role home-based work has in the global economy and bring it from the shadows. For those of us in the West we need to look at the so-called “gig economy” through a new lens.

Watching our artisans quickly making masks from El Salvador to India to here in the United States despite global lockdowns was remarkable and spoke to the resilience of our workforce. In Seattle, Washington, we partnered with the Refugee Artisan Initiative, a program that helps refugee and immigrant women find employment. When the lockdown went into effect, Ming-Ming Tung Edelman, the founder of RAI, not only put many of the women to work producing 6,000 cloth masks from home but also employed some of their husbands (who had seen work disappear as Uber drives or gig workers) to transport materials to various artisans’ homes. These masks have been donated to healthcare workers, inmates, and low-income seniors in Chinatown in the Seattle area.

Preview interview from F/W 2020/21 issue

Cover image credits: Nest

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