Nested Ideas Strengthening the Flock

Rebecca Van Bergen, Founder of  Nest

Rebecca Van Bergen, Founder of Nest

How have your family experiences, past and present, shaped the building of Nest? I grew up in a family of very strong female role models. Working with women always felt like the path I was going to take. Both my mother and my aunt, like I have done now, founded their own non-profits. They set a precedent for following your own path, even if it’s off the beaten track. 

Craft was also a big part of my life from early on. My grandmother sewed my mom’s clothes and taught me to sew when I was very young. This spirit of making fostered my appreciation for artisanship and contributed to my later decision to explore craft as a mechanism for social change on the global scale.

It’s interesting to me that some of the real change-makers in the fashion industry are coming from non-fashion backgrounds. Can you expand a little on your educational background and how it has led you to the work that you are currently doing? I founded Nest when I was 24. It was 2006 and I had just earned my Master’s Degree in Social Work from Washington University in my hometown, St. Louis. This was the same year that Muhammad Yunus was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microfinance and microcredit. I knew that I wanted to explore the opportunities for economic development that would not put people in debt, but would instead provide them with the resources, training, infrastructure and support to create change through their own means. This provided the backbone for Nest and it remains our mission today.

What made you think of starting Nest and what was your motivation to do so? I always knew that as a woman I wanted to support fellow women – I felt and still personally feel, even more so now that I am a mom, that economic independence and family life should not be mutually exclusive. Craft is very unique for women in developing economies in that it affords them the ability to be employed form home.

At the time I founded Nest, “sustainable fashion” was not talked about like it is today.  Artisans and homeworkers were even more invisible than they are now. I was motivated to bring these women the forefront of consumer consciousness by leveling the playing field for them in the global marketplace.

Recognizing that the company I wanted to work for did not yet exist, I entered a business plan competition for social enterprise and to my surprise, I presented my idea for what is now Nest and the $24,000 grand prize funded Nest’s foundation.

How does Nest work? Over the past ten years, we have developed a model with strong proof of concept for short-term, tailored business development programming that focuses on training and small-scale infrastructure improvements to artisan businesses. These inputs yield high impact for artisans, and in 2015 alone, artisan businesses working with Nest saw an average 45% production increase and 76% growth in revenue. We are very proud of these numbers.

Some Nest services are provided digitally (via webinars, white papers and phone consultations hosted for artisan businesses across the world) and others take place on-the-ground. All training is made possible with the help of expert consultants and volunteer professionals (from brands like Oscar de la Renta, Phillip Lim, and Eddie Borgo) who deliver critical guidance and mentorship to artisans.

Our approach is unique in that our work spans the public and private sectors – we believe that buy-in from the fashion and design industries is an important factor in generating change that comes from both directions on the supply chain. Brands seeking improved visibility to their decentralized workforce, and a better experience with production happening in homes and small workshops (including that of subcontracted labor from factories), can hire Nest to help bring important services to the handmade producers they employ. We have the pleasure of working with outstanding brand partners like West Elm, FEED, Maiyet, and many more.

When people think of garment production, they usually picture a factory setting. Most people don’t realize that there is a huge global workforce existing outside factories. What can you tell us about the informal workforce? It is hard to believe but estimates are that as much as 60% of the clothing and home goods that adorn our lives are not produced inside regulated factories; they are made by workers in homes and small workshops around the world. It is a bit staggering to consider. The artisan workforce comprises an enormous $34B+ global industry serving as the second largest livelihood for women in emerging markets. These workers (primarily women) number in the tens of millions globally, yet they are among the lowest paid members of the world’s workforce, earning only an average of $1.80 per day. This is an estimated 50% less than the meager wages of their factory worker counterparts. Operating in the informal, cash-based economy means that artisans and homeworkers have little-to-no protection: they are outside of traditional labor laws and have limited bargaining power.

Homework, however, has significant social and economic benefits: it allows women to work from home while caring for children and other dependents; it provides employment in countries where gender discrimination is still strong; and it reduces urban migration. And so, Nest’s commitment is to leverage sustainable economic growth of this sector to alleviate poverty and empower women on the global scale.

Who does Nest benefit and how do they benefit? Nest is committed to providing businesses development services to artisan businesses operating at a distinct market disadvantage. We focus predominantly on those based in developing economies, yet also reach high-need pockets within developed economies. We partner with artisan businesses who share our commitment to leveraging business development as a means for empowering women, alleviating poverty and preserving cultural traditions in their communities. Ten years in artisan development has laid the foundation for the Nest Artisan Guild, an ever-growing open source community of more than 180 global artisan businesses spanning 40 countries around the world and representing more than 36,000 individuals.

How do artisans find Nest and once they do how do they qualify to work with Nest? Artisan businesses that complete our Nest intake survey, as well as those who have received on-the-ground Nest assessment, become a part of the Nest Guild of artisans. They are set up to benefit from all Nest programming including no-fee digital resources as well as on-the-ground business development administered by Nest Professional Fellows. The Nest Guild is growing at a rapid rate of 10% every month, indicating a tremendous demand for the work that Nest is doing. Nest travels the world to add new artisan businesses to the Nest Guild, and also attends industry events like trade shows and craft fairs to find new groups who stand to benefit from Nest’s support. Most frequently, artisan businesses discover and reach out to Nest through referrals and word of mouth. 

What is the role of technology in the work of Nest does with artisans? Most artisan businesses today have access to the internet and at least one English speaker on-staff, which means that there is more we can do to leverage today’s cutting edge technology to reach more artisans with impact. To service a broader base of artisan businesses, we created the Nest Remote Learning Center, designed to provide artisans with remotely accessible Nest resources and services, as well as to better connect artisans with retail brand partners and Nest Professional Fellows from afar. With the Remote Learning Center, we are delivering the most important aspects of Nest’s onsite work – namely our nimbleness and customization – through webinars; open source trend reports and white papers; sales opportunities with retail brands; and video and phone consultations. 

Could you tell us about how the Nest Fellowships work? The Nest Fellowship program draws on a pool of industry professionals who openly share their expertise and with the artisans while artisans share back their craft and life experiences. Sharing has not been a tradition in the fashion industry. How does this work for Nest? This a volunteer program offered to Nest Co-opers, our community of ambassadors and supporters. It is a skills-based volunteer program that matches members our Nest Co-op community with artisan businesses seeking advice, training, and project-based mentorship. Fellowships can take place right from your desk or in-country via exciting travel around the world. We have had the pleasure worked with fellows coming from industry leaders including Oscar de la Renta, Rag & Bone, 3.1 Philip Lim, Adidas, and Maiyet. I am continually impressed with the next class of fashion industry professionals who are rethinking production through the lens of globalization and sustainability. Joining the Coop is easy and you can just do it online! It is an annual contribution of $250 and with it you get access not only to fellowships, but monthly salons in NYC (and select cities globally), an exclusive newsletter with a behind the scenes look at Nest and more!

While fellows typically volunteer as individuals, we are excited to be launching a new employee engagement that allows teams of professionals from diverse corporations to volunteer alongside Nest artisans. We are happy to see that the industry is very open to sharing their expertise with artisans, as there has been tremendous demand for these types of experiences. Best of all, the fellowships work two ways – not only do the artisans receive critical guidance, but the fellows emerge with new ideas that they can bring back and share with their employers. It’s a win-win and you are right that sharing is at the heart of it!

What does sustainability mean to you? We hear “sustainable fashion” thrown around a lot today as an all-encompassing term with vague implications. But to me, it’s all about making this industry last. The Merriam-Webster definition of sustainability includes a line that I believe to be an important component of the word that is too often overlooked by the fashion industry: “able to last or continue for a long time.” All of the work that we do in support of sustainability should be aimed at ensuring the future of the industry’s entire ecosystem. And while addressing our environmental impact is important, I’d like to see the industry give more attention to social impact. As it stands, artisans and homeworkers are a huge piece of the supply chain that is being ignored and underserved. We need to make these relationships more sustainable by providing this workforce with the transparency and business development that will make their work “able to last for a long time.” 

How does Nest promote transparency? Artisan supply chains are notoriously challenging for brands to map. Production is often structured in a cottage industry format, and much of artisan work is subcontracted from factories and other sourcing intermediaries. Nest is dedicated to bringing transparency to these supply chains so that the tens of millions of people they impact are no longer invisible.  

Informed by brand surveys and competitive analysis of more than 30 leading auditing services, Nest has quantified a pressing need for universal standards and reliable assessment of home-based production. In partnership with West Elm, Eileen Fisher, Patagonia, PVH, and Jaipur Rugs, we are developing the first-ever industry-wide standards for ethical homework – and our Ethical Compliance Assessments map directly to them.

Nest’s assessment process measures not only ethical compliance of artisan businesses, but also critically evaluates business hurdles impacting the production, management and market access points of the supply chain. Are leaky roofs contributing to damaged product quality? It may make sense to build a small, centralized workshop close to the home. Is technical skill level high but product design feels too traditional? A design mentorship and training in color theory can help to elevate. It is important to know that Nest assessment is not pass-fail. These systems put artisan livelihood at risk. Assessment is conducted specifically to inform a Nest roadmap to sustainable change and leads to on-the-ground business development.

Can you talk about Nest’s rapid expansion since it’s founding and to what you attribute this growth? Nest is on a path towards bringing unprecedented visibility and viability to global artisans and homeworkers. In 2015 alone, we increased the number of individuals served from 1,500 to 6,000. 2016 marks a pivotal year for Nest, as we have already reached more than 40,00 artisans this year. I credit our growth to our incredible supporters, from both the for-profit and non-profit sectors.   

Where do you see Nest in 5 years? Leveraging new cutting edge technology and innovation, I hope to see Nest bringing our work to as many artisan businesses as possible, so that we move closer and closer to impacting each of the tens of millions of artisans and homeworkers in even some small way. Our goal is to reach 200,000 artisans by 2020!