Is the artisan fashion’s most misunderstood figure?

Artisan is a broad term that has become hip even as its definition has
become increasingly meaningless. Co-opted by everyone from tortilla chip
manufacturers to pizza chains the word suggests nobility of craft, but in
the fashion industry it is often little more than a marketing buzzword that
can mask a grim reality of homeworkers operating in countries torn apart by
war, climate change, lack of opportunity and migration. In the luxury
space, artisanal craftsmanship is better understood by those consumers
because it’s intrinsically obvious––expensive products which spotlight
special techniques, painstakingly hand-crafted in small batches, the
opposite of assembly line supply. But how do we bring all consumers to a
better understanding of what the term means especially when we have been
conditioned to prioritize price above all else? Perhaps by describing the
life of the person toiling away unseen who is unaware of being represented
by this catchall term.

The handworker’s reality

The data for the handworker economy is woefully inadequate. Estimates
range anywhere from 20-60% of workers within the fashion supply chain are
sub-contractors, usually women, working in their homes, sewing soles on
shoes, hand weaving, making buttonholes, beading embellishments. That could
represent as much as 300 million people globally, but when companies are
unaware that these workers form part of their supply chain, statistics are
difficult to compile.

Handworkers are usually not salary-based but are paid per piece. Time
motion studies need to be carried out to determine how long it takes to
complete a job and therefore ensure a minimum, if not fair, wage is paid.
“That never happens anywhere in the world,” explained Rebecca Van Bergen to
the audience at a recent panel entitled Fashion Management: A Sustainable
Approach hosted by Parsons. As co-founder of Nest, a non-profit
organization working with a global community of artisans which partners
with brands from Target to Hermès, she is an on-the-ground expert of the
homeworker economy.

Is the artisan fashion’s most misunderstood figure?

“While people think of artisan work as being fair by nature, it rarely
is,” she says. “There is no transparency. 100 percent of artisan vendors we
worked with kept no record of their home-based workers, none, when we went
in.” She says home-based workers globally earn on average one dollar eighty
cents per day, but in places like the Philippines where there is no minimum
wage to cover home-based workers employers can pay whatever they want and
be within the law. Many women must work from home because they are not
permitted to work outside, cannot get to a city, or cannot leave their
children. The majority are paid cash, many are without bank accounts, and
attempts to formalize payment are customarily met with resistance. Tracking
pay digitally, teaching women how to understand and calculate their
earnings, are just a few of the small changes Nest has implemented that
have profound impact.

The unregulated economy of the homeworker

Apart from wages, another unregulated aspect pertinent to homeworkers is
environmental. Focus on conditions has traditionally been at the factory
level but nothing is in place to ensure worker wellbeing at the home level
where waste water is often dumped into the ground, and ventilation
inadequate, amongst other problems. Simone Cipriani, officer of United
Nations, and founder of Ethical Fashion Initiative, enables artisans,
especially women, in marginalized communities of East Africa, Afghanistan
and elsewhere, to be suppliers of big fashion brands. Speaking at the same
event he explained how failure is a luxury that these societies simply
cannot return from. Working with artisans of the global South and
subjecting them to the same conditions as other vendors is inconceivable,
such as terms of payment which go into effect within 60 days of delivery.
Instead of elevating workers out of poverty, such terms plunge them into

In the past companies claiming they did not allow sub-contract work only
served to push it underground. It was still happening in brands’ supply
chains but those in charge didn’t know, so it became even less regulated.
Other companies didn’t disclose their sub-contacting practices which meant
that homeworkers didn’t either so as not to jeopardize their source of
income. Trust building is an important step between all parties, said Van
Bergen, and often involves going from villages widely dispersed from each
other, and knocking on doors.
Major apparel brands in the US and EU have also sidestepped any obligation
to modify their supply chain to include home workers by introducing flash
collections featuring artisan product only at particularly lucrative times
of year, in particular, the holiday season. Temporary orders such as these
do nothing to stabilize artisan communities as the relationship must be a
long-term commitment if it is to positively impact those communities.

Is the artisan fashion’s most misunderstood figure?

Cipriani says product development is always done at the expense of
artisans who are asked to sample multiple ideas and only when the brand
finally makes up its mind, is the order placed. But the artisans are
working for free in the hope of gaining the contract. Cipriani recommends
companies do their homework first and don’t go in demanding the impossible
with regards to lead times. He uses the word “people” often, which
heightens the human entity behind the marketing ploy. If companies offer
people the opportunity to grow they will be more productive and everyone
will win.

“The fashion industry goes fast, the processes are squeezed, the product
development is expanded, production time is compressed and the artisans
have problems in reaching the levels of quality and delivery times,” he
says. Vivienne Westwood, however, is one example of an Ethical Fashion
Initiative partner, that is doing it right. The company’s dialogue reflects
a willingness to realistically negotiate with a long-term perspective.

When working with artisan communities brands should develop contingency
plans, and identify production which is perfectly consistent with the
skills offered by workers in the area. Cipriani also highlights the
difference between minimum wage which is simply too low all round, fair
wage which is better, and living wage which is what everyone should strive
for. The latter involves sitting down with workers and discussing their
financial needs, covering everything from cost of water to transport to
telephone. Living wage increases productivity and offers dignity.

The Homeworker here at home

Parallels exist in the Makers’ Movement in the US South where textile
manufacturing and modern cottage industry opportunities have sprouted up.
For these companies to succeed there is a similar need for consumers, who
find the idea of wearing clothes made in the US appealing, to understand
that the cost of compensating homegrown artisans must be figured into the
final price. We have become used to undercutting craftspeople.

Today’s entrepreneurs who are starting brands which are rooted in
purpose have a much easier job of monitoring their supply chain because
better decisions will be made from day one. Unfortunately within large
companies, retro-fitting better practices is a slow and difficult process
but one which organizations like Nest and the Ethical Fashion Initiative
can offer critical assistance. Technology is also rapidly expanding
transparency in supply chains so companies have no choice but to get ahead
of it.

So the next time we hear this marketing buzzword, we will think of the
skilled craftsperson––most probably craftswoman––laboring in good faith to
create for us fine goods by her own hand, whether she be in another
hemisphere or simply in another state. The established business model of
the fashion industry has not been based on realistic appreciation of honest
human endeavor. But we can change that by understanding that calculating a
living wage, organizing the supply chain to enable people to be most
productive, regenerating the social capital to advance all humanity, is the
only way to thrive.

Fashion editor Jackie Mallon is also an educator and author of Silk for
the Feed Dogs, a novel set in the international fashion industry.

Photos Artisan Tunisian artisan at work, Hergla.jpg; local.jpg
Created: 4 December 2015 by Perez Mekem; Artisan Bottier 30.jpg Created: 8
November 2017 by Minette Lontsie, all from Wikimedia Commons


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