The less that consumers want to buy factory-made clones of the products their friends own, the more that mass retailers turn to global artisans. Walk into West Elm, and you'll see hand-carved mirrors from Peru, recycled 3D art from Haiti, and hand-beaded pillows from India. The shift to more artisan-made goods helped the brand grow.
For a craftswoman in Nepal, hand-felting rugs for an American brand can be an opportunity for new work. But for brands, it's also a challenge, as West Elm explained at the Fast Company Innovation Festival: if it's hard to make sure that factory workers abroad are being treated right, it's even harder when workers are artisans in the informal economy.
"If you're worried about worker well-being, your workers that are not inside a formal factory are at highest risk," says Rebecca van Bergen, executive director of Nest, a nonprofit focused on the social and economic well-being of artisan workers, in an interview before the event. The organization has partnered with West Elm to pilot industry-wide standards for responsibility in the Artisan Advancement Project.
In one pilot in India, a factory founded on ethical principles had to figure out how its policies translated to its subcontracted workshops. Because most transactions happened informally—workers were paid in cash, and if they had complaints, made them with no records—the factory also had to figure out how to demonstrate compliance to brands that need a more formal way to track what's happening in a supply chain.
Since artisan compliance is a new idea, the Artisan Advancement Project starts with education: Instead of immediately auditing a supplier, the team helps the supplier understand what they should be doing.
"We're empowerment-focused," says van Bergen. "We train the artisan business or factory on what can be expected of them, and give them a toolkit of all the record keeping tools, basically everything they would need to become compliant to our standards, and then come back six months later and do the assessment."
For West Elm, which sourced $35 million in handcrafted products over the last two years, and has committed to long-term sourcing from artisans, being part of the pilot was a natural step. "There are too many risks not developing standards that ensure we are producing our products to the best standards achievable while ensuring we are creating economic opportunity," says Doug Guiley, senior vice president of global sourcing at West Elm.
Artisans make up a surprisingly large—but typically invisible—part of the global supply chain, making around $34 billion worth of products each year. A small group of other retailers is now also collaborating on the pilot projects for the new standards, which will eventually be shared open source with the rest of the industry.
"Now we have other retailers knocking on the door to be part of this," Guiley says.