Nearly 60% of production in the fashion industry happens inside family homes, not factories. The true size and scope of the apparel industry’s home-based workforce is unknown, but estimates show that approximately 300 million people, mostly women based in developing economies, are the predominant labor force.
These home-based laborers are among the lowest paid members of the world’s workforce. They earn, on average, $1.80 per day, an estimated 50% less than their factory worker counterparts. Their work is largely informal, invisible, and unregulated. UN reports find that these women, largely unprotected by labor laws, are at extreme risk for labor exploitation and abuse.
And yet, this home-based labor is vital. It’s at the heart of the artisan fashion economy, a $34 billion industry, equal to the size of the coffee sector. It is also the second largest employer of women in developing economies. Home-based work allows women to stay at home to care for children and other dependents, while bringing in an income. It reduces urban migration to factories, which enables communities and cultures to remain intact. Furthermore, it creates a safe environment for women facing gender-based violence and discrimination to more fully participate in the global economy.
While most companies see home-based work as a risk, others see it as an opportunity.
Ashoka spoke with Rebecca van Bergen, Founder & Executive Director at Nest, and Luna Lee, Human Rights Leader at EILEEN FISHER, about the risks of home-based work, gender equity, compliance in the artisanal sector, and scalable social impact in the creatively and economically important fashion trades.
Ashoka: How did you first meet?
Rebecca van Bergen: Through Nest’s Artisan Advancement Project. Nest works with artisan businesses globally and has an open access network that we call the Guild, which is close to 400 businesses across 50 countries.
This global perspective really allows us to see what common challenges exist across the sector, including those around compliance. How do home or small workshop-based workers meet brand requirements? Factory compliance systems just don’t cut it.
We started talking to leaders across the sector, which is when we began working with Eileen Fisher.
Luna Lee: We were interested in how this approach could also promote cultural sustainability. There are a lot of fears from brands in sourcing from homeworkers because there’s so much unknown. If there is a way to somehow have a system that brands can easily adopt, then that would increase their chance of sourcing from home-based workers.
Ashoka: How do you galvanize the rest of the fashion community behind this movement?
Lee: I believe in one-on-one, personal conversations with people, as well as just simple information sharing. There is anecdotal evidence that millennials are very much interested in handmade products. It’s an unmet need by major brands and it feels like there is definitely an opportunity here.
Van Bergen: The other thing that is really important is the consumer education piece. It’s really amazing how much “artisan” has become a bit of a buzzword. People are integrating it into their marketing strategies, but they don’t know how to handle it from a compliance side.
Ashoka: What you’re doing is very difficult because it’s so hidden. Once you establish the standards and you get people to adopt them, how do you create and ensure compliance?
Van Bergen: Compliance is already difficult in a factory, and doubly or triply difficult in artisan settings. The nature of the work is that it’s migratory, it’s seasonal, it’s not even the same people time after time. It’s extremely difficult, so our model is to train the leadership and the intermediaries who are the most consistent parts of the supply chain on the processes.