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Is the artisan fashion’s most misunderstood figure?

By Jackie Mallon


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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 percent 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.

“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 desperation.

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.

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

artisanal fashion
Ethical Fashion Initiative