Rebecca van Bergen

Ashoka Fellow
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United States
Fellow Since 2017
This description of Rebecca van Bergen's work was prepared when Rebecca van Bergen was elected to the Ashoka Fellowship in 2017 .

Introduction

Rebecca van Bergen is transforming the lives of millions of home-based workers in the apparel and home design industries by bringing their profession into the formal economy.

The New Idea

While the global garment and textile industry has adopted policies and practices to ensure greater transparency and improved working conditions across their supply chains, these regulations have to date focused exclusively on factory work. But in reality, estimates suggest that between 20-60% of work in this industry is out-sourced to home-based workers. Rebecca van Bergen believes that home-based work (including work done at community workshops) has the potential to be a far more viable, stable source of employment, in particular for rural mothers. But given the invisible status of these millions of workers, they remain vulnerable to the whims of local factories and middlemen and detached from global supply chains.

Through Nest, Rebecca shows that the solution must involve creating both the supply and the demand for a whole new model. She brings on board major industry players, brands like Target and West Elm, who are eager to have a more stable and secure supply chain and come to a consensus on a set of standards for an ethical industry. These efforts are matched by Nest’s cultivation of a global guild of artisans and factories (that outsource handwork) who are ready to meet that demand, with the brands themselves paying for the remediation artisans need to reach compliance with new safety, workers' rights, fair wage, and transparency standards.

Through these efforts, Rebecca and Nest are transforming the lives of artisans and home-based workers around the world and at a massive scale. Through their multi-faceted value proposition that uniquely appeals to key stakeholders across these complex, global supply chains, they are transforming the opaque world of homework into an open environment where buyers can transparently view their full supply chain and, crucially, workers have the right to safety, fair treatment, and economic opportunity.

The Problem

Artisan production is the second largest employer of women in developing economies – a $34B industry, second only to agriculture. While much attention has been directed at factory compliance, millions of homeworkers remain invisible and at high risk of exploitation. These women are among the lowest paid of the world’s workforce, earning only an average of $1.80 per day, 50% less than the wages of their factory-based counterparts. As they exist in the informal, cash-based economy doing unregulated work outside the purview of traditional labor laws, they remain one of the world’s most vulnerable working populations.

Homework, however, allows women to work from home while caring for children and other dependents; it provides employment in countries where gender discrimination is still strong; it enables workers to keep more earnings that would otherwise go to childcare or transportation, and it reduces urban migration – keeping communities and cultures intact. Simply eliminating homework in favor of factory work is not just impractical, it is potentially harmful to the people who rely on it.

Most attempted solutions are highly local and many take the form of middlemen who place themselves between the artisan and brand, leaving artisans dependent on them and sometimes cutting into artisan wages. Attempted solutions without a remediation component - that is, without a way to support artisans as they shift into compliance with new standards - risk pushing into unemployment the people whose rights they are trying to safeguard.

Existing solutions have often set standards that apply to the factory environment but that fit poorly or not at all in the home or community workshop setting. Rather than working to ensure ALL of their sourcing is ethical, the most socially-conscious companies have to date decided to insist on only promoting factory work or developing their own relationships with a limited number of well-vetted artisanal suppliers. Not only does this take some of the most effective global actors out of the equation but it makes home-based work and decentralized production models less feasible. Compelling women to switch to factory work is not a good solution for many women. They have to leave their communities and children to work outside the home, which necessitates arranging and paying for childcare, cutting into wages. Sometimes they must move to live closer to the factory, often requiring them to live apart from their families or in factory-provided dormitories. Though most companies are not even aware of the outsourcing happening along their supply chains, Rebecca and an increasing number of industry leaders insist that a new standard tailored to home-based workers’ needs is necessary, and must be built with input from both the brands purchasing goods and the workers producing them.

The Strategy

Rebecca’s work has been informed by firsthand experiences in rural Mexico where she saw the effect of organizations that had worked there in the past, diverting the farmers from their original subsistence farming lifestyle to various new projects meant to bring in more income. These projects all led to short-term prosperity and long-term detriment because they were not ultimately sustainable. The key, Rebecca discovered, was to support people in the work they are already doing, leveraging existing skillsets without encroaching on their independence. Next to farming, the work that most people were practicing artisan techniques, often piece rate and too inconsistent to be sustainable.

When people around the world became worried about factory conditions in the 1990s, many companies and organizations scrambled to tackle the problem, but often in their own way. If you go in to a factory today, you are likely to find that operators have placed five fire extinguishers at different heights to meet all the different audits. But Rebecca realized that in factory auditing, the best standard has only one question that relates to home-based work: ‘do you subcontract?’ And factories know that if they answer ‘no’ production is pulled or they can face penalties. When Rebecca realized that the lack of a home work policies encouraged factories to avoid disclosure and perpetuated the invisibility of millions of women workers, she knew what had to be done.

Over the last several years, Rebecca has created the Nest Artisan Advancement Project to create the first set of Ethical Compliance Standards for Artisans and Homeworkers through a comprehensive process and rigorous review of over 30 open source factory compliance Standards including Fair Trade USA, SA8000 Social Accountability Requirements, Fair Labor Association, Ethical Trading Initiative as well as the most progressive internal Corporate Standards of their partner companies. All the while she has worked closely with both artisans and industry leaders so that – unlike the complicated but still incomplete factory compliance space – this one standard will be both robust and widely applied.

To date, the Nest has convened a guild of more than 300 artisan groups in more than 50 countries. Capacity building work for guild members is subsidized by philanthropic funds and industry partners – more than 10 global brands including Williams Sonoma and Target have hired Nest to apply standards to their current artisan vendors. This open network of artisan groups is not only piloting and creating solutions, but they all benefit from a digital marketplace where brands post needs and artisans apply, or where as many as 300 mentors - global employees of the partner brands in most cases – provide hands-on support at the request of local groups. In exchange for detailed data, access to this global network is free for the artisans and community associations of craftspeople. Having this global and detailed dataset has not only informed Rebecca’s work, but has positioned Nest as the clear authority on this invisible economy.

The Standards will be open sourced and widely shared by the end of this year and Nest is currently piloting the assessment process which centers around a training-first approach to developing capacity to best meet compliance demands. If the Standards are not sufficiently met following the training and initial assessment, Nest works with the artisan businesses, and brand partner, to develop a Corrective Action Plan, with a timeline and strategies for bringing themselves into compliance. And Nest also works with the artisan businesses to develop sustainable growth plans, identifying obstacles to growth and collaborating to eliminate them. Going forward, Nest will train and license others around the world to both implement and assess to the Standards as well as do the remediation work, as required.

Rebecca describes this approach as “grassroots support for those who need it most, bolstered by global systems-change and private sector partnership, so that those with purchasing power and policy influence can use their might for good.” A quarter of Nest’s annual revenue comes through global brands seeking compliance solutions or wanting to integrate artisan sourcing. When it comes to home-based workers, most global companies have major areas of questionable activity across their supply chain that they don’t even know about. Since changing vendors is not cost effective and takes a lot of time, working towards compliance is desired, and brings stability to both them and the homeworkers. Rebecca shares that it has been hard to get companies to take action around a new problem, something Ashoka Fellow Nicole Rycroft of Canopy likens to “the opposite of the Olympics,” since companies generally don’t want to be the first to initiate an industry-wide overhaul like this (though they also don’t want to come in dead last). The fact then that ten global brands are fully on-board and applying a very real sense of peer pressure has signaled to Nicole and others that Rebecca’s work is on the right track regarding tipping the industry.

Another 60% of Nest’s revenue comes from foundations (with the remainder from individual donors). While these institutions often find the artisan angle alone to be very niche, they are excited about helping build more transparent, fair supply chains, and about the potential for millions of homeworkers, which some predict could account for as many as three hundred million women total. With these foundations’ support, Rebecca convenes a network of consumer- and government-facing organizations to advocate for greater demand for safe and fair home-based working conditions, now that the mechanism for the industry to meet that demand is in place.

Consumers are increasingly interested in handmade, artisanal goods. Additionally and importantly, customers are increasingly motivated to direct their purchasing dollars towards ethically produced goods, produced by adult workers who are paid fairly and work in good conditions. The early adopters of Nest’s Standards are brands whose customers have higher expectations for corporate social responsibility. As the standards become more publicly known and widely adopted, consumers will see companies that do not adhere to them as behind the curve and under-performing, creating pressure on them to adopt the standards as well.

The brilliance in Rebecca’s model is that brands, factories, workers and consumers all have their own reasons to convene around Nest's new Standards, helping permanently shift the industry from unregulated, opaque homework, to a new model that presents homework as a more flexible, better opportunity for workers, especially women, that is held to equally high standards of transparency and ethics. Rebecca is hopeful that just as fashion trends like ‘artisanal’ and ‘handmade’ are on the rise, that someday soon everyone across the apparel and home goods industry will agree that home-based workers are an asset to be nurtured and supported, rather than a liability to be hidden or ignored.

The Person

Rebecca's grandmother was the start of her inspiration. From a poor farming family in the deep South, she and her mother often made quilts out of rags to give second life to clothing. Much to her parent’s contention, she fell in love with a poor Jewish man. Rebecca's grandparents fought against anti-Semitism and in support of diversity and marriage equality, creating a culture of deep social justice in her family. Her grandfather was an entrepreneur, using his engineering skills to create a company. This combination: the commitment to social justice; the entrepreneurial attitude; the passion for making and the focus on circular methods of production are the foundation of her story.

During college, Rebecca had another very formative experience in Chiapas, Mexico, working with Mayan Zapatista communities. While there, she learned that an international development group had previously brought “assistance” to the village by teaching beekeeping. They funded hives and training courses, and many villagers abandoned traditional farming for the lure of the new enterprise. Honey was sold to the agency that managed the marketing and sales to the US. However, when the NGO’s funding dried up the villagers were left worse off than before, with no market or even bottles for their product. A second organization came during the coffee boom, bringing coffee farming to the same village. Plots were turned over to coffee and while there was initial success, like the honey enterprise the coffee initiative ended. In the morning village leaders would serve coffee sweetened with honey as they struggled to figure out how to return to subsistence farming. It was a profound moment that taught her that "doing good" and "wanting to do good" are not the same thing.

Rebecca graduated with her MSW from Washington University in St. Louis the same year that Muhammad Yunus won the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in microfinance. This inspired her to explore training, infrastructure development and market access as debt-free approaches to poverty alleviation. Recognizing craft as a cornerstone of emerging economies, one that empowers women to care for their children from home, she conceived of the idea for Nest and founded the organization at age 24.