Fashion’s Artisans and Workers Forge Connections to Survive

As retail trade shows and fashion events moved online during the COVID-19 pandemic, fashion’s artisans around the world lost a vital channel to market their work. The comeback for this vulnerable group of creative workers could depend on their ability to forge ties across the industry, through collaborations and promotions with designers. 

Some 300 million workers in the handmade sector have been thrust into financial instability as the demand for clothing and apparel dropped during the pandemic, and COVID-19-related safety protocols restricted many traditional commercial avenues for artisans.  

“This is a large, unorganized workforce, which means that there are no structured benefits or insurance to protect them from such health hazards,” said Saloni Shrestha, creative head and founder of the sustainable brand Agaati, speaking at the Fairchild Media Group Sustainability Summit this month. “And this incredibly talented community is even more marginalized than before.

“While many of us went online, including many artisan groups around the world trying to sell online, the trade shows are where the person-to-person interaction happens, and that still remains canceled,” said Shrestha. 

“Hence they are left with high unsold inventory, and there is no capital to keep these businesses afloat, no cash flows to survive the pandemic,” she added. “As a result, we are losing talented craftspeople, because they’re migrating to other unskilled professions for survival.” 

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India, where some of the largest artisan communities work, is experiencing an unprecedented deadly surge in COVID-19 cases, with a record of 379,308 new daily reported cases on Wednesday, according to the Johns Hopkins University tally. Artisans have been rattled by intermittent lockdowns and the public health devastation of the pandemic in India, Shrestha said. 

Recovery for the industry could hinge in part on getting broader support from the fashion community, including from designers and brands who could collaborate with them and help promote their work, she said. 

“When these designers, their work, their collection is in partnership with artisans, I’ve seen the news about it, the work gets published, talked about,” she said. “And hopefully, when these artisans get mentioned as a part of that work being published, they themselves also get known, and people become aware of who the other creatives are behind these beautiful collections.” 

In Los Angeles, garment workers are contending with workplace safety issues during the pandemic, when many workers have been subject to conditions where “no precautions are being taken,” Marissa Nuncio, director of the worker rights group Garment Worker Center, said at the summit.

As COVID-19 cases in California surged over the holidays, L.A. County was at one point logging some 10,000 new cases a day, with workers at warehouses, manufacturing facilities and retail stores among those hit hard by the outbreaks. There are some 46,000 garment workers in L.A., according to the Garment Worker Center. 

“By and large, it’s business as usual in these sweatshops,” said Nuncio. Workers have sought to harness the conversations around worker safety to organize for better working conditions, supporting the California bill the Garment Worker Protection Act, or S.B. 62, that would improve wages for garment workers, and seeking more ability to monitor the enforcement of local health orders, she said. 

“Workers are very astutely using this moment, when the world is paying attention to workers in a different way,” she said. 

“Garment workers are really using this moment to say our rights were always violated, our health was always in jeopardy, even more so now,” she said. “And if we are going to be elevated to ‘essential workers’ who are making your masks, your medical apparel, then our labor standards have to be elevated as well.”

Many similar considerations about stability and exploitation also apply to the secondhand fashion industry, said Liz Ricketts, director and cofounder of the nonprofit The Or Foundation, at the summit. 

“One of the first things that needs to happen is recognizing that the secondhand clothing economy is a supply chain, and talking about it as such,” said Ricketts. 

“And we need the industry to divest from disposability,” she said. “We need to stop talking about fashion’s waste crisis as if it’s a material problem, and realize that the waste crisis is a byproduct of a compounded exploitation that happens throughout the value chain.”

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