Product, Service & Design Innovation
West Elm's Artisan Partnerships Supporting Thousands in Developing Communities

This post is part of a series written by MBA and MPA candidates in Presidio Graduate School’s Managerial Marketing course, examining the role of marketing in advancing sustainability across all sectors.

An elderly Indian man carefully places a carved wooden block onto a white cloth. After applying gentle pressure, he lifts up the block to reveal an intricate geometric design underneath; he repeats this until the entire cloth is filled with silver and yellow designs. This is a practice called block printing and an art form that has been passed down through his family from generation to generation. Once the paint dries, the cloth is handed to a group of women that hand-stitch the cloth into a quilt. Their quilt is just one of many that will be shipped from India and sold in a West Elm store in the United States.

In 2013, as part of the Clinton Global Initiative, West Elm announced a commitment to invest $35 million in artisan partnerships around the world through 2015. These partnerships create a number of benefits for both West Elm and the artisans they collaborate with:

  1. Supports developing communities — According to the US Department of State and the Aspen Institute, artisan activity is the 2nd-largest employer in the developing world and is often the primary means of income. The block-printed quilt is just one example of the type of artisan products offered in West Elm stores. These “handcrafted” items take a community to create. Instead of being made by machines, which would require two people, the hand-made quilt requires the teamwork of seven different people. The partnership with West Elm ensures consistent year-round work for the artisans. Additionally, West Elm helps artisans implement process and infrastructure to accommodate increased scaling of their business. With a reliable and steady income, these craftsmen are able to support their families, improving their quality of life.
  2. Empowers women — A number of artisans involved in the West Elm collaboration are women. In the artisan group that produces felt-fabric items, 96 percent of the workers are women. Moreover, most of the top positions are held by women. In the artisan group that produces embroidered wall art, many of the workers are women who had never held jobs or earned income before. According to the World Bank, when women control more income, children benefit as a result of more spending on food and education. The West Elm partnership opens up opportunities for women to become an economically valued part of society and allows them to have greater control over their lives.
  3. Keeps tradition alive — Manufacturing has become increasingly automated and machine-based in order to produce higher quantities at a lower price. Making items by hand increases production time exponentially and a small family-run business cannot compete with companies using machines. A number of the skills required to make the beautiful handcrafted items are skills that have been taught and passed down from generation to generation. Without practice and constant use, the artisan skills are lost. By ensuring that handcrafted items are economically viable, the West Elm partnership helps to keep these cultural traditions alive. Additionally, American consumers are introduced to these different cultures through designs that integrate both the artisans’ and West Elm’s aesthetics.
  4. Attracts socially-conscious customers — More and more, consumers’ purchases are reflecting their social values. In Nielsen’s 2014 Global Survey on Corporate Social Responsibility, 55 percent of global online consumers across 60 countries said they are willing to reward companies that give back to society by paying more for their goods and services — a 5 percent increase from 2013’s survey results. With the growing awareness of responsible sourcing, the artisan goods offered by West Elm appeal to the socially conscious consumer.

West Elm’s artisan partnerships are a great example of a company engaging in a social initiative that aligns with its values. In West Elm’s case, these values are great affordable design, collaboration and sustainable sourcing. Similar shared-value, cause-marketing programs could result in more win-win partnerships, benefitting communities around the world as well as a company’s bottom line.

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