How artisans offer lessons for us to reshape the post-COVID economy
The onset of COVID-19 prompted billions of workers to shift their work life to their home offices for the first time, introducing a new working style. Yet as a large part of society globally faces this apparently radical and sudden shift in how we live and work, we must remember that home-based work has existed in emerging economies, and right here in the U.S., for centuries.
One of the largest home-based industries is the artisan sector. It doesn’t just manufacture touristy trinkets. This is a complex web of supply chains that fulfills the needs of the world economy: The global handicrafts market was valued at $526 billion in 2017 and is estimated to be at $984 billion by 2023. Estimates are hard to come by, but according to research by Neelam Gupta, there are as many as 300 million home-based workers around the globe.
This is a world of mostly women primarily working with their hands: sewing soles on shoes, adding pom-poms to the tops of winter hats, stringing tiny seed beads onto mass market jewelry, making the tassels that adorn everything from clothing to pillow covers. But despite the prevalence of this work in our everyday consumption, the majority of us hardly know these workers exist!
All of these tasks are tended to by human hands in a supply chain that extends into their homes. As we navigate how to move forward during this pandemic, the artisan community worldwide has some valuable lessons on what the future of work can—and should—look like.
We often think of artisanship as a thing of the past. But in many ways it is the future. At a time where there is an urgent call to bring Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC) voices to the table, the cottage industry model—already perfected by Black, brown, and Indigenous communities for centuries—could help suggest a new way of work.