A nonprofit enriches artisans around the world
Social-justice activists Rebecca and Chris van Bergen’s enthusiasm is infectious. Whether they are anticipating the Memorial Day opening of the local neighborhood swimming pool or the completion of a high-concept factory in India, the couple has a straightforward optimism that was celebrated onstage at the Clinton Global Initiative and has earned them national media coverage and support from foundations like Bloomberg Philanthropies.
The couple runs Nest (buildanest.org), a nonprofit that Rebecca founded just after getting her master’s in social work. Nest’s mission is to create partnerships between artisans and luxury brands to promote peace and alleviate poverty. “We believe in employment as a means of social change,” explains Rebecca. “Business can transform lives at the economic level but at the personal and community levels as well. We aim to treat every artisan as not just an individual but as a family provider and community leader.”
By putting luxury brands, including Maiyet, Reef, and Trina Turk, together with artisans in India, Africa, and South America, Nest helps to preserve crafts that have been handed down from generation to generation and can be threatened by ever-changing economic pressures. The nonprofit also helps foster independence by working with local people to create on-the-ground support that funds initiatives and environmentally sustainable practices.
One of the artisans Nest helped was a weaver in Guatemala, whose work decorates Reef sandals. In a video of the project, the weaver says, “I’m very surprised because we never thought it would be an interesting product for the world.” On seeing the finished sandals destined for the shelves of Barneys, Bloomingdales, and the Wilton Sport Shop, he says, “It’s like we’re looking at something we haven’t seen before.” Reef helped weavers understand what would sell to an international audience and maintain the consistent quality demanded by luxury consumers.
Rebecca imagines a future where people are willing to pay more for quality clothing and home goods that are ethically produced by artisans just as people are willing to pay more for organic, locally produced food. To that end, Nest developed an Ethical Source Code and encourages its corporate partners and artisans to adopt that code in their work so that consumers can be confident they are purchasing goods made to the highest quality and ethical standards.
Nest’s flagship project in Varnasi, India, aims to restore the 500-year-old weaving tradition threatened by inexpensive copies from the Far East. Working with luxury brand Maiyet and world-renowned British architect David Adjaye, Nest is helping Indian weavers build a state-of-the-art weaving center, factory, and health facility. The factory is carbon negative, relying on solar power and other green initiatives.
The Van Bergens see Nest’s approach as a way to empower women and spread religious tolerance. Nest’s other 2014 projects are located in Kenya, Swaziland (South Africa), Bali, and Mexico.
Lauren Hurst, marketing director for Maiyet and Nest board member, says the Van Bergens are “lovely, lovely people, who have a great understanding of how to communicate with different communities with patience and respect.” She saw Rebecca transform Nest from a “tiny organization to one that has a lot of impact. They’ve planted the seeds for ethically produced luxury goods and established roots in various countries.”
The Van Bergens, in search of green space, good schools, and a comfortable home for their one-year old daughter, Ella, and themselves, resettled their young family from an apartment in Brooklyn to a house in West Mountain Estates this past fall. “We didn’t grow up in New York, so we wanted a more natural environment for Ella,” says Rebecca. “Ridgefield is special. Some Westchester towns felt small but sometimes too small with just a single store or restaurant. Ridgefield has a lovely balance of lots of amazing restaurants and culture but no chains.”
Chris, who is a classical trumpet player, cites the Ridgefield Symphony Orchestra and Playhouse as two big draws for him. As for his commute to Nest’s office in New York, he says, “I prefer the hour train ride where I can get a lot done over the 40-minute commute on the subway. When we come home from work or from the weeks we spend out of the country, it’s like an oasis, very relaxing.”
Their 1982 contemporary home is flooded with natural sunlight and gracefully furnished with modern furniture and paintings from the artisans they support through Nest.
Always on the move, the van Bergens are beginning to look for projects closer to home. This fall they expect to work with Colorado ranch hands to help them transform their leather skills once used to make saddles and bridles into making luxury wallets and bags.