The term artisanal has gained increasing popularity in the modern world, and is used to describe a wide variety of products from food to home and lifestyle items. Artisan work, while seeing a revitalization today, is not a new concept, and has historical significance that reaches around the world.
Artisans in history
Artisans are skilled workers who make things (“artisanal products”) by non-mechanized methods. All manufacturing in the world was artisanal until the beginning of industrialization, and as such artisans were major contributors to nations’ economies until the late eighteenth century. Artisans comprised between 20-50% of urban populations in the early modern centuries in Europe. Artisans historically picked up their skills through long apprenticeship, initially within families, and later within guilds in some parts of the world. There were different levels of artisans, from master craftsmen to those employed under them, including journeymen, apprentices and semi-skilled workers. Many women were artisans, and though excluded from guilds and associations, they had a prominent role in clothing and textile trades. Exceptionally skilled artisans were widely recognized for their talents, enjoyed high status and incomes in most communities. Their products are displayed and celebrated in museums around the world hundreds of years later
Resilience of artisans during industrialization
The role of skilled handwork diminished significantly over the last 250 years in terms of economic output due to industrialization.. But artisanal work never disappeared during this period despite technological changes. Artisans have retained niches, often at the high end, in certain product categories like food, jewelry, and art in the developed economies. They have played an even bigger role in less developed countries, where artisanal work is still the second largest source of employment. In addition to being a source of livelihood, artisanal work has importantly served as a medium for the preservation of culture – of symbols and styles in artisanal products as visual representations of historical beauty, and of untranscribed skills and techniques that have been passed down for generations as records of social history.
The revitalization of the artisanal economy
There has been a surprising resurgence of the artisanal economy across the world over the last couple of decades. Consumer tastes have contributed to this; while modern mass production delivers high volume, low costs, and consistent quality, it also delivers undifferentiated “sameness”. Consumers are seeking artisanal products in search of uniqueness and a special connection to the products. Consumers are also seeking products that appear more natural and eco-friendly, as public awareness of climate change and degradation has increased. Consumers are increasingly aware of the harms of mass production from consumption of non-regenerative materials and pollutive manufacturing processes. They seek artisanal alternatives as ways to reduce their personal environmental impact. Another growing trend is ethical consumption, as tragedies such as the 2013 Rana Plaza Garment Factory collapse in Bangladesh displayed the unsafe and inhumane working conditions that accompany mass production. There is also recognition that the growth pathways of the late twentieth and early twenty first centuries have left hundreds of millions behind economically. Further, the model has forced migration to cities while separating families, disrupting distributed communities, and straining urban infrastructure. Artisanal work has the potential to raise those at the bottom out of poverty and it does not require the same degree of co-location as mass production.
Modern artisanal manufacturing
While hand work is at the core of artisanal products, the artisanal manufacturing of today and tomorrow borrows from modern manufacturing methods, organization, and information technology. The sector is seeing the emergence of “artisanal enterprises” that are often cooperatives, or artisan-owned corporations with social and environmental impact missions in addition to economic ones. Artisanal enterprises employ professional management in all relevant disciplines from R&D, marketing, finance, lean manufacturing, logistics, and human resource management to back office support. These enterprises frequently rely on a mix of grant funding and traditional investment capital during an incubation period, but aim to achieve fully independent sustainability over the long term. In addition to organized enterprises, technology platforms such as Etsy have provided market access to over 2.5 million makers around the world.
Potential economic and social impact of the artisanal revitalization
The revitalization of the artisan market provides an opportunity for massive economic and social growth. The global handicrafts market is forecasted to almost double in value over the next five years to arrive at $1,252 billion by 2027. This will provide opportunities for artisans around the world to expand their businesses and profits. This is particularly important for vulnerable populations in the developing world, where most of the growth is projected to occur. Further, it creates opportunities to bring women into the workforce and close the employment gap, as 60% of artisans globally are women.
There are many strategies and initiatives in place to support the growth of the artisan sector and to maximize positive economic and social impact. We will explore some of them in future articles. Stay tuned!