Nonprofit Chronicles

Journalism about foundations, nonprofits and their impact

The Nepal earthquake hit close to home for GoodWeave. Founded in 1994 by Kailash Satyarthi, an Indian activist who shared the 2014 Nobel Peace Prize for his work on behalf of children’s rights, GoodWeave has evolved into a Washington, D.C.-based international nonprofit that aims to stop child labor in the carpet industry, working in Afghanistan, India and especially Nepal–where handwoven carpets are the No. 1 export.

In Kathmandu, GoodWeave operates Hamro Ghar (it means our home), a rehabilitation center for “carpet kids” who were taken from their homes and forced to work long hours, for little or no pay, under harsh conditions, to make beautiful but inexpensive rugs for retailers in the US and Europe. Once rescued, these children are provided with food, shelter, care and an education. The earthquake appears to have done only minor damage to Hamro Ghar, and the children living there are safe, according to Nina Smith, GoodWeave’s executive director.

This “raid and rescue” work is heartwarming. It motivates donors, and spotlights the scandal of child labor. But, as Nina Smith explains when we met recently, liberating children from the looms is not a strategy for ending child labor. “You’d rescue one today, and another would get held tomorrow,” she says.

That presents a challenge for GoodWeave.

To raise awareness and funds, GoodWeave tells stories about girls like Sanju, who at age 11 –yes, 11 — was sent by her father to Kathmandu with a labor broker to weave rugs. She worked 16-hour days, and was forced to cook and clean for the broker and his wife. An adorable young girl, Sanju was rescued by a GoodWeave inspector and taken to Hamro Ghar. This four-minute video tells her story, and the story of GoodWeave.

GoodWeave keeps track of its rescues–it has saved more than 3,521 children, and every one matters. But, as Smith says: “That doesn’t necessarily tell you something—other than there’s still a problem.”

Which is why GoodWeave’s overarching goal is systemic change.

The GoodWeave seal

The GoodWeave seal

To that end, GoodWeave has created a no-child-labor standard, which requires producers and exporters to ensure no child labor is used in the making of their rugs, and to allow random, unannounced inspections. Those who comply can license a consumer-facing label–originally Rugmark, now GoodWeave–which meets the strict requirements of ISEAL Alliance, a group that sets standards for standards. (Yes, it’s very meta.) Smith and her Goodweave colleagues then set out to persuade interior designers, importers and retailers to adopt the standard. They’ve signed up thousands.

As Sally Osberg, the president of the Skoll Foundation, and Roger Martin, a foundation director, write in the current issue of the Harvard Business Review:

When enough consumers vote with their wallets, retailers and suppliers get the message—and entire systems are forever altered.

It’s far from an easy solution, though, because it relies on consumers, retailers, suppliers and NGOs to do what governments ought to do–protect children.

Try marketing that.

Harder still, try measuring success if the goal is to “stop child labor in the carpet industry” and then to replicate this “market-based approach” in other sectors such as brick-making and handcrafts.

_1010732_1-Sanju-TwisterGoodWeave  is trying. Not the marketing–the NGO’s website is filled with photos of happy children, like Sanju (playing Twister!), not of staffers inspecting factories or meeting in designer showrooms in Manhattan, where the real change is unfolding.

But GoodWeave is measuring–a lot.

Back in 2009, GoodWeave published a 25-page white paper examining its strategy and trying to see whether the GoodWeave model could be exported to other sectors where exploitation is widespread. Humanity United, the foundation of eBay founder Pierre Omidyar and his wife, Pam, which focuses on peace and slavery, funded the study, which posed a lot of questions: Should GoodWeave focus on promoting its label to consumers or businesses? How can it grow market share in India as it has in Nepal, where about 75% of the looms were inspected by GoodWeave? How can GoodWeave’s work be scaled?

What’s important are not so much the answers but the fact that GoodWeave is asking hard questions, and setting clear goals and timetables. It said, for example, that it hoped to increase its market share of imported rugs from about 3.8 percent in 2009 to 15 percent in 2012–a goal that, unfortunately, it has failed to reach. Market share as of 2013 was 5 percent.

Partly that’s because GoodWeave shifted from tracking market share in the US, where the group has more traction, to global market share. Besides that, Nina said:

We also saw a significant decline in market growth right after the writing of the white paper with the global economic crisis. Rug production shifted from the high value product we were certifying to cheaper goods being sold into markets we had not then penetrated, and being made in producer countries where we weren’t working.

Since then, GoodWeave has signed an agreement with Target, which sells lower-priced carpets. “And we are growing significantly in India, where we had little traction before, and which represents 25 percent of global production,” she says.

Nina Smith

Nina Smith

Again, what matters is not the specifics but GoodWeave’s willingness to aim high and be accountable. Some of this is shaped by donors. GoodWeave has government contracts, from the US Department of Labor and the US Department of State, which typically require lots of monitoring. It also has received generous grants from Humanity United and the Skoll Foundation, which is funded by Jeff Skoll, another eBay billionaire.

“There’s so much push right now from the social enterprise funders to show the relationship between specific financial investment and the type of outcome that results,” Smith says. Some government agency demands for data are excessive, albeit understandable, she says. “But in general, I think the exercise makes us smarter.”

In February, GoodWeave published a new report devoted to monitoring and evaluation, including a long list of global indicators that it will use to track success. This time, the goals are more modest–to capture 6 percent of the global carpet market for its certified rugs and carpets, and to see if the model can be replicated in the brick-making industry in Nepal.

All of this is a work in progress, and the Nepal earthquake is a reminder that the best-laid plans can be rocked, literally, by forces beyond anyone’s control. A GoodWeave day care center and an office have crumbled. A staff member lost his immediate family.

If, in the years ahead, Nepal’s carpet industry collapses, much of the progress made by GoodWeave will be undone.

“This industry is going to have to be rebuilt, sustainability,” Smith says. “Otherwise the buyers are going to go elsewhere.” That would be terrible not just for the children of Nepal, but for the entire nation.

2 thoughts on “Child labor, carpets and GoodWeave

  1. Ken Lewis says:

    Readers might be able to imagine what it is like to be an innocent child sequestered away in what one might characterize as a weaver’s prison. Then again, perhaps not. First hand experience shocks even the most jaded. Conversely, one might be able to imagine the joy when watching those same innocents, eyes bright and inquiring, at Hamro Ghar. I did. There, it is far easier to see the humanity in humanity than the depravity that unfortunately does exist just around the corner. Hope is sometimes difficult to grasp. Good Weave, little by little, loom by loom, country by country, turns fleeting hope into a reality.


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