Lancaster University: Lancaster University leads international project to strengthen craft and artisan businesses

A new European project led by Lancaster University will give a much-needed boost to businesses in the creative craft and artisan sectors by opening up opportunities for growth, innovation and sustainable production.

CASCADE, a three-year collaborative research project led by Lancaster University Management School (LUMS) and supported by partners in the Republic of Ireland, Italy, Bulgaria and Poland, aims to inject innovation into the sectors by building the confidence of entrepreneurs and equipping them with the support and digital skills needed to stabilise and grow their business.

Co-funded by Erasmus Plus Programme of the European Union, the project involves a team of researchers hosting a series of funded workshops for entrepreneurs – from artists and performers, to chutney makers and brewers from across the UK and Europe – in order to get an in-depth understanding of the barriers facing creative workers. Researchers are using these insights to develop a free and accessible ‘toolkit’ for the sector, consisting of interactive learning guides on important topics such as inter-generational learning, digital marketing and how to effectively price products and services.

LUMS’ Dr Carolyn Downs is leading the project. She said: “The craft, artisan and creative sectors have enormous potential for the growth and sustainable development of communities, yet, sadly many workers in these sectors find themselves in precarious employment – and with access to little support.

“Lots of creative workers begin their business with a hobby and many seem to battle with confidence – which seems to be a big limiting factor for business growth. Some incredibly talented people we have spoken to appear to underestimate the worth of their craft, and can encounter problems as they are not selling their products at a price that reflects the time, skill and high-quality materials involved.

“Through this project we hope to boost the confidence and skillsets of entrepreneurs so they are equipped to maximise the potential of their businesses. We also hope to create a strong peer-network of creative workers so they can support each other, link up and potentially find new markets for their products and services.”



Some of the handmade products from Tinbox Angel

With the help of her team, Amanda Gallagher, 49, from Lancaster, runs Tinbox Angel, a business producing luxury leather handbags and accessories from their workshop in Lancaster. Amanda and her husband and business partner, Paul, are participants on the CASCADE project.

“For the majority of people at the CASCADE workshops we attended, their biggest concern for growth was monetary, but we are at a slightly different stage,” Amanda explains. “For us, our biggest barrier is time. As a small business, every hour spent looking for alternative suppliers, researching marketing or looking at how to place Facebook ads is time spent away from making products.

“That’s why for us, the toolkit for small businesses would be a great thing – and certainly would be a well-used resource. As entrepreneurs, you tend to go off on a tangent and aren’t tied down by constraints; but on certain issues – something like trademarks for new products, for example – where do you start? Researching what to do will take all the time you haven’t got, yet not doing it properly could cost the business an awful lot in the long run.

“As a small business, if you stand still you shrivel up and die- so the whole CASCADE project excites us. We are always looking for new ways to design and create and hope to grow the business over the next five years. We would like to employ three new staff members of staff and get our products better known nationally.”

Innovation around sustainability and ‘closed loop manufacturing’ is a strong theme throughout the project, as consumer awareness and responsibility heightens as the climate emergency gathers pace. Dedicated resources are being created for the open access toolkit so makers can place themselves at the forefront of the zero-waste, low-carbon economy.

“The creative, craft and artisan sectors could make a big contribution to a low-carbon economy as many businesses are involved in low-emission, zero-waste production,” Dr Downs continues. “There is an enormous opportunity for entrepreneurs to innovate in this area, and maximise their sustainability credentials in marketing their products.

“While the sectors face serious challenges with many trades sadly appearing on the ‘red list of endangered crafts’, it is also in a unique, quite protected position, as many of these businesses are future-proof – there is no danger of automation or robotics replacing unique handicraft.

“Young people need to be more aware of the career opportunities within this sector, so we will be developing careers advice and guidance to highlight the opportunities available. We hope this will be a useful resource for schools and colleges right across the UK and Europe.”

The next series of online and in-person workshops will be held next month. Registrations are now open for craft and artisan workers to explore issues and opportunities surrounding sustainability and circular production either during an online workshop on Tuesday 8 March from 6pm-9pm or an in-person workshop at Lancaster University on Thursday 10 March between 1pm-5pm.

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