Etsy: Homegrown Success Story Gone Sour

Etsy wall

Etsy began with a simple, wholesome idea: Bring vintage and handmade products to an audience wider than Christmas craft fairs and Farmer’s Markets. Founded in June of 2005, eager artisans flocked to this online marketplace and flooded the site with crocheted scarves, richly illustrated cards and carefully created lotions. The site boomed and reported sales of $1.6 million dollars by May of 2007.

art from etsy

Image courtesy of decor8 holly.

For years, Etsy was my go-to site to find gifts for friends and family scattered all across Canada, and to source vintage items for my home. It was a way to support independent artisans and give unique gifts, and, as my awareness of the environmental and ethical ramifications of large-scale manufacturing practices grew,  it was a way to feel good while giving, knowing that my money was supporting a real live person rather than being filtered through the cogs of a behemoth corporation with questionable practices.

An early itineration of Etsy’s ‘About’ page proudly proclaimed that the site was designed to help individuals “buy, sell, and live handmade”, and buy, sell, and live handmade I did – it was glorious. With the click of a button, I was able to find one-of-a-kind, lovingly created items and ship them wherever I liked. Products arrived in personalized packaging, often with a handwritten note from the seller themselves. If a shop didn’t have exactly what I was looking for, I could simply message the seller directly and ask them to create it. Nine times out of ten, they were happy to do so.

Likewise, for crafters, a click of a button and a $0.20 listing fee brought their handmade products to a worldwide audience. It seemed, briefly, that the Internet was being used for good.  And then, something strange happened.

I hopped onto Etsy.com one morning a few years ago and typed “canvas purse” into the search. My daughter was finally old enough that I could leave her for a few hours at a time and I, feeling heady with this newfound freedom, was looking for a purse to replace the gigantic diaper bag I’d been lugging around. I decided on repurposed canvas as an Eco-friendly option, and wanted to locate someone who was creating good quality purses, and support their craft.

As the results began to populate, however, I began to notice something. Many somethings, actually. The same stylin’ canvas/leather messenger bag, with fold over front and distressed look, showing up in numerous listings, under numerous different shop names, The bag was listed around $35, significantly cheaper than all of the other results. Intrigued, I started looking at each listing. Each one was based in China. Initially, I chalked this result up to a few mass-produced products slipping through the cracks of Etsy’s policies – something that was bound to happen as their sellers reached the 1 million mark.

Handmade dress sold on Etsy.

Handmade dress sold on Etsy. Image courtesy of katharine shields.

But over the next few weeks I began to notice it happening more and more – mass-produced products flooding my search results, for everything from bags to earrings to baby clothes. What the hell was going on?

I began to research, and shortly discovered the truth. On October 1, 2013, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson declared that the definition of handmade was now going to include items made in a factory. This shift meant that commercially produced consumer goods – often from countries like India and China, with poor labor practices – began to flood the formerly-independent-artisan-based marketplace, crowding out independent sellers and undercutting prices.

The implications of this shift have been hugeAside from the fact that now Etsy is stocked with thousands of identical, cheaply made items just like those in many retail box-bog stores, the real crafters – the ones Etsy was developed to promote and support – have experienced dwindling sales, and a frustrating inability to price their handmade goods to compete with the prices of products churned out in a factory.

So, what’s a craft-loving hippie to do? Well, as I see it, you have two options.

  1. One, start digging-  the real crafters of Etsy are still there, you just might need to dig through fifteen pages of Chinese-made stuff to find them.
  2. Narrow the search by using Etsy’s “Shop Local” feature to identify sellers based out of your city, state, or country, and don’t be afraid to message the seller to ask about their manufacturing practices to find out whether their products are truly handmade or only handmade if you’re using the Dickerson definition.

Of course your second option is even more appealing.

  1. Close the computer, grab your bike, and head down to the Farmer’s Market or the locally owned stores of your city.
  2. Search out locally-made goods, one-of-a-kind products, and, best of all, get to meet the people that create them.

I’ll be the first to say that the Internet is a wonderful place – and for crafters it still can be – but there is nothing quite like meeting someone face-to-face.

Feature image courtesy of Charles & Hudson

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