The Business of Handmade

Going Dark: the Etsy Protest

The big Etsy protest begins May 10th at midnight. Protesty has more than 4,100 Etsy shops(including Natural Gorgeous) signed up to go dark for 24 hours.

Here’s why.

This is a tremendous show of support for the original mission of Etsy. Etsy was founded as a platform for individual artists and crafters who wanted to sell directly to the public. The point was to cut out the middlemen – the owners of galleries and retail stores.

(Why cut out the middlemen?  (1) because without them, the person who made the item gets more of the purchase price, and (2) they often act as gatekeepers that effectively prevent a full range of products from coming to the market.  Middlemen can be great, but when they insist on putting forward the same types of items over and over again and won’t carry anything innovative or outside their personal taste, they become a problem).

Etsy was conceived in the shadow of eBay, which was (and continues to be) dominated by large volume sellers. eBay has successfully brought hundreds of Asian factories to the American marketplace without the mediation of American and European retailers. eBay allows American consumers hungry for “bargain basement” prices to sidestep the basement (retailers such as Walmart or Kmart) and go directly for the bargain. eBay also gives Asian factories a way to sidestep the safety and quality controls employed by American retailers (again, such as Walmart or Kmart) and sell directly to American consumers. An Asian factory can pump out millions of necklaces, dresses, pet beds, and ceramic dishes — made with who knows what toxic materials — and consumers can buy them at near-wholesale prices.

Artists and artisans working on their own can’t compete with factories in an environment where prices are constantly driven down. If individual sellers had become an endangered species, Etsy was intended to be a virtual nature preserve. Etsy’s staff would keep the site free of factories and people reselling goods they purchased wholesale, and the Etsy brand would attract the kind of shopper who eschewed mass produced junk. Etsy’s particular take on protectionism would give individual artists and artisans a place to be seen, to charge fair prices, and maybe, to flourish.

It must be said that there is an exception to the individual-sellers-only and no-resellers rules. People who sell craft supplies can (and mostly do) resell goods they purchased wholesale. Another exception is collective shops. From Etsy’s Do’s and Dont’s:

Multiple people using a single account (collective shops).

An account that involves more than one person is called a collective. There are three scenarios, outlined below, in which multiple people who know each other may use a single Etsy account.

Collaboration: Artisans combine their skills to make and list handmade products in an Etsy shop.For example:One artist screen prints fabric, then another artist sews clothing from the fabric. The finished product is listed in a collective Etsy shop.

Sharing a Shop: Multiple people who know each other use a single Etsy account to post their own separate items in one shared shop.  For example: Two jewelers share a collective Etsy shop, but they create and list their own jewelry items in the shop.  Friends, a painter and a furniture maker, share a collective Etsy shop to sell their work together.
Vintage sellers share a shop to sell their vintage finds together.

Shop Management Help: Someone helps a friend or family member in the same household or shared physical space manage their Etsy account.  For example: A person helps a friend or family member list or ship an item. The item is listed in their collective Etsy shop.

Some people think these rules are vague; personally I think they’re pretty clear.

As Etsy has grown, unscrupulous factory owners and resellers have tried to game the Etsy system by portraying themselves as individual artists.  Many are easy to detect: their shops have a huge inventory and they have a sky high rate of sales — its way more volume than an individual hand crafting each item can handle.  Their prices are stupifyingly low – viable only if the seller is depending on high volume to turn a profit.

Etsy’s staff have bounced a number of these sellers, but over the years a small but growing number have been allowed to flourish.  At the same time, Etsy’s “admins” (their term for forum moderators) have given contradictory advice about what is and isn’t allowed.  And Etsy has bounced a number of sellers who appear to have done nothing wrong.

Etsy is now big enough to attract *a lot* of resellers and Asian factories.  Add to this an ever increasing number of perfectly legitimate sellers, and the result is that some categories are flooded with listings.  The only way to be seen by shoppers is to be extremely canny and vigilant in various forms of promotion, including SEO, or to have a comparative advantage that Etsy’s search and sort features can detect.  Low low prices fit the bill perfectly – you can search within a price range and sort the results in ascending order of price.  Advantage:  factories and high volume resellers.

Legitimate sellers were already anxious about the proliferation of cheaters when Etsy’s staff decided to do a feature story on their blog promoting a reseller.

This was followed by a number of vague statements that appear to indicate that resellers and factories are now welcome on Etsy.  (Some say these statements are not at all vague, and that Etsy has clearly stated resellers and factories are allowed; what I perceive as vagueness may just be an unwillingness to accept the truth on my part).

Authenticity, “handmade,” and personal connection — the values upon which Etsy was founded — are now widely seen as persuasive selling points.  Corporations as big and impersonal as Arby’s — Arby’s! — are touting their products as “handmade” (although in Arby’s case they may mean that their products are made of, rather than by, human hands).  Target just launched a campaign based on product showcases they have given to a handful of ‘mom-and-pop’ Etsy-like stores.  Etsy’s brand is sitting exactly where every retail corporation wants to be.

So we protestors worry not only that our listings will be drowned out by the factories and the resellers, and not only that Etsyhas drifted far from its founding principles, but also that Etsy’s CEO is devaluing the Etsy brand by throwing open the gates to non-handmade goods.

There’s a lot to worry about, but the Protesty show of solidarity among Etsy sellers is heartening.  If we don’t get Etsy back on course, at least we know there is a significant number of us who care enough about individual handmade selling to close down our Etsy shops and start new somewhere else.

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