Etsy has been quickly using the power of this high-tech world of ours in an effort to get us back to some good old-fashioned shopping. What or who is Etsy you may ask? You might already know! But I want to add my two cents, along with touting work I would never have found but for this enormously wide-reaching site that is the home to millions of little shops (of course I will incorporate food to merit the inclusion of this post in my blog. Food, which covertly anchors everything else that I love to it: anything that smacks of creativity)
Etsy became part of my life when I (well myself and my guy Dave) decided to sell some of our work on Etsy at the advice of a friend. This was a little over two years ago when Jenny Mendes, ( 💚 ) told me she was doing well in this cyber marketplace and that we should give it a shot. Jenny’s work is not exactly main stream (hurrah) and so a recommendation from her was a good lead as far as I was concerned. Our work was also not your average manufactured dross so I thought it might be the right fit for us also?
I am an impulsive person in so many (what I like to think are wonderful) ways – like having a dinner party last minute or buying a really impractical pair of shoes because I love the color. But, when it comes to the work, our work, I turn into my other self, my business-y and investigative self.
So off I went into Research Mode and asked the logical question: What is Etsy anyway? Their mission statement was impressive to start and merited a deeper look. The mission in a powerful 13-word sentence stating it wanted: TO REIMAGINE COMMERCE IN WAYS THAT BUILD A MORE FULFILLING AND LASTING WORLD.
That is a very beautiful thing and I decided that if they were being sincere, then I would not mind adding our shop to that banner. It is a big thing to think that your business could do something fulfilling and lasting in this seemingly throwaway society of ours?
And on top of that, perhaps a little contradictory to use tons of data analysis, strategic planning, and other techno-stuff to figure out how to give me, the shopper, curled up on my couch at my computer in rural Pennsylvania, the experience of having a fun interaction with someone across the country or across the globe, that felt meaningful on a human level?
Etsy somehow figured out that there were artists all over the globe who “make things” either on a big scale or on a very tiny scale. Each end of this spectrum was essential for Etsy to fulfill its mission if it wanted to, as it stated, reimagine commerce and make the world a better, and I’d argue, a more connected place: like a community.
The word community is bandied about quite a bit these days as organizations and businesses strive to appear more involved on a human level by establishing a neighborhood vibe rather than having the appearance of some towering austere company where turning a profit is the bottom line.
There is nothing wrong with making money but it is hard to stomach hearing the word community being used when it comes from the giant jaws of corporations and conglomerates that don’t feel city-like, let alone village-y.
In the primitive sense of the word a community is a group of people who live and work together, and this fact alone binds them into a tightly knit group. They usually hold similar ideals and values and in a crisis work together in harmony for the welfare of the entire group.
And in a more modern sense and taking the definition a step further you could then say that anyone who holds the same beliefs, philosophies or principles as you belongs to the same community. I can buy that.
As in, if I meet someone in a museum in Russia drooling over the same painting, or I am on a train in China and I see someone reading one of my favorite authors (The same book would be too coincidental don’t you think even for this expository example!) I cannot help but feel a kind of kinship with this person, a connection of sorts. Even this vague and tenuous thing can bridge the worlds of two strangers.
I think now more than ever the feeling of alienation sends us into panic mode. Everyone wants to belong to some kind of group or team, and you could say that Etsy took advantage of our weakness. But is this such a bad thing? I have given this some thought and decided that I don’t feel resentful or used. Because at this point, whatever the intention, I feel I have benefited from the experiment, or business decision or bright idea that so and so (Rob Kalin & a few friends) had in his apartment in Brooklyn in 2005.
So what happened next: Etsy became the Global Marketplace where any artist/maker of anything, big or small, could run a shop pretty much on their own terms. They could own a little piece of cyber real estate to sell their wares and call the shots.
They are people out there who are compelled to make “things”. They could be doing this full-time like myself and my husband, or they may have a real job, or have chosen to stay at home to raise their children, or retired and living in the woods somewhere. No matter what the situation, at some point each day or each week, they have a project going of one kind or another that they are passionate about. This is the one ingredient that these people cannot live without: PASSION
Even misguided or mishandled passion can survive on Etsy. Why? Because it does not have to be monumental work to survive or monumental work to give satisfaction and pleasure. It can truly be a very simple desire with humble expectations.
But of course it can also be a dream that yearns to be fulfilled on a gigantic scale. You can see it all on Etsy if you pay attention, and observe this vast village of makers of pretty much everything and anything.
Before Etsy, or Market places like Etsy were created, lots of the great things people made were seen by almost nobody, unless of course the person had the resources and stock of goods to set up at a craft show and even then, this sort of endeavor takes time and money and is risky.
How could say the lady in Finland or Wisconsin or London making felted hats, while her kids are at school or tucked away in bed, have any hope of selling them? Or that man who lives in the woods who makes chopping boards and lovely wooden spoons from the wood of the dead trees on his property could ever dream that someone in New York City or Paris would get the chance to use his tools in their kitchen?
Yes, there are a millions of sites on the internet where you can buy stuff, but there are few places for me to support people like me, people who make thoughtful and beautiful things in small quantities with love and pride.
We talk about buying local and supporting small businesses, but sometimes it is not always easy to do, because things can get expensive and take too much time to source. How can you manage buying something in todays marketplace and feel good about it? Could Etsy be a good backup plan if buying local doesn’t work out or proves impossible or too costly? After all, a good portion of the reason you buy (well I buy) local is to support the individuals who believe in something enough to go to the trouble of providing it themselves.
Simply put: Etsy is an online shopping site where you can walk through a virtual craft show (in fact the whole idea for Etsy was modeled on big open craft shows where all sorts of artist vendors sell their wares to the public). As an artist/maker of things, you can start your shop with a handful of items and Etsy charges very affordable fees so even the tiniest of shops can go global! And they do, in droves!
Finding good quality hand-made art and craft at a show comes with a price tag. I did high-end craft shows for years here in the United States and my prices were not as reasonably priced as I would have liked because I had to take so much more than my time and materials into consideration. There was the booth fee (thousands of dollars for a 10×10 booth), staying in a hotel, travel, food and also making sure my prices did not undercut my wholesale buyers, meaning that no matter what I thought was fair for me (the actual wholesale price), I had to double for my retail customers. Then there was the fact that anything could happen; it could snow, the stock market could be down that day, the guy next to you could be selling something so garish that shoppers cross the aisle for feel of being contaminated by ugly art!
I began to feel like I was putting the things I worked hard to make into the hands of an entity which I could not control. I was letting someone else dictate who my market was and the value of my work? That’s fine if it is working, but when the market changes I’m afraid even the artsy people of this world must sit up and pay attention, AND JOIN IN!
We all embrace something that is new and edgy and Etsy was embraced with a vengeance. I have intentionally focused my blurb about Etsy on the vendors who actually make work and sell it, but Etsy has two other categories of vendors: Vintage Goods and Craft Supplies. Vintage Goods are pretty much anything you can think of made before 1996 and Craft Supplies are shops who sell craft components and tools for makers, be they professionals or hobbyists.
The majority of the shops on Etsy are very small and run by one or two people. Some have become very successful (well done!) and now have employees who help with the manufacturing of larger quantities, but they are still small, even in the eyes of what we think a “small business” really is. In a world where everything is beginning to look the same, Etsy is a place where you can search the four corners of the world and find something that has been touched by human hands.
You have to forget fighting against the fact that Etsy has become it’s own strange money-making machine and appreciate what it has done for the potter in north Carolina and the jeweler or soap maker making working in his or her tiny apartment in some city in Eastern Europe. These little microcosmic shops under the Etsy umbrella make creativity possible for just about anyone who ever dreamed about being a maker of one kind or another.
As it became a place for individuals whose aspirations did not extend beyond just having the satisfaction of having a little something of themselves out there, it also became a place for people like myself, who were full-time studio artists and actively rethinking our own little mission statements. We (at least I) wanted to broaden my audience and put the burden of responsibility of making sure the work got out there on my own shoulders and on my own terms. Etsy became part of the business plan. It became another tool, another facet of a bigger plan for many artists to gain exposure.
It also created a place for designers ( interior designers, clothing designers, and product designers) to showcase their work. These artists use Etsy like a Show Room, many of them creating stunning and ultra-cool backdrops to highlight their work. I feel that anyone who takes Etsy seriously will be taken seriously. It is a very cheap way to find out what your potential is and how your work can make an impact on the world. It makes you think big while not giving up your independence and values.
If you take Etsy’s mission statement to heart and block out all the stuff that can annoy you about this marketplace (yes, we will have to talk about that too!) you can really do great things and surprise yourself. I have read enough stories, articles and interviews to know that Etsy has most definitely changed lives for the better.
My challenge was figuring out what to sell (I make jewelry for the most part, by hand, real metalsmithing here folks!). I love the whole research and development stage and that is how I took Etsy on. I looked at what we make, I looked at what was doing well and where our paths crossed. I found a niche that we could happily fill and before we made one thing for our little shop I already knew it would work for us.
The thing that was a learning curve was figuring out the whole “Etsy Culture” and there certainly is a culture, an atmosphere, and a way of doing business here. How can I describe it? Well, it is sort of cutesy, like when people include that little smiley face after their name (like Tess:) or Tess😀) – ha! I know, it sounds a little sweet but I have to say that it works and once you take on that air of being totally helpful and going out of your way to connect on a human level, it pays off. Not just monetarily, but in that sense where it is not just a sale you are making, but a sweet little connection with the buyer. I have always loved selling our work because I really do love that interaction so I suppose Etsy and me were destined to get along.
So here I am going on and on about my possible love affair with Etsy when I know that there are other things that need to be said out loud too. Etsy wants to be the marketplace for the handmade and vintage but if I were one of the Etsy Folks who trolled the site for items and shops that did not live up to the claimed principles and doctrine, I would Red Flag thousands of products. And I’m not just talking about things that are not my taste. I have to call out all of those vendors who use manufactured parts in their work and then call it handmade. These components are made in massive quantities by people working for unacceptable wages and shipped out to you who pawn them off as “handmade” on Etsy. I am a very visually observant person who notices details but it doesn’t take an astute eye to see the exact same component being used by hundreds of different vendors in their work and then claiming it as their own.
This is where Etsy looses me and makes it only a possible love affair. I love you Etsy but we might need therapy to see eye to eye, but that means you will also have to change. I have kept up my side of your bargain but you are falling short. Perhaps there are not enough “makers of things” on your payroll to see your vision through? I am not against ugly or even shoddy work that is handmade, I am against shops who say they made something that they clearly didn’t and then proceed to undercut work in the same genre that IS handmade by selling at lower prices (when you buy something for nothing, you can sell it for next-to-nothing and still make a profit!)
Hey, I am only calling you out because of your Policy Page. If you could add that you welcome work that is made out of totally prefabricated and mass-produced parts, made who knows where, then I think it would be better. I see all of this and yes, I have learned to ignore it and do my best to be uncompromising in my work. I think perhaps you need to be uncompromising too and begin the process of shutting down all of the shops selling dishonest products to unsuspecting customers. It may mean less money, but over time, I guarantee you will lose the “HANDMADE” appearance of the site as true makers will slowly feel pushed out and undermined. Do you secretly want to be Amazon?
I do think that Etsy is a great place to sell handmade work and I would give it a try if you want to see what you are made of, but stay true to the original mission of the company and you will never have to hang your head.
Etsy does have a Manufacturing Policy and here is a link to it:
If you read it in detail, even if you disagree with allowing for a manufacturing policy in the first place, it clearly states that all manufacturers that vendors use must be approved by filling out an application and must be “operating a safe and just workplace” and that does not:
- Does not use any child labor in any aspect of your work;
- Does not use any involuntary labor in any aspect of your work;
- Is free of coercion and intimidation against workers;
- Is an equal opportunity workplace and does not tolerate discrimination; and
- Takes care to minimize impact to workers and the environment, including by a) practicing the safe storage and disposal of chemicals and hazardous waste; and b) providing safety-related education and protective equipment to workers.
As you can see they have commendable rules in place but my point is that they are doing a very sub-par job of enforcing those rules. Just saying that stating something or believing something is not good enough.
The funny thing is that Etsy still lives a very cool and super-innovative life as a company. Employees work in as green a building as they can make it. They recycle absolutely everything, down to composting and taking it all to the various recycling centers on their bikes for crying out loud. They volunteer in the community and shop at the Farmer’s Market! Who wouldn’t want to be part of that? This is why this huge discrepancy saddens me so much.
All the work I featured in this post is made by true makers of things. It feels and looks special in one way or another. I wanted to show this work and hopefully send some business their way. To my eye, this work is the work that Etsy really and truly wants to sell – so let’s have more of it…….
and less of this ( I hate to show pictures but I think we need a comparison to get my point across). I picked the same component and got over 22,000 hits. Here are 10 Lotus blossom Necklaces on generic chains from 10 different shops (if you can believe it). You know, I don’t even mind the un-originality. The lotus is a sweet symbol of purity in body, speech and mind, but these are bought components from big manufacturing companies that have no place in the Etsy philosophy. Unfortunately there are thousands of products that look like this on Etsy. I hope you can see the big gap between the work I have chosen that symbolizes for my what Etsy stands for and the pieces below.
WOW– I know it seems I have ended on a bad note but perhaps you will not make it to the end of this long rambling post! I do take pride in this blog of mine. I write about all the good things in my life and how the good should shine brighter than the bad. I have made an effort to not be one of those complainers because God knows I hear my share of it on a daily basis. It is not as cool to be an optimist I suppose but I am okay with writing about the good stuff and to hopefully rub off on the world in a positive way.
Etsy has been the inspiration and instigator for lots of new and wonderful websites who want to sell handmade products, and they should be proud of that fact. But they have to continue to work hard on being a “mindful, transparent and Human Business”
So, Good Luck Etsy and stay the course!