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Etsy: An example of a good idea gone bad.

Rachel Biel

I've been thinking about the importance of groups lately. I run an organization that works with small businesses which carry handmade textiles and fiber art. Most are studio artists, but others are fair trade groups or even other organizations.

Over 250 of our members have shops on Etsy. Etsy recently changed their guidelines, redefining what they mean by handmade. Angst everywhere. People are upset because Etsy was a good idea, a great idea. What happens when a good idea goes bad?

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  • Alessandra Rizzotti

    Really interesting issue you bring up Rachel. I consider fair trade to be a different category of handmade. If you're working with local and global artisans who are being treated well and getting fair wages, I think their work can be considered handmade if they're not using factories to produce. I don't necessarily think it's a bad idea to redefine what fair trade is. I think perhaps this is an opportunity to launch a fair trade shop. Do you know about They actually feature products both fair trade and made globally and they're on our site!

    • Rachel Biel

      Sure, fair trade is a subcategory and I use it because there is so much negativity in the Etsy circles against "imported" products. It's become a lot more international as a platform in the last couple of years, but in the beginning, the base was in the US and it's still considered to be Brooklyn biased.

      But, to me, it's never made sense that Etsy would allow commercial products in the Supplies and Vintage categories, but would not allow individuals who had an interest in representing others who didn't have the technical access or ability to have an online shop. The fair traders are one big group like that. Then, there are others who work with non-techy artists. One person I knew applied to Etsy to set up a shop there for disabled California artists and she was rejected. The whole thing is upside down! Etsy positioned itself as the voice for the handmade movement and it did many things very well, but it has always had a young and uninformed staff that did not understand all of these other needs and relationships.

      Fair trade doesn't need to be redefined. It's mostly about agricultural and craft products that have the production and distribution process (profits) owned by the producers. Within that are handmade products that fit well into the handmade movement and there are all kinds of collaborations happening between designers and fair trade groups or villages. It's really wonderful! So, in this sense, what Etsy is doing would open up opportunities for these people.

      The problem is in how they are doing it. They are saying that any designer can outsource their products and drop ship from anywhere. Supposedly, they will have to be approved, but already there are so many shops on Etsy (thousands!) selling factory made things that they will never be able to control it.

      These products have three main categories that they can choose on Etsy: Supplies, Vintage or Handmade. Until these guidelines came into place, handmade meant that the owner of the shop actually made the products. Now they have redefined handmade to include designers and that doesn't work. They should have set up a separate category for designers. The biggest problem is that their search algorithm seems to favor products that have the highest chance of selling (which tend to be cheap goods). Anyway, it's a big mess and people are really upset and it's sad because this really is a case of good ideas and intentions taking a really bad turn and affecting lots and lots of people that supported it with pride.

      No, I didn't know about Shop for Change. Just took a look at their page here and their site and followed them. There are many other great groups like them that are helping disadvantaged people access the internet and that's great. My big thing is that I long to see the day when a weaver from Guatemala receives the same recognition and value for her work as a weaver in New Mexico. Sure, there are issues around different currencies, cost of living, etc., but we are starting to see this happen and I think it will just continue to do so as these collaborations continue and as the world economies become more parallel.

      Technology is constantly changing and making it easier for interesting things to happen, so who knows what will be next? Meanwhile, those of us who are on Etsy need to figure out if there is still a place for us there. My shop has gotten very little traffic there in the last year and I used to have regular sales there. I thought it was just me, but then other members also said that something very weird happened to their views a year ago in November. Ah, it's just frustrating to try to figure it all out... Step by step! :)

  • Adele Peters

    That's sad to hear. It does definitely seem like there's an opportunity for a new site right now....

    • Rachel Biel

      Zibbet is trying to position itself to be that new site. It's really tough because those of us who have been with Etsy since early on have invested years of link building to our shops, time, money, etc. and now they finally have the snazzy tools that make having a shop there really nice.

      Zibbet doesn't. It's an ugly little site with few tools and only 5 staff. The site crashed due to an exodus of Etsy sellers fleeing on over to them.

      The thing that really chokes up the community, I think, is that Etsy really thrived and profited from the goodwill of the people who rallied around it and brought in the buyers. Now, dissenters on the site are muted, often for life, or have their shops closed down without warning. No way to contact customers, to negotiate, etc. It's quite reprehensible behavior, all couched under this rosy cloud of having the best interests of the handmade seller at heart.

      Yes, if there were someone in the Good community who wanted to start a serious handmade market, this would definitely be the time to do it. I would love to see something that screened shops in, that showed mature products and that was international in scope, with special programs and assistance for talent who do not have access to technology or who don't speak English. Tons of potential for something truly remarkable.

      • Rachel Biel

        Oh, and I don't mean to put Zibbet down. They will grow and get better, but when you don't have any kind of screening process, you open yourself to the same problems that etsy had with resellers and crappy stuff.