The age-old Etsy Debate

Tuesday, July 10, 2012

Ah... the age-old Etsy Debate...  What is handmade, really?

Do you make a deliberate choice to shop handmade? Would you be disappointed if you bought something that you thought had been handmade by an artisan, only to find out it was made in a factory? Does it matter whether the factory is in China or New York?  What if the factory consists of only 5 staff? What if there are 45?

As many people know, Etsy has opened the field to allow collective shops, a loose terms that allows a team of people to run an Etsy shop. Collectives allow two or more artisans to run a shop cooperativly, it also allows a shop owner to hire out tasks, like shipping, listing, etc. It stipulates that all handmade items must be made by members of the collective, but what if the collective consists of 15 people, 12 of whom work in a factory? This has greatly clouded Etsy's definition of "handmade."

It bothers me sometimes when I see items that are clearly produced by a larger team of people, being marketed as "handmade."  Handmade is becoming as trendy as Gluten Free and Organic, and has become as diluted as those terms as well.  The problem is, the whole idea of "handmade" is such an innately vague  notion that it is really hard to separate what is legitimately handmade and what isn't. 

I can whole heatedly say my garments are handmade.  I design them, I source the fabric, I cut & sew, I package and mail.  What if I designed, packaged and mailed, but got a friend to cut & sew... what if instead of a friend, I sent them to a workshop in Toronto?  Someone still made them, right? As long as I list the sewers names on my about me page, I can still sell, as a handmade seller on Etsy? At what point does something stop being handmade?

Sometimes it is hard to stay competitive against larger collectives, or smaller brands who produce on a larger scale through factories locally and abroad. It can be a challenge to convey to the average consumer why they should buy handmade by an individual, when handmade often costs more, and takes much longer to produce.

I think the essence of a collective is a great idea, and I actually have a collective idea in the works.  Its the loose definition of the term on Etsy, a site to buy handmade items, that worries me.

I also don't think there is anything wrong with buying workshop-made.  I buy stuff like that all the time. Workshop-made, especially if made in North America is awesome - think of the jobs it brings. I think it's just a matter of transparency.  When you buy something on Etsy, do you expect that the person you buy it from made it? When you buy something from Mod Cloth, you know it went through a series of hands.  Does it even really matter any more?

I almost feel that Etsy should abandon the whole notion of "Handmade" and focus on the craft. I don't really consider myself as much of a designer as I do a craftsperson.  A craftsperson is someone who practices a trade of handicraft. They are skilled.  They have worked years to master their art.  I think that is what Etsy is about, and I think that is what consumers expect. That is, if Etsy even cares anymore...

I'm so behind on the times, I only recently read a Regretsy post about a seller who was chosen for Etsy's esteemed Featured Seller (oh how I'd love to be one, Etsy!) spot.  She sold "handmade" furniture out of reclaimed wood.  What was unclear was how the furniture was being made.  It was being sold not just on etsy, but on websites like Overstock.com. She claimed that wood was being imported from Bali and that she has 4 hired worker  to assemble the furniture.  However, the company she was importing from was a furniture manufacturer and sells the exact same pieces on their website that she is selling as her own.  It was pretty clear that her pieces were being imported.  Etsy stood firm and claimed that this fit within the confines of a collective.  Since the piece was posted in May (on Etsy & Regretsy), the shop has disappeared from Etsy.

The obvious resellers on Etsy don't really bother me, like the ones selling Leg Avenue lingerie.  They are obvious, and they don't even try to disguise themselves.  It's the ones that blur the lines, who have 2 or three staff of "designers" but produce in a workshop.  To me, this is when the idea of craftsmanship gets lost, which, I think, is what Etsy is all about... This is where an item stops being handmade.

Anyway, I would love to hear your thoughts.  I know it's kind of a dead topic, but I'd love to see Etsy shift their focus from handmade to craftsmanship.

In other news, I have been working on a garter belt design, which you can see below. 



17 comments:

  1. I think that the way Etsy has handled these complaints is lousy. It's kind of shocking to see the shops that are obviously selling mass-manufactured items stay open after lodging a complaint (we're talking shops with thousands of sales). If they don't want to sell exclusively handmade items, they should change the branding and the language on the site. You're right-- it's about transparency. It reminds me of when American Apparel started selling items not made in the States. It's in your company mission and your name, dude!

    Luckily, people recognize a good and actually handmade product when they see one, which I'm sure is why your shop is so beloved!

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    1. I think people who choose to shop on Etsy are pretty smart, and are making the conscious effort to shop ethically and support artists. But there are some shops that are cleverly disguised! I have to admit, it's got to be hard for Etsy to accurately police the issue.

      I never heard that about American Apparel not producing in the states. That totally sucks!!! That company is shady anyway :)

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    2. AA still produces much of their stuff in the States, but I was there a few years ago, picked something up, and noticed that it wasn't. Dude, it's in your name! They've since included some language on their site that indicates that a few things that aren't produced by them directly are sold in stores, but that they're "philosophically" in tune with them. I think the key is that there's an expectation of goods at American Apparel to be American-made, just as there's an expectation that sellers on Etsy are actual artisans and craftsmen/ladies. But you're right-- shoppers are savvy, and it's easy to tell which shops are simply repackaging factory-made goods. It just stinks that the burden is on the consumer on a site like Etsy.

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  2. "A craftsperson is someone who practices a trade of handicraft. They are skilled. They have worked years to master their art. I think that is what Etsy is about, and I think that is what consumers expect. "

    I'm glad that you brought up the idea of craftsmanship over designer!

    As for collective shops, I'm currently working on a project that supports local 'do-ers' and 'makers' in a priority neighbourhood in Toronto. One of the assumptions we've been working under is the idea that women producing handicraft items to supplement their income may be able to find more cost effective ways to produce their goods by working collectively.

    From a local perspective, the idea of bringing these women together to sell their goods as a collective shop on Etsy sounds like a great oppurtunity! That being said, I do worry that other Etsy sellers (who are perhaps not as transparent in their practices) may drive traffic away from genuine collective selling models as online shoppers try to stay true to their desire to be handmade items.

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    1. I think your Collective sounds right in line with the true spirit of what Etsy is all about, and it sounds like a wonderful idea!

      I wonder if shoppers are legitimately turned away from Etsy because of the reseller problem? Or if its mostly just an issue with the artisans... would love to hear a shoppers point of view.

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  3. I don't have an Etsy shop, but I do like to shop on Etsy. I don't know that I've noticed blatant reselling issues except for in the fabric department. It's absolutely flooded with resale shops selling lengths of fabric by the yard. Usually if I'm looking for something handmade (lately for graduation gifts) I tend to favor smaller shops with maybe 20-50 unique items. So far, most of these smaller shops have given me great service, shipping out items very quickly, and often including a handwritten note from the artist/maker to thank me for my purchase. For me the whole point of shopping on Etsy is that I can find things that are completely different than what I could find by going out to Walmart or Macy's. The quality and creativity that comes from an individual artisan is way beyond mass-market items. I'd be really sad if it became difficult to find these smaller shops because Etsy has been flooded by resalers with thousands of items which may or may not be handmade. If I wanted that, I'd shop on Amazon or E-bay.

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    1. Supplies, like fabric, are allowed to be sold on Etsy, but they are supposed to be listed in the "supplies" section. I wish Etsy was more stringent about policing their sections to make sure items are categorized appropriately. I agree that it is annoying when you are searching for something, say a "vintage bra sewing pattern," and all you get are vintage bras that have been listed in the wrong section.

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    2. I own myself corrected. You are right, usually fabric is in the supplies (sometimes the vintage) section. Still, I would hate for the handmade section to become as overloaded and unwieldy to navigate as the supplies section. I can't imagine actually buying anything if the future becomes trying to do a search to find the truly handmade items and coming up with 1000's of mass-produced "inspired by vintage handmade crafts" products to sort through.

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  4. I agree that if something is going to be listed as "handmade", then it needs to made with your own two hands. If a shop hires other people to do the work, then it's usually no longer handmade (in my opinion), it's lost that sense of artistic ownership. I look for people on Etsy who are truly practicing their craft. Someone who puts time and effort and most importantly, love, into their work. I don't go to Etsy for something that can mass-produced or easily created by other person. I buy there because you can have a piece of a true artist, if you're willing to search thru the dump of copycats to find that diamond in the rough.

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  5. this is a really good topic, it really bothers me as well when there are people on here selling mass produced items. There is a certain other cookie shop on etsy that is a big compettion for me that owns their own bakery and has lots of people to pop out cookies for them so they can charge less then me . That leaves me with less customers and people demanding i lower my prices because other people charge less. I barely make enough money to live right now if i lowered my prices i would be making nothing. That really bugs me since i bake,design,ice ,package,and ship everything myself with no help from anybody. These places should just get their own websites and stop using etsy in my opinion

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  6. To be honest, globally it should be really burning issue for Etsy to ensure their reputation as handmade platform for artisans and needs to be ruled out anyway. But I personally don’t bother too much over the topic since I have enough customers to get me to complete their orders in a way I have almost no time left for my family or myself. At this stage of my development, working on my own, I understand that it will be extremely hard to cope with an upcoming demand alone that is true rising every month. I am happy to have my own niche on Etsy. I don’t afraid any reseller or collective shop would eat my piece of pie.

    I think you don’t need to be bothered too much with retailers or larger collective shops on Etsy because your items are so distinguished not only here on Etsy but on world lingerie market scale as well. You win your customers because you items have your individual writing and no one can compete with this.

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    1. Thanks! I agree, if you have a unique product, you'll stand out.

      Etsy has become so popular that I can see how many sellers might have to resort to outsourcing some aspects of their business. I know for me, I have a hard time keeping up!

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  7. I don't think Etsy should limit their scope to either. Instead, I think they should be more honest. A designer or craftsman knows if they can be considered a collective or a soley handmade and they should be honest to their customer about which one they are. Like you said, there's nothing wrong with being considered a collective. It's when deception is involved that I get mad. Regardless, keep up the good work. I know your 100% handmade and I appreciate your hard work day in an day out!

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    1. Etsy has added a "made by me" or "made by a member of a collective" feature to the listing process, but I'm not 100% sure where shoppers can find that information. Collectives must list the members of the collective on the shop's about me page, but I think it should be in an easier place to see, and in the listing itself. It would also be a nice way for all the members of legitimate collectives to get the exposure they deserve :)

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  8. When I think of a collective shop, I'm thinking like 3 Etsy crafters, that come together to work on a project. Not that they should hire in other people to do the work for them. It should still be handmade by the designers.
    I stay away from shops that look like they are selling factory made goods, if it's too cheap & they have too many items, how can it be handmade?

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    1. I can see why Etsy hasn't put a limit on the number of people in a collective, but I am in the same boat as you, I see a true handmade collective consisting of a handful of people :)

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  9. As a shopper, I'm OK with a collective that is 'small'. I think the process is important: did one person do the same thing over-and-over again? or did one person do most of the crafting? As mentioned above, collectives of crafters do better working together, especially 'at home' women, than they do working alone.
    What I don't want to see on Etsy are off-shore products or domestic mass-produced items that low-ball prices and push out legit domestic makers. This past weekend at the Renegade craft fair here in L.A. a booth had handmade tooled leather handbags for only $70. The guy there admitted they were made "by a friend" in central America. Come on! I was there with another booth selling leather items where the maker sweated blood to produce items she could price under $100. I'm insulted that the Renegade team allowed a vendor to bring in low priced off-shore goods. The same thing goes with Etsy--don't position off shore makers or mass produced domestic items so they can under-price truly 'crafted' domestic ware, it just isn't cool.

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