Etsy Policy Updates: Redefining Handmade

Wednesday, October 2, 2013

Oh boy, this has been a tumultuous week for me.

Yesterday, Chad Dickerson, the CEO of Etsy announced some major changes to how sellers are allowed to run their shops on Etsy. I don't foresee it changing how I run my shop in the near future, but I do see it changing how I buy on Etsy.

Etsy started out with a simple mission - Etsy is a place to "Buy and sell handmade or vintage items, art and supplies..." "the world's most vibrant handmade marketplace.."  Previously, sellers could run what was known as a "collective" where multiple people helped in the production/fulfillment process.  Each member of the collective would have to be disclosed on the sellers About Me Page.  Some shops were also permitted to use "production assistance." At first, it was my understanding that this allowed sellers to outsource a step in their production process, so it would be OK for a jeweler to have a pendant cast by a 3rd party in a mold that they had made, or for a potter to send their work out to be fired, or a clothing maker to have fabric professional printed with a design that they created. As time went on, the lines started getting blurred and it was unclear how much of the process could be outsourced.

Here is what has changed:

1. Etsy Shop owners can now employ an infinite number of people.  When you are shopping on Etsy now, you may be buying from a shop like mine.  I do it all, though I do have a helper come in 1 day a week to help me cut garments.  You could also potentially be buying from a shop that employs 50 people, located in different parts of a world - a customer service rep in Canada, a shipper in USA, an embroider in India, etc, etc.  It is my understanding that shop employees must be disclosed on the seller's About Page. Being able to employ people, especially locally is important, and I understand Etsy's rational behind this decision, but what kind of jobs are being created by individual sellers is something that maybe should be considered.

2. Etsy Shop owners can have a factory produce their "handmade" items. Shops that use manufacturers to produce their goods must go through an application process, and disclose this on their About Page. The location of the factory must also be disclosed, but not the factory name.  If supporting artists and makers is important to you, or you are worried about where your items are coming from and if they are ethically made, you may have to do a little more research now.  

3. Etsy Shop owners can now drop ship packages.  Drop shipping means that the package either ships to you directly from the manufacturer, from a shipping center, or from any 3rd party shipper. This shouldn't impact buyers too much, other than the fact that the seller or "artist" may have never even touched the item you are about to receive, and to me, the process seems a little impersonal. However, I can see how this would be beneficial for some sellers, though it doesn't apply to me.

And here's the Big One:
4. Etsy has redefined the term "handmade." In order for something to be considered "Handmade" the selller must be able to demonstrate three things.
     a. Authorship - The handmade item must begin with you.
     b. Responsibilty - You must be able to demonstrate an understanding of the production process.
     c. Transparancy - You must be open and honest about your production process.

Etsy says they are making this change to help sellers, and I can see where they are coming from.  They don't want successful sellers to feel that they are "too successful" for Etsy, or to feel like they can't keep up with supply and demand with out using outside help. I get that. I get that employing people is important, and I favor that change.

But, I have a fundamental problem with the redefinition. Chad Dickerson says that Etsy is all about the story behind the purchase.  There is no interesting story in a supply/production chain.  There is an interesting story in a person that artfully crafts something by hand, who has mastered an art or skill, who can customize something to your liking, who can work directly with you to help create your vision or design something just for you.  

Here's the thing with this new policy change. I'm going to use my shop as a hypothetical example.  I could design a fancy pair of panties, by which I mean, I could come up with a technical illustration showing the seam lines, and details.  I could, theoretically, hand that to a designer to select and source fabrics and trims.  I could then hand my illustration to a pattern maker to draft & grade the pattern for me.  After that, I could send my pattern and materials to a factory in Bangledesh, and have them sew me 500 pieces.  I could then ship those items to a fulfillment center in the USA (where most of my orders ship), and have them ship out pieces as needed. I have still "designed" the garment, demonstrating authorship.  I understand the production process, and how to sew it, demonstrating responsibility.  I will disclose the location of the factory I use, and the name of my designer and pattern maker on my About Me Page, demonstrating transparency.  According to Etsy, my item is handmade.  

If I want to use a factory, I have will voluntarily submit to an application process and assure Etsy that I am not using child/slave/forced labour, and that I understand my production process. It is up to Etsy's discretion to approve or deny my application. Etsy will not audit factories or workrooms, it is up to the seller to choose a factory/workroom that is ethically run. A shop that does not disclose their production assistance, employees, or submit a manufacturing application, can be removed from Etsy if it is proven that they are violating the Terms of Use. However, there are currently many shops that do not disclose their use production assistance, or extent of "collective" help, despite the fact that those are the "rules", so I am slightly curious as to why Etsy thinks this will now change.  It will remain the responsibility of Etsy Users to flag shops that they suspect may be violating the terms of use.

We can debate to the moon and back what is "handmade" and what isn't, but I don't think anyone would consider the process I just described to be "handmade." But, in Etsy's attempt to make the guidelines more clear, I think they have become much more convoluted.  The scenario I described above fits exactly into Etsy's definition of Handmade.  It will be the buyers responsibility to read the sellers About Page to see exactly what goes into their "handmade" item.

I believe that there is a general understanding of what a handmade item is.  I asked my husband this morning, "If you ordered something off Etsy, under the impression that Etsy was a site to buy handmade or artisan goods, but and you received it and it had a 'Made in Taiwan' label, how would you feel?" He thought for a moment then said, "First, ripped off.  Second, lied to."

That's my thing. Etsy has sold itself to consumers as a handmade marketplace, and this expansion is deceptive. As a shop owner, I can see the desire to want to expand your business, but in my opinion Etsy can be a few things to shop owners, and is not a selling venue for everyone or every product.  It can be an excellent launching point for sellers whose goal is to one day manufacture on a larger scale - you can meet potential retailers, create a customer base, and establish a name.  It can also be an excellent venue for sellers who want to manufacture by hand on a smaller scale.  I suppose there is a potential third, and that would be how I envision my business: I'd like to have a line that I could sell wholesale, and I would outsource the production to a local workroom.  I would also have a Made to Order line that is made by me and sold exclusively on Etsy.  I would do that because there is retail demand that I cannot fulfill for my items.  Working through a workroom on a retail line would be an excellent way for me to do that. I would continue a handmade line because that is my passion.

I don't think the majority of sellers will go to the mass production route.  First, it takes money upfront, and I don't know many artists/craftspeople who just happen to have that type or cash on hand, or credit available.  Second, it takes a lot of time and planning to do any kind of production run, and most of the sellers I know (myself included), do not have the time to invest.  I know this because I have worked for small mom and pop companies that have done this, and I am looking/have looked into this for my own purposes.

I do think it will open the door to many designers and brands who have no hand in the production process. There is absolutely nothing wrong with being that kind of designer! But, to me, there is something deceptive about selling that item as a "handmade" item. 

This is going to change the playing field.  Every shop owner has certain advantages and disadvantages, but before it felt fairly even. In my case, living in a very small town, I don't have many skilled people I can easily employ.  I am morally opposed to outsourcing my production overseas, yet finding a local workroom to sew lingerie at a price I can afford, is a huge challenge for me. A seller living in Brooklyn has more opportunity to hire a seamstress, or find a local workroom.  I have to admit, I'm feeling some unwanted pressure to outsource, outsource, outsource (or move, move, move!), and I am not entirely sure how I can stay relevant, based on Etsy's new Guidelines.

The spirit of Etsy is changing.  This is the thing that makes me the most sad.  I felt nurtured as an independent maker on Etsy, and I don't feel that way anymore; none of the changes really help me, as an independent maker who likes being an independent maker.  Prior to yesterday, I felt like I could run a successful business out of a small studio in little Orillia, Ontario, Canada, working with my hands, and now I feel worried that soon I won't be able to compete this way anymore.  I hope these are just fears I am feeling, and I hope they do not become justified.  

I love Etsy, but I can't agree with all of these policy changes, and as someone who pays fees each month to be a vendor there, I feel I have a right to express those concerns.  Lately, I feel like we've been getting a lot of corporate double speak (if I hear the word "transparency" one more time...), but no real answers to many questions, or fixes to the problems that seller have been asking for for years (accurate shipping calculators, anyone?).  At the Town Hall, Chad Dickerson started out the discussion talking about how different Etsy is, how it's like no other marketplace.  If it's so different, why have they instated an Amazon/Ebay-inspired rating system for products? If Etsy is unlike any other website, why does it now strongly resemble Pinterest? How does including mass-produced items make Etsy any different from Modcloth, or Ebay, just as two examples? What makes Etsy Different now? That's something I'm really struggling with.  

I would love to hear your thoughts on the redefinition of "handmade," or the marketing of "handmade."


  1. I have not yet read the updated policy. I am only a vintage pattern seller at this time so it does not really apply to my shop. I am upset as a buyer of items on Etsy, I like the idea of supporting a small artist and business. This is one of the things that is different than purchasing on eBay and stores like mod cloth. Like you I am disappointed with this new policy.

  2. Sarah - I am hopeful that you won't have much to worry about because your product is SO wonderful and you have such a following but I also have many of your fears. I feel like Etsy has lost what made it special and unique and now is not much different than other online marketplaces. I have a hard time wading through the garbage on Etsy sometimes to find the really unique and quality handmade there. They pay lip service to their sellers but it seems like they are only really committed to their large, questionably handmade sellers.

  3. The policy changes will absolutely change the playing field. I've been a single-maker shop owner on Etsy since 2008. The "handmade movement" and the work that people like you, Sarah, & me, and many others like us, have done for years is what has made Etsy successful. There was a twitter post yesterday that said that Etsy was soon to become nothing more than an online "Pier 1" selling platform. I think that this is, unfortunately and sadly, true. Buyers, myself included, will need to really educate themselves about the shops that they are considering supporting.

  4. As a fellow seller on Etsy (may I plug Trouble & Strumpet?), I fully agree with you on this. I fear an influx of mass-produced items - already there were enough dubious shops selling clothes via suspiciously catalogue-like photo shoots, with too many colour & size options to be genuinely handmade. They can sell at much lower prices, & undermine the whole ethos of the handmade marketplace.
    Time to look at alternatives, I fear.

  5. Oh my. I am really glad you posted this. I had not heard that they made these changes. This will make it much more of a pain to confidently buy things from etsy. Very disappointing. Doesn't make them much better than ebay.

  6. Wow! The new Etsy policies have dramatically changed Etsy and not for the better. In my mind, an item designed by one person and then out sources for production is not handmade. The feature that made Etsy unique in the online marketplace is now gone. When I'm shopping for a handmade item, I want to know that it is in fact just that. I don't want to have to do research to determine if a sellers items are handmade on a website that purports to be the marketplace for handmade items. This change effects buyer and seller alike. It changes the playing field, for sellers, by allowing for increased competition from companies the a true handmade artisan likely does not have the financial resources to compete against. How do I find your truly wonderful handmade lingerie among the listings that have now quadrupled because a company that mass produces "handmade" lingerie has a portion of their staff solely dedicated to posting mass listings? I'm truly disappointed.

  7. Excellent post Sarah. I've been an Etsy fan since I was around 17 or 18, but didn't start buying until well into adulthood. I always loved Etsy because it was a place where I felt I could know how my items were being made and who was making them. It was a personal way to shop, and I still prefer handmade to mass-produced. I can definitely understand your worries about staying relevant, however, remember that people like you (and me, and many of your customers) like your shop and like Etsy *because* we want handmade items that are truly made by hand. I don't believe those people will sell-out, so to speak. I think the ones who like Etsy for what it was will stay loyal to the brands and the vibe that they feel Etsy should still have. Possibly *new* customers or people shopping on Etsy for a "deal" (bubble necklaces galore!) might pass up a truly handmade shop for a new outsourced one, but I think the customer target market you really want and already do have, will continue to support you. I know I will. Please let me know what I can do to help promote you on my blog and also if you decide o make your own e-commerce website and leave Etsy (or open one + keep your Etsy account) let me know so I can keep my readers abreast of the info!


  8. I think you hit the nail on the head here! I think it -could- be a good thing for authors, musicians and indie designers but honestly, there are places like Storenvy where you can sell whatever you want. I see etsy quickly turning into an ebay junk pile, sadly

  9. I wholeheartedly agree with your sentiments, Sarah. Etsy has been changing for a long time, and not for the better. This new definition of handmade opens the floodgates for Etsy's shareholders, but appears as though it will drown its artisans (in the truest sense of the word) out. If "handmade" becomes redefined in a broader sense by Etsy through these moves, it could become as useless as "natural" or "green." Sigh.

  10. We should probably be thanking Etsy for the wake- call. I've had a shop on Etsy for about a year, but have been too focused on trying to succeed to pay much attention to people in the forums complaining about factory made items and re- sellers. But as I watched Etsy's Town Hall on Tuesday it became crystal clear that Etsy is no longer about providing a platform for individual artists and artisans. Sure they want our money, and to use us as window dressing, but behind the scenes they're laughing at the losers who are afraid of "competition" and like to eat at Red Lobster. The new "transparency" is another lie they think they can put over on us naive and uninformed little people. I read the New York Times just like some of the Etsy executives, and I know that it's nearly impossible to ensure that factories in China and some other countries are following fair, legal, or humane labor practices. And of course tough guy CEO, Chad, would "hang up" if Ikea called because that would be too obviously selling out for anyone to ignore! But the reality is that if Ikea wants to be on Etsy it wouldn't be against Etsy's new guidelines as long as they are "transparent."

    But it is nice to know where I stand with the Etsy Administration. I've always found all the warm, fuzzy Etsy community stuff at least somewhat cloying and ingenuous, but now that I've gotten a glimpse of the utter hypocrisy that is underlying it, I won't be buying into any of it anymore. I'm keeping my Etsy shop for the time being at least, but opening another one on

  11. Good for you, Sarah, to have expressed so eloquently what so many of us are feeling.

    One of the things that made me very uncomfortable during the Town Hall Meeting was the 'I’m hearing that you're afraid of competition' comment. Discomfort with having the definition of 'handmade' changed to potentially incorporate outside manufacturers, assemblers and distributors is not necessarily about being afraid of competition. I think it’s more a fear of being buried and of losing recognition for what we do.

    For some of us, true creativity requires being as connected as possible with what we are making. Several years ago, I ran a greeting card business full-time. All my cards were based on my paintings. I did the big trade shows in Toronto and Montreal. I did the NY Stationery Show. I had sales reps in Canada and U.S. I sold my cards to stores across North America. I did it for seven years. Parts of the business were exhilarating but, in the end, what I found was happening was that I was painting less and less. I was doing more managing than anything else. The whole reason I had started my business was to make a living from my painting. And I was barely painting anymore. I had achieved a certain level of success but it wasn't satisfying to me as an artist.

    When I opened my Etsy shop two years ago, I thought I had figured out a solution. I would paint originals and reproduce my work myself. Etsy provided a way to reach an international audience while I did what I love. I still want to sell more than I am right now but I don't want to lose touch with what it is that makes me happy. For me, painting is the key to that. I really hope that Etsy will not belittle those of us who are staying small to be true to our own creative spirit. What we do is unique and brave and should be celebrated.

    1. I agree Kathleen - I am not so worried about competition. I'm pretty established. I'm worried about integrity.

      Thank you for sharing your perspective on balancing art vs business. I think that's something that many of us struggle with. Not all of us want to be big companies; for some of us it's really about the "making."

  12. The sad fact is that etsy is a business and they have all the pressures of one, and that includes making money. I'm not saying what they're doing is right, it's a d*ck move by any definition, but I'm not surprised. I get the feeling a handmade cooperative may have the chance to keep it's ideals but a company will struggle. At least I know now to be more careful who I buy from.

  13. I guess sellers who do everything from start to finish are going to be a lot more specific in their shop announcements, profiles, etc, to set them apart from sellers who outsource their work. Then the buyer can decide if it bothers them that their handmade item is made not by the hands of the shop owner but some unknown elsewhere, quite possibly someone the seller has never even met.

  14. I am so happy to have found your shop and now your blog! Thank you...
    I am also very pleased to see how you expressed yourself openly about the new "changes" on Etsy.
    I believe "changes" can be good... but not always...
    I love competition...
    it makes us stay honest, in our prices and how we make it (quality).
    However what bothers me as a seamstress in Country western style clothing and wedding gowns...
    Is that I see a lot of mass - produced gowns from overseas almost everywhere on Etsy....
    Offering their gowns for almost what I pay on my materials, gas.
    And on top of that... shipping for them is very very cheap. (for us it is not).
    Also... I can not see how the company overseas works... It is hard to check when they are in Tailand or China.
    And we all know that there is a lot of child labor involved in those type of countries....
    Many people have a hard time buying something overseas or even in the US that is quite "up" there price wise over the internet.
    And here I am reading many reviews of those "overseas" shops on Etsy... Many clients are not so happy with the garment as they should be... I have even read one comment from a client that she will not ever buy "handmade over the internet" any more, but will just walk into a store from now.
    Seams that fall apart... shipping that took "forever"!
    Just a few examples.
    I myself am like you...
    I can not afford hiring helpers... I also live in a very expensive State... (Something that will change in February - hooray!
    I started sewing on my kitchen table and am now working in my "converted" garage...
    Sometimes I can not keep up easily with the demand... However I love the work pressure and am amazed every time I get it done...
    Just a couple of minds ago I had to post on my shop a larger turn-around time...
    Honest is honest... it was getting busier and busier.
    I make all the clothes myself.
    So I had to take a step back.
    Guess what I am also trying to say..."will a business that hands work out to get their "handmade" items listed on Etsy" ever step back? NO of course not... they can just keep on producing because they mass produce.
    I personally think it is not fairly balanced anymore...
    That is in my eyes not the definition of handmade...
    Just as those high amounts of plastic Iphone covers that I spotted on Etsy not too long ago.
    When they are offered at under $7.00 a cover and there are hundreds of them...
    I hear a little bell ring inside my head.
    I just hope that Etsy will push on the bell before it turns into a monster.

    Just as a previous commenter: I will be more careful when I purchase on Etsy from now on.
    And that is sad.

    Thanks for giving us the chance to vent on this part.
    It was very uplifting to get the opportunity to do so.

    (I just became a follower of your shop and your blog! I love them both)


  15. You have to keep it real. If you are creative and become disabled, I do not want my family to suffer on the account of me. If I know that someone can assist me in my retirement or aging process, then I'm grateful


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