Artisans, Stand Down

11.08.13

Etsy Changed Its Policy. So What?

Discord has swept the online marketplace, and many artisans fear the entry of big retailers. But one designer says they’re looking at this all wrong.

Etsy and I have been dance partners for seven years. After reading an article about shopping local in 2006, I became a devotee of the online, artisan marketplace. So when I decided to launch my own stationery company in 2009, my choice of selling platform was simple. As I posted items and built my online Etsy shop, I dreamed of working for the company. After a six-month internship in their “Seller Education” department, I left for Japan to learn papermaking, hoping to add a new skill to my growing business.

Needless to say, I’ve had a long love affair with the site. In October, Etsy announced a change to its guidelines that opens the door for artists to hire outside help, including employees, production manufacturers, and people to handle logistics. The new rules quickly sent a shockwave of unrest through the artisan community, who worried that manufacturing companies would now be able to move in, and the smaller creators would be pushed out. But this is a misguided assessment; this change will actually help smaller businesses.

Etsy’s rules of use have always been a little bit confusing. When I started using Etsy, it was known for one thing: “handmade.” While it also allowed vendors who sold vintage wares or supplies for crafting, it primarily positioned itself as the go-to marketplace for all goods crafted entirely by hand. The policy was strict in what qualified as “handmade”: the artisans had to be the owners, creators, and doers of everything in their shops. A lot of makers, like me, thought you could not have any assistance at all; your best friend helping you cut out a purse pattern—against Etsy’s rules. But not everyone agreed or followed these firm guidelines.

In a detailed explanation of the new policy, CEO Chad Dickerson’s admitted that, as a company, Etsy has been struggling to define “what is handmade.” They began testing the waters for change by introducing “about” pages last spring. On this page, shop owners can tell their stories, show pictures of themselves making their products, and list friends or family members who contribute to their businesses. There have always been husband and wives, mothers and daughters, and friend teams that create an idea and run a shop together on Etsy. This was an effort to let sellers have more control and transparency over their stories and products, but also to loosen the company’s definition of “handmade.”

Take my own shop, for example. I own a stationery company that focuses mostly on custom orders. When I get an order for 100 pieces, I have them printed by a digital printing company in Manhattan. When I first opened my business, I had a laptop and a desk-top printer. I made every single piece of stationery in that little printer and ended up with smudged ink and hours lost fighting with paper jams. After about six months, I gave up and enlisted the help of professionals.

Because I use an external printing company, I technically do not make anything entirely by hand. But I do still belong on Etsy. Even if I’ve enlisted the help of printers with better equipment, I finish each piece myself. I sew, glue, glitter, cut, and tie numerous things onto my products to make the final creation. And the time I spend designing, whether that is sketching out ideas or creating a design in illustrator or Photoshop, is part of that process. The true definition of “handmade” is in the ownership of the product; it’s in the inspiration and design, in the production choices, and most importantly the love and passion that the artist puts into each piece.  

Rather than hurting small artisans like me, Etsy’s new policy gives small businesses the resources they need to grow and still remain a part of the site. Etsy opened an opportunity for me that would have taken countless more hours and dollars to do on my own. Under the old policy, my business could have grown, aided by their marketplace; but once I got too big, I would have had to leave the site. That would have been a loss for my business and for Etsy, who needs the strength of expanding companies to fuel its own growth.

What was once a small niche marketplace has grown into one of the largest shopping platforms in the world. I see Etsy as, yes, a place to find “handmade” goods, but also a place to find truly unique goods in the larger consumer market. I enjoy going on Etsy and finding items that speak to me and that reveal the personality of the artist in every detail of the products.  Etsy has sparked a conversation on how we shop, what we buy, why we should buy locally, or directly, from artists and craftsmen, and also how we can continue this on a larger scale.  As my business grows, I intend to keep a hand in every product, but I also know that it may be the hand of an assistant helping me glue, glitter, and tie bows or a paid intern photographing and updating my Etsy listings.  

I think Etsy is an amazing community and marketplace. I understand the frustration of sellers who think that these changes are going to hurt their businesses. It is easy to think that as Etsy grows and changes, it is shifting away from its small-business core. But this is a misguided fear. Etsy was created to fill an opening in the handmade goods market, and that market is still thriving. This policy change should be a catalyst for sellers to think about their products and businesses and decide how they want to move them forward.