Meet the Unseen Workforce That Stitches Etsy Together
Samantha Close's documentary, "I am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers," takes a deep look at the largely invisible world of Etsy workers.
The people who make their living selling goods on Etsy probably aren't who you think they are. Like so many digital brands, the company's preferred image—which it imagines to be something of a whimsical pastiche of progressive stay-at-home moms selling crocheted mittens and creative hipsters slinging ironic artisanal wares—betrays a complex ecosystem of laborers who rely on the company, in varying degrees, for income.
As Etsy's initial public offering has valued the crafting marketplace at $3.5 billion, it's worth taking a closer look at the workers who have helped build the company—indirectly, by calloused, sometimes over-worked hand—into the major corporation it is today.
Samantha Close is a researcher at the University of Southern California, where she investigates the lives of Etsy's real-life, largely invisible workforce. She produced an ethnographic documentary, "I am Handmade: Crafting in the Age of Computers," that compiles interviews with 40 Etsy workers; it was recently presented at this year's Screening Scholarship Media Festival at the University of Pennsylvania. We're pleased to offer the film's online debut at Motherboard.
The film pulls away the veil on the real life struggles and achievements of real life Etsy workers, and examines the boons and burdens of working for the company—the website gives thousands an opportunity to make a living or earn extra cash doing what they love, but also thrusts them into a precarious environment with long hours, no benefits, and keeps them at the whims of Etsy's policies.
Many workers depicted in the film have a pronounced love/hate relationship with Etsy, and aren't shy about it; they work 10-12 hours a day, incur repetitive motion injuries, and barely make enough income to support themselves. On a whole, the average Etsy laborer depicted appears to experience an occasionally rewarding, often anxiety-laden livelihood.
In some ways, this is the same risk/reward calculation anyone has to make when starting a new business, but Etsy is profiting off the quality of these workers' wares, and benefiting from their labor. So might things change now that Etsy has officially entered the big leagues? What is going on behind the scenes when you order that custom recut vintage t-shirt or that handmade coozie? Close's film offers some answers, as well as a window into the emotional toll Etsy imparts on its legion of fans, adherants, and dependants.
For further context, I conducted an email interview with Close, and she eloquently expands upon the promise of Etsy, the future of work, and how we craft in the computer age.
Motherboard: First, some background on the film: Why Etsy? What drew you to this subject, what was your methodology, and how many subjects did you interview for the project?
Samantha Close: Etsy, and crafting more generally, kept my interest in large part because it is a cultural field dominated by women. It's unusual in most industries of creative production, and even more so in small business, for women to be the norm rather than the exception. It's important to tell stories of exclusion and marginalization, but it's equally important to start breaking down the idea of "women" as a monolith. Using Etsy and crafting culture as my field lets me analyze how different arrangements of work function for women of different ethnicities, professional backgrounds, and ages.
My research is on-going, but for the film I did extended interviews with forty crafters. Many of these lived in and around Los Angeles, where I am in graduate school, but I also met many people through the Etsy website itself and was able to travel and meet them in locales as widespread as the St. Louis suburbs; Brooklyn, NY; Nantucket Island; Raleigh, NC; and rural Tennessee. My primary methodology for this project was visual ethnography, and so I filmed most of my interviews, experiences at craft fairs or around the Etsy offices, and my own experiences attempting to run an Etsy shop.
What did you learn over the course of your research that surprised you most about the world of Etsy workers?
One thing that really startled me was how few mothers I met. There's a stereotype of the Etsy worker as a stay-at-home mom crafting and selling as a hobby or one who left the corporate world and is now trying to make a living via working at home with her children. In reality, this work takes a lot of time. I found more couples who referred to their Etsy shops as their baby than those who went into crafting work after having an actual baby. Even working at home, there's almost never enough time to do both—particularly when the crafters travel to craft fairs and art shows as well as selling online. This is not to say that I didn't meet parents—I certainly did. But their children tended to be grown and out of the house or they had support networks of family to help care for the kids.
On the flip side, I was surprised how many, for lack of a better word, family businesses I found. Several of the crafters I met worked with sisters, cousins, spouses, and other family members. One of my favorite moments from the fieldwork that didn't make it into the film was Nicky, who works in her sister Dani's crochet toy shop, telling me that it hit her one day that "I work for my dad and my little sister!" For Dani and Nicky, who also work in their family's music store, the traditional models of school and work make it difficult for families to spend time together and bond.
I hadn't anticipated this family connection, but the sisters' sentiment was shared by many, from the Mexican-American crafters of Piñata Legends, whose family have been making piñatas for three generations, to the full-time crafting couple behind Son of a Sailor out of Austin, TX, who actually courted long-distance by exchanging crafts each had made for the other. Of course, living and working together with family also causes tensions and fights, but in the world of mechanized "please stay on the line, your call is important to us" corporate relations, I was impressed by the fierce dedication of Etsy workers to community. Along these lines, another of my favorite fieldwork moments that just couldn't make it into the film was Son of a Sailor's William telling me that his ideal company would be no bigger than a group he could take out for beers after work.
These Etsy workers are great examples of young people toiling in the so-called New Economy; doing precarious, temporary work on a freelance basis. What does your research teach us about the way the economy is evolving, and the future of work?
The broad arc of that story is that the working world of the New Economy is extremely precarious and difficult to sustain, but the only way out is forward. What people sometimes now remember as a golden age of lifetime employment with full health benefits in a corporation or factory, where one Mr. Cleaver working 9-5 could provide for his whole family, was only ever available to a small segment of the population.
Precarious, freelance-style working environments where people must string together multiple part-time jobs (and often government benefits) to survive have long been a reality for migrant workers and those employed by the service economy ofWalmarts and fast food. I'm sometimes asked if the precarity of the New Economy is because most of the work, like crafting, is creative work that lots of people would like to do, thus driving wages and benefits down. It's not. It's poor working conditions trickling up. This is a major reason that even crafters I spoke with who have trouble keeping the lights on or have suffered injuries through their crafting do not want to return to what are derisively called "real jobs." Almost all jobs right now are precarious—so why not try to do something you love?
What I see as positive about the contemporary economy is the realization that work people enjoy doing often creates products and services that are culturally and economically valuable, particularly in intellectual property industries or really anywhere that workers can act with autonomy and showcase their style. Because really, how much doTPS reports andISO 9000 certifications contribute to meaningful national productivity? Doing workyou know is meaningless is deeply alienating and, particularly in the majority of jobs where the fruits of your hard work do not accrue to you, there is actually a disincentive to care about or invest in your labor. What I heard over and over again while doing this project is that workers want to care. As people increasingly strike out on their own in the New Economy, the American dream of "the pursuit of happiness" becomes possible in a way it was not before.
Etsy is booming. It's about to go public [at the time of the interview, it had not yet completed its IPO]—how might that impact the community of workers who make it possible? Do they stand to benefit? Should they? What kind of responsibility do you think Etsy has to its workforce, if any? These crafters and small business owners are providing the labor that has allowed it to prosper. Should Etsy provide benefits or any other assistance to its community?
There is so much uncertainty involved with Etsy's future as a public corporation that I'm reluctant to try and play fortune-teller. But I do strongly believe that the crafting communities that make Etsy possible—and the company's employees—should benefit from a successful IPO. Like most Web 2.0 companies, Etsy is valuable because it is a co-creation. The corporate platform is useless without the crafting community who buys and sells on the site. Crafters have a much better shot at making a living by their craft when the community has a corporation to maintain and publicize a platform dedicated to them. Both contribute greatly to a virtual space that has affective and aesthetic resonance. The intensity of this relationship is one thing that might actually be new about the "New Economy." To their credit, Etsy's IPO filing makes the particular importance of their crafting seller community clear. The company has also set aside shares in their IPO specifically to be offered to individuals, people from the community who aren't set up with brokers and "wealth management" teams. That said, I'm skeptical that the importance of the co-creative relationship is expressed in setting aside only 5% of the shares.
One thing that will be interesting about this IPO is the reaction of the financial world to a public B-Corporation. "B" in this case stands for "Benefit," and it is a special certification for corporations that consider and prioritize the social and environmental consequences of their actions, emphasizing sustainability over short-term profit. Financial press and the company's IPO filing classify this as a "risk factor" for potential investors. On the flip side, many academics I talk with are deeply skeptical about how much "benefit" actually accrues to communities and the environment versus how much being a B-Corporation does for Etsy's PR. I'm not in either camp. What I do think is that in a time where corporations are increasingly taking over more and more of what used to be government-provided public services, any steps towards making corporate social responsibility an actual responsibility are steps in the right direction.
I do believe that Etsy and other companies like it should do more to provide benefits for their communities. One of the biggest areas here is health care. In the United States, healthcare is overwhelmingly tied to having a corporate employer or being closely related to someone who does.
Not having health care—particularly when crafting and other artistic work depends so strongly on the state of your hands, eyes, and back—is a major contributor to precarious employment. I speculate that it also has an impact on the lack of couples who begin families while crafting. You can give yourself maternity leave, but there are not affordable options for "giving yourself" pre-natal and childbirth care. Companies like Etsy who have a large, core seller base could set up subsidized health insurance pools under the same logic by which corporations and universities insure their employees and students. Alternatively, they could contribute to public health insurance programs, like Obamacare, to make its services more affordable or comprehensive for the crafters who make their business possible.
Another important place where it would make sense for Etsy to provide benefits to the crafting community is in the realm of copyright. There are thriving communities of fan crafters on the site who remix popular culture in their work. Sometimes Etsy even features such work, for example curating a list of Arrested Development crafts before the show re-launched in 2013. Most of this work is protected by fair use. But Etsy's current policies and procedures for handling copyright complaints heavily favor corporations and put the burden of proving a fair use claim on the crafters themselves.
The same crafters who are working 80+ hour weeks just to stay stable. The result is much as you would imagine. Crafters also have very little realistic recourse to battle appropriation of their work by others, including those same media companies as well as other crafters and outside manufacturers. Some of the crafters I've met have formed groups and seek legal advice collectively or depend on friends or family members who are lawyers. These are necessary measures, but they're also stopgap ones. Providing benefits like these would be a powerful incentive for crafters to work with the Etsy platform rather than with competitors and also help the whole Etsy ecosystem be more stable and sustainable.
What are the biggest benefits of Etsy? How would you describe its positive impact, its chief innovation?
As Tami, a ceramics artist in the film, says, "existing—I like that." Etsy is perhaps the best example among e-commerce platforms of a company that understood and catered to a particular culture rather than aiming for the mass market. This distinguishes it sharply, for instance, from eBay, Amazon, and Alibaba. There's no natural or immediately obvious reason why handmade goods, vintage items, and craft supplies, which are the three categories under which an item can be sold on Etsy, ought to go together. The resonance between these categories comes from the crafting culture that existed before and will continue to exist after Etsy: belief in making things yourself (handmade), belief in building community relationships through exchange (craft supplies), and belief in the importance of the history and sustainability of material culture (vintage). I think some of that spirit of exchange and community lives on in the company's creation of a large bank of resources for crafters to learn about search engine optimization, best practices for taking photographs for the site, and basic business practices like the difference between wholesale and market price that, in truth, make up for a woeful gap in contemporary education. Etsy also encourages its employees to give back to the sellers, for instance by providing an allowance for employees to buy crafted items from the site to decorate their desks, and in commissioning art for its events and offices from Etsy sellers rather than outside firms.
At its best, Etsy makes opening a small business doing what you love achievable for people who would not have otherwise had that opportunity. Opening an Etsy shop does not require applying for a bank loan or venture capital, and it is much, much less expensive than operating a booth or stall at most craft fairs or art shows. Both of these have traditionally been major barriers for people who do not grow up in wealthy or already small-business households. As the film shows, many of the crafters I spoke with were truly shocked that people who did not know them—or even people who did—would find value in their work. How many times have you heard the joke about getting a lumpy knitted sweater from Grandma for your birthday? For better or for worse, our contemporary culture is a capitalistic one in which worth, even self-worth, is often measured in monetary terms. Etsy offers women, in particular, an avenue to gaining that sense of worth and the opportunity to be autonomous that is often denied them in other working environments.
Etsy is not always its best. And I argue that some of the experiences in "real jobs" crafters told me about—like a grown woman having to ask co-workers "May I go to the bathroom?" while minding a receptionist desk—are beyond the pale of how any workplace should operate. The idea that a New Economy exists where the tensions between freelancers, companies, and employees have been worked out, all labor is meaningful to those who do it, and opportunity is equally available to all is propaganda. But the struggle towards that world is not a lost cause. It is one of the defining political challenges of today. It's worth fighting for.
Almost all the people you interview seem to have a love/hate relationship with the company. They love their craft but are stressed and overworked, and beholden to Etsy's policies. What could the company do to change that?
Yes—with the company and with their crafting work itself. One of the cruelest ironies of working for yourself is that crafters often become their own nightmare bosses, pushing themselves to work more hours for less pay than any company could get away with. (Well, maybe except Walmart. And universities who depend on adjunct professors. But you see the point.) Burnout is a serious problem, even—and perhaps even more so—when you enjoy what you're doing. Taking breaks and maintaining some spaces of life that are not a part of your work is not lazy or "unproductive," it's essential.
The problem of overwork and time stress is not unique to Etsy and contemporary craft. It's a tension that stretches back through the history of crafting. One way this has traditionally been handled is via mechanization and the division of labor between those who design and those who construct. The motivation for these changes, however, was usually not a concern for the crafters. It was a concern for profit. And with it came depressingly predictable divisions between (male) artists who design and (female) seamstresses who construct, the (high class) artisans who make by hand and the (working class) laborers who mind the machines. The contemporary resurgence of handmade and artisan work is deeply philosophically opposed to these divisions, and for good reason.
Despite the centrality of Etsy, many contemporary crafters refuse on principle to sell their work or to create on commission, keeping craft and commerce entirely separate in part to preserve their love of craft. When I've visited physical craft fairs, just as many transactions happen through barter as through exchanging money and goods. For crafters who want—or need—to make a sustainable living through their work, however, these principled alternatives and refusals can just look like privilege. Communities are not homogenous groups, and this is a big fault line within crafting today.
During my fieldwork for this film, Etsy made a policy change that ran headlong into these debates. In October 2013, the company announced they were changing how the site defines "handmade" in order to allow sellers to use outside manufacturers to produce products the sellers had designed, so long as the sellers were open about their process and used only ethical manufacturers. There was a firestorm of controversy on the site, and a large number of crafters left Etsy entirely or opened up new shops on other platforms like Zibbet or Artfire.
Just like the community, I am myself split on the policy. The film shows the pain and unhappiness of crafters trying to make a living with their work who no longer have the time to design and create now work but must focus all their energy on re-producing their best-selling items. Those are material needs that can't be ignored. But I also clearly see the danger in ignoring the lessons of crafting history, which clearly show that mechanization and factory outsourcing are often paths to much worse working environments, rather than better. I believe there is value, creativity, autonomy, and joy in making each thing with your hands, even if the general outline for each "thing" is the same. This is particularly true if you have multiple sources of income, even if crafting is a substantial part of that.
This is not an easy problem for Etsy—or crafting communities—to solve. Communities are never homogeneous, and Etsy's is no different. But this problem is not going away. To fulfill its potential, Etsy needs to take its status as a co-created ecosystem more seriously. I wonder, for instance, how much adding a new "Designed By" category to the site, alongside handmade, vintage, and craft supplies, rather than altering how the handmade category operates, would have alleviated the problem. Although Etsy does frequently email sellers and gather input in the form of surveys and focus groups, these efforts are still far too one-way and reminiscent of consumer marketing rather than negotiation and discussion between partners. Right now, as Gary, a silver jewelry crafter in the film, told me, Etsy treats it sellers more like employees, but with none of the employee benefits. The relationship between company and community is a collaboration, and that collaboration will not work if the company believes it knows more and better than the community does or only hears those who already agree with it.
You're an advocate for a guaranteed income—how did your time with these Etsy workers shape your thinking around the issue?
I am. I think the guaranteed income would go a long way towards solving the problems of overwork and precarity we've been discussing here. Theguaranteedincome is basically a small amount of money that an adult citizen is guaranteed to receive each month. It might sound like a pie-in-the-sky idea, but the program already being put to a national popular referendum in Scandinavia and, as the links above note, has a long history in experimental programs around the world.
What my time with Etsy workers and my larger research into creativity and meaningful work suggests is that a guaranteed income would greatly increase our ability to create innovative, artistic, valuable cultural production. Without a stable base income that allows workers the freedom to tinker, design, develop, and occasionally fail, the cost of creating new things is simply too high. Etsy workers are effectively forced to make the same mugs and dresses they designed before they quit their day jobs over and over again because they are dependent on that one piece of intellectual property. This is not the way to grow a productive, innovative economy or a vibrant culture.
Many today rightly laud DIY, open-source culture as vital to the establishment of the internet. This culture, however, was actually dependent on a kind of guaranteed income. The scientists who developed the technical basis for the internet were all employed in think tanks and government research labs, which provided the stable financial base for their experimentation. The 60's counterculture that gave us incredible music and art as well as progress towards social justice, and from which many strands of contemporary crafting draw their roots, was also dependent on a kind of guaranteed income.
Communes, artistic experiments, and full-time activists depended on financial contributions from families and wider social networks. The problem with all of this is that it acts to restrict opportunity to those already securely in place. A public guaranteed income gives that opportunity to passionate people without those privileged backgrounds. For workers like the crafters in my film and whom I have met throughout my research, their limitations don't stem from a lack of creativity, drive, skill, or passion. They stem from precarity and a lack of basic benefits needed for a sustainable life.