From Etsy to Sweatsy
How a handmade mecca went from part of a movement to part of the problem.
Image: John Foley
How a handmade mecca went from part of a movement to part of the problem.
Etsy, the former crafter's paradise and home to all things distressed, repurposed and covered in cat hair, recently announced its initial public offering (IPO). What was once a lower-case wonderland of menstrual art and Scrabble tiles is now about to be publicly traded company, bringing ukelele music and neckbeards to Wall Street.
If you're an investor, you might be wondering if Etsy is a good fit for your portfolio. In fact, you may have a lot of questions about the site, like, "What's with all the chalkboard paint?" "How many of these Disney products are actually licensed?" And, "Has anyone ever bought a Keep Calm and Ask a Librarian T-shirt?"
While we'll never know the answers to some of these questions, we can provide insight into the life and death of Etsy's handmade dream. Here then, are a few Q & A's that may not be covered in the prospectus.
1. Who is Etsy?
That's a toughie. Even Etsy doesn't know who it is anymore. Maybe we should start with who it was.
At first, Etsy was "the world's most vibrant handmade marketplace." It had only one rule for selling there: Everything must be handmade by you. It was a brilliant idea, flawlessly executed. The Etsy aesthetic massaged the same pleasure centers as Martha Stewart and Restoration Hardware, evoking the joy of beautiful, easy living. But unlike those mammoth corporations, Etsy was able to assert a subtle moral authority, positioning handmade as the more ethical choice.
2. So Etsy got where it is today by selling handmade merchandise?
Hardly. Etsy's "handmade-only" rule went down the drain faster than a cold soy latte. For all its chest thumping about conscious consumerism and the handmade ethos, Etsy had to face the fact that it was never going to be a billion dollar company selling potholders and bedazzled tampon cozies. Especially since most of its "sellers" were not, in fact, selling. All they were contributing to Etsy's coffers were 20¢ listing fees. That's not going to take you from Williamsburg to Wall Street.
Clearly, Etsy had to add some other kind of merchandise to its marketplace. It couldn't be handmade, but it had to jibe with the Etsy culture. In another masterstroke, it hit on the idea of allowing crafting supplies and vintage goods on the site.
It was a smart move. But even with these additional revenue streams, Etsy wasn't moving fast enough. It was going to have to show some spectacular growth to lure investors to the table.
And that's when Etsy decided to allow factory-made goods into its vibrant handmade marketplace.
3. How did the Etsy community react to the announcement?
Etsy didn't make an announcement. In fact, Etsy denied that mass-produced merchandise was being allowed in, even as the site was being flooded with it. The company coyly introduced an "Integrity Team," and encouraged users to "report suspicious items." Meanwhile, in a stunning display of duh, Etsy CEO Chad Dickerson published a list of his favorite "handmade" Etsy finds, including a factory-made robot watch being sold by the thousands on Ebay.
It was not an easy time for Etsy. Furiously promoting factory merchandise while expressly forbidding it takes gymnastic talent not seen since Kerri Strug stuck the landing. But it soldiered on, making ridiculous exceptions for any reseller it wanted to work with.
One now-famous incident involved a furniture maker profiled as an "Etsy success story." It didn't take long for the internet to figure out that the woman shown sketching designs in her Malibu studio was actually a distributor for a manufacturer in Indonesia. Within hours, pictures surfaced of laborers building the very furniture Etsy claimed she made herself. When sellers overwhelmed the site with complaints, Etsy hastily rebranded her "a collective," and closed the comments.
4. Now that Etsy welcomes resellers on the site, has it changed its mission statement?
Yes and no. Etsy continues to wordsmith, unflinchingly playing both sides in an effort to preserve the narrative:
"Etsy is a marketplace focused on handmade or vintage items and supplies, as well as unique factory-manufactured items you can't find anywhere else."
I can only hope this language makes it into the commercials Etsy is sure to produce in the near future.
MUSIC UP: DIDO
VIDEO: A little girl chases fireflies in slow motion
SARAH JESSICA PARKER: Etsy is your one-stop shop for mass-produced one-of-a-kind merchandise you can't get anywhere else.
Except, you know, everywhere.
5. So Etsy sells factory-made junk from overseas, while pretending to care about people and the world. Isn't that what all corporations do?
Actually, no. Some corporations have the integrity to tell you who they are, even if you don't like what they have to say. Take Chick-Fil-A, for example. You don't see Chick-Fil-A funding anti-marriage equality legislation while simultaneously courting the gay chicken-sandwich-buying public with "Rainbow Meals." It may be run by Neanderthals, but at least they own it.
6. But if everyone is making money, who really gets hurt?
The consumer, for one. Most people who shop on Etsy believe everything sold there is original, special, and crafted by someone who is personally invested. Imagine buying wedding jewelry or some other expensive and sentimental merchandise, only to see it again in a catalogue or store window. I think that might hurt. A lot.
7. Meh, caveat emptor. No one else gets hurt, right?
Just the artists. There are still many at Etsy, working their craft. Burned by fire, pricked by needles, pinched by pliers, cut by glass, dedicated and passionate, turning out beautiful work because they are called to do so. These people are upholding their part of the deal, and Etsy wouldn't exist without them.
To show its appreciation, Etsy puts them in direct competition with factories that do everything they do, only faster and cheaper. The only way these artists can survive in this crumbling utopia is to consistently devalue their own work.
8. Artists are used to starving. How do Etsy's business practices affect me, the investor?
Well, let's start with the best-case scenario, and imagine that every factory supplying merchandise to Etsy is free of human rights violations. Every worker is treated well, and paid a living wage for assembling iPhone cases that look like pandas. Hell, they've even got a Keurig in the break room.
Etsy is Walmart with better fonts.
You've still got to ask yourself, what exactly am I investing in? Selling factory-made goods isn't a movement. It doesn't "reimagine commerce" or "unite the global marketplace" or do any of the other things Etsy likes to hear itself talking about. Mass-production is the dreary cornerstone of every big box retailer, and it doesn't turn into mason jars full of daisies when Etsy does it. Etsy is not magic. Etsy is Walmart with better fonts.
Now let's look at the worst-case scenario, and the one more likely to be true:
Many of the factories manufacturing Etsy's "unique items" are sweatshops.
You can yarn bomb it all you want, but the people who produce this merchandise are not crafters. They aren't sitting around their kitchen tables, happily stringing beads and living the handmade dream. They are impoverished people in third world countries, forced to work in terrible conditions. They're exposed to dangerous chemicals, they work on unsafe machines, and if they're lucky, they make less than 50¢ an hour. And many of these exploited workers are children. That's what you're investing in.
And here's your return: every piece they make that gets sold on Etsy is part of your profit.
Enjoy your dividend check!
Perhaps best known for her voice work in television animation, April Winchell is also an award-winning copywriter and audio producer. In 2009, she created Regretsy, a blog covering ill-advised Etsy listings from vulgar oil paintings to necklaces purporting to be made of real eyelashes. Regretsy ran until 2013 and was made into a book by Random House.