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Is 'handmade' still an Etsy guarantee?

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Earlier this year, one Etsy seller took 38 painstaking photos documenting the creation of a blue gemstone bracelet in order to try to convince the crafts site that their products were genuinely handmade. But it wasn’t enough: Etsy shut down the site because it hadn’t sufficiently proved its items weren’t made by machine.

Now, under new guidelines that Etsy has allegedly practiced for some time but is just now codifying, that seller might be eligible to reopen its shop. But Etsy community members are outraged at what they see as deceptive business practices on the part of the store, and what they claim are attempts to lure consumers into buying cheap factory-made items under false pretenses.

Tuesday, Etsy held a livestreamed Town Hall meeting in Brooklyn, largely to discuss major changes to its member guidelines and policies, which it announced Tuesday morning. The new guidelines completely overhaul the old store policies, which Etsy claims had grown bloated and confusing for users. In their place are separate guidelines for members, buyers, and sellers—including a loosening of previous restrictions on how sellers collaborate and manufacture their products.

Etsy is now allowing stores to work with other store manufacturers and work with people from remote locations. “Hire help if you need it or collaborate, even from different locations,” is Etsy’s cheery way of describing the change. 

The problem? Some of those “helpers” are actually just factories in China. As cheap, labor-exploiting products from unscrupulous manufacturers have made their way into the Etsy community, more pressure has grown from concerned sellers and community members to take a firmer stance against manufactured products. Instead, it seems that Etsy may be moving in the opposite direction, notifying sellers that “with approval, you can work with outside manufacturers to help produce your designs.” Despite what Etsy claims is a rigorous approval process, many members of the community are skeptical that the new, relaxed standards will do anything but allow more cheaply made products to slide in disguised as “handmade.”

“In reality, it destroys what Etsy is meant to be,” commented Tumblr user indiaroseatkinson:

They are now allowing people to sell items made by children or other under paid workers in third world countries… Not only has Etsy ignored sellers who placed items in the marketplace that came from these factories, but now, they are actually defending allowing them… They actually want their sellers to lie to customers to try and make more money (because, of course, if the sellers make more money, then Etsy does).

“You can use sweatshops and sell on Etsy,” commented joyceoats on Tumblr. “It might be time for me to say ‘goodbye’ to Etsy, after all these years.”

A public, usermade GoogleDoc recapping Tuesday’s Town Hall rundown sums up the primary changes and complaints within the Etsy community:

1. There is no limit to how many people you can hire to help with your shop or where they can be located, as long as as you are the designer of what is manufactured

a. Your items can now be manufactured in a factory by large amounts of machines or people and still be listed as "handmade" so long as you designed it

b. There will be no separation between small handmade sellers who actually hand make products, and "handmade" sellers who have their designs manufactured - meaning both of these will be defined as handmade, there will be nothing separating them in the market place

It’s easy to see how Etsy members might be worried, not only that factory-made products might be made with deceptive labor, but that those items would overshadow actual handmade items, making it difficult for small sellers to compete with similar factory-issued products. “The money is speaking to [Etsy] and it’s going to push us one man hobbyists to the curb,” wrote Etsy seller fancyfoxdesign on Tumblr.

Etsy assured members that the rules would still allow them to weed out products from unscrupulous factories by forcing any outside partners to comply with Etsy standards, and insisting that any shop working with manufacturers apply through Etsy’s Integrity team. 

But Etsy’s stated wish to “help existing sellers grow” favors shops like Laonato, a South Korean shop that’s still up and running despite allegedly reselling wholesale products at a giant profit hike. Reselling is forbidden by the Etsy code, but Laonato is a popular merchant—perhaps too popular for Etsy to scrutinize too closely. Indeed, larger shops like Laonato and other lucrative shops that engage in reselling have been the driving force behind Etsy’s changing standards, as businesses struggled to grow on the site while still keeping up with the strict rules. But Etsy has now officially decided that “handmade” no longer means made solely by the shop owner using non-industrialized tools, which means that resold items could potentially be rebranded as items designed by the shop owner, and factory workers listed as assistants. 

No wonder members are skeptical that Etsy’s Integrity team might not be up to the task of keeping the nuances straight.

“[E]tsy’s ‘new guidelines and policies’ are like a big FUCK YOU to all the legitimate shop owners who actually make things by hand and care about their work,” fumed Tumblr user snooxeisen. 

Numerous sellers have tried to bridge the gap by asking Etsy to simply distinguish between shops that sell industrial-made products and those which don’t. “All they would have to do is make a new selling category to go along with handmade, supply, and vintage,” pointed out Tumblr user missmarlabee:

This would include mass produced: prints, 3D printed items, printed tee’s, things made by knitting machines, sewing machines, machines in general, etc….

BUT the thing with Etsy is always deceit… Etsy will not make a way to differentiate between mass producers and genuinely handmade sellers because they will lose the consumers that give them money the most.

But consumers, too, were disappointed by the change. “Etsy was the one place I could go to shop and know that my products were not 'outsourced' and were truly unique,” commented Facebook user Jamie Aust on the announcement. “If I wanted a product that was mass produced I would go to walmart or any other big box store... Etsy WILL lose support over this... Really sad.”

We're waiting on an official statement from Etsy. But its changing mission statement may say all it needs to say.

In 2010, its About page read, “Buy, Sell, and Live Handmade.” In 2012, it had updated to assert that “Etsy is the world’s handmade marketplace. Our mission is to empower people to change the way the global economy works.”

Today, buying and selling is front and center in Etsy’s current mission statement.

The word “handmade” is nowhere to be found.

Update: Etsy's Sara Cohen provided the following statement Thursday afternoon.

The goal of the high degree of transparency that we’re requiring now — from exactly how many people work in your shop to what outside manufacturers you may partner with — is to allow Etsy shoppers to have greater insight, awareness and choices, not less. Our aim is to connect people through commerce, and share the stories behind items. Yesterday’s announcements are just a first step in providing more ways for sellers to share those stories. We know the transparency achieved in our first iterations is modest, and it’s modest by design. We wanted to get feedback from Etsy sellers first, rather than just pushing a radical change to the marketplace.

For the first time ever, we’ve built in a pre-approval mechanism for selling items because we want to tightly control how manufacturing assistance gets implemented in the marketplace. In order to apply, a user has to already have an Etsy shop. We are looking closely at their history on the site as part of the review process, so we are not, counter to what some have suggested, welcoming an influx of new sellers.

This also isn't us throwing open the gates to any manufacturer, anywhere. Sellers will be required to demonstrate a very high degree of knowledge and involved working relationship with the partners they choose — from the tailor down the street to a jeweler's casting studio to a textile mill — as well as telling us how their business has developed to the point where they need outside help.

We do not condone labor-exploiting practices. Sellers on Etsy are always required to follow all local laws and adhere to our ethical expectations for manufacturing partners:http://www.etsy.com/help/article/4647.

Handmade has never been black-and-white and to try to build a fence around certain processes or methods was not scaling with our community. With these policy changes, our aim is to give sellers more choice and more options for how they run their business. This announcement is about strengthening the Etsy community by making the rules fair and clear.

Photo via Etsy