What Happens When a Craft Economy Meets Mass Production–Evidence from Etsy.com

February 8, 2021

Etsy is an e-commerce site focused on selling handmade and vintage goods. It allows independent artists to sell their goods in the Etsy craft economy–from jewelry to furniture, from clothing to craft supplies. Each seller on Etsy has his own personal storefront and sells his own goods according to market rules specified by Etsy. Furthermore, Etsy has an “Integrity Team” that uses its own discretion to monitor goods listed on Etsy to ensure that they do not violate copyright. The effect is that their craft economy produces unique, original, and customized offerings.

In October 2013, Etsy management decided to formally open up their craft economy to mass production. The meaning of “handmade” was made to include “factory made.” The newly instated rules said that Etsy would now allow factory made goods and drop shipping as long as the seller was the designer or had hired the designers for the goods, disclosed the factory to Etsy, and assumed ownership of the process. The impact was that the marketplace became flooded with “cookie-cutter” and homogenous goods–drowning out the offerings of the independent artisan.

I analyzed 259 reviews on Etsy on Sitejabber.com–a leading online business review platform–that spanned from June 5, 2008 to August 13, 2014. I looked for how the Etsy craft economy slowly opened up to mass production–even before October 2013–and what the impact of mass production had on artists selling their handmade goods on Etsy and on buyers purchasing products on Etsy.

First, the craft economy was celebrated by both buyers and sellers. Buyers frequently commented that the appeal of Etsy was that the goods were unique, rare, and original. One man had this to say: “It’s an amazing online marketplace for custom, unique goods; things you can’t get anywhere else. It’s especially cool for geeks who have really specialized interests.” Another man remarked that Etsy was a place to find pieces that were hand made and not mass produced. In fact, the appeal of Etsy was that it was the opposite of mass production: “Rare these days for anyone to sell hand carved furniture with mass market Ikea everywhere destroying the market for wood carvers.”

There was also a sense that the craft economy was an inspiring and exciting place to sell and shop. Etsy was a “nice place to hang around and enjoy all those creativity there” and the creativity in the online storefronts made one woman “giddy.” Another woman said, “I love this site because it’s so incredibly inspiring, I could spend hours looking through the stores and items… and spending way too much money on stuff! I sell also. It’s just a really fun, really unique website.” Etsy, was a place of discovery: “It’s one of the best sites for shopping because you know you’re going to get something unique that’s been a complete labour of love. It’s also a great community and a way to stumble onto new things you’ve never considered before. Plus there’s the bonus of supporting local sellers.”

However, even in August of 2011, there was a sense that things were changing. One person said, “I used to love Etsy and could spend hours there shopping all of the unique, high quality items for sale. Now when I go there, it is almost impossible to find unique items that also get me excited. Everybody seems to just copy each others designs on there. Boring!” By October 2011, two years before Etsy management officially decided to redefine factory made as handmade, a seller said that mass production was drowning out her handmade items: “Etsy has turned into a mass produced product store – selling products that are not hand crafted but shipped in from overseas by the thousands. I sell there – or should I say – used to sell there. My small handcrafted items just get lost in the factory mess in search there now.”

Although there are countless reviews documenting the lack of customer service provided by Etsy sellers, there were also others who documented the remarkable attention to details some sellers had. The sellers could take ownership of their service. One woman said, “The work by the artists were to perfection. The packaging was superb and like getting a birthday present in the mail. One was even wrapped with a ribbon and a little crocheted doily on it.” Others offered hand written thank you notes and customized service: “Not only was the quality great and the glass exactly what I ordered but it came in a timely matter. Inside the larger shipping box was a smaller, form fitting box along with a nice ‘thank you for ordering note’ and a bow to place on top when I was done wrapping.”

In July 2012, one woman complained that, “It is supposed to be a site for artists, but I don’t think so. Same stuff on Ebay.” Later on in the year, others also complained that things at Etsy had changed. “There is so much just crap that people claim is handmade that I can tell is being pumped out of a factory oversees,” said a woman. Another man said, “It’s been less educational lately, and doesn’t care if you sell handmade or not honestly. I’ve seen china crap on their way to much.” Resellers of goods were starting to dominate listings: “There are many talented artists on Etsy but also tons of resellers who make the front page every day. Big sellers bully smaller sellers and get away with it regularly.”

In March 2013, one reviewer echoed the sentiment that Etsy had lost the uniqueness edge and other websites were listing the same items as Etsy–often for a lower price: “The problem is that there are so many shops now that they claim their merchandise is Handcrafted but, if you Google some of those items you will find them on Ebay for cheaper than Etsy and the worst thing is that they are mass produce in China. It’s very disappointing to see that Etsy is just looking to make a buck and don’t care about all hard working people.” One person also remarked that Etsy had become a safe haven for people violating copyright; it had changed from a place for artists to get noticed.

Things got even more heated approaching October 2013. One woman predicted that this “site will in the future only sell supplies and no truly handmade items.” There was a call for handmade artists to leave Etsy: “Etsy is nothing but a tidal wave of mass resellers selling factory pieces from China. Leave Etsy now if you are a handmade Artist.” Finally, one seller had this to say: “I have been a seller on Etsy since the beginning and for the last 2 years I have seen the implementation of a dictatorship like system, the coming of Chinese resellers with mass produced junk, muzzling of complaining sellers by repressive measures like banning from the forum and shops arbitrarily taken down.”

In October 2013, the reviews reflected on the change that Etsy management made to include factory made in hand made. One man reported that Etsy had lost its way: “Of late they’ve resorted to allowing the sale of mass produced goods. It’s lost its way and is a shadow of itself several years ago. The current CEO wishes to take the site down what the vast majority of sellers (those who haven’t been institutionalized) believe to be a very stony road. Hand made? Don’t sell here, you’re a bit late for boom time.” Another woman reacted to the change to accept factory made in this way: “As a former seller on etsy, I am vehemently protesting their corporate decision to allow mass manufacturers on the site. Unbelievably, they have decided to change the definition of “independent handmade” to include items designed and put together in a far-away factory that has not been vetted for child labor/sweatshop conditions. There are other sites that support independent artisans and have some ethics — BOYCOTT ETSY.”

This post documents the timeline of events that shows what happens to a craft economy as it opens up to mass production. The sense of uniqueness, creativity, and customization give way to cheaper, more homogenized products. One woman stated what the changes at Etsy meant for her: “First, this is no longer a market place for the handmade. There are companies I have seen on eBay from China or Thailand that sell mass produced jewelry and they have Etsy shops because they list as selling supplies. There are companies that sell on an independent website, wholesale charms and other jewelry, and also have an Etsy shop. These factors are making it hard to open a supply shop on Etsy. You can’t compete. It also makes it harder for those that are actually making handmade jewelry. This site is so flooded that it is hard to be found.” It seems that the decision to include factory made as handmade has taken away some of the cache of a craft economy.

Source: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Etsy, https://www.sitejabber.com/reviews/etsy.com

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *