*After I published this post Etsy reached out to me and agreed to do a podcast interview. We talked in-depth about the new policies and how they will impact sellers and buyers. You can find that interview here.
A few weeks ago we had a great discussion here about the meaning of the word handmade. I showed a video of a factory in China manufacturing a plush toy for McDonald’s Happy Meal prizes. Watching the factory workers sew, turn, and stuff each toy made me wonder why those toys weren’t considered handmade, even though the process was nearly identical in many ways to what I do in my own studio every day.
To me Etsy is a bellwether of the handmade movement today. 1 million sellers and 30 million buyers mean that Etsy is a force to be reckoned with. This company’s language and policies have tremendous power and influence in our community.
Yesterday morning Etsy made a groundbreaking announcement: they have changed the meaning of the word handmade.
I watched, and live tweeted, the Town Hall Meeting when Etsy’s CEO, Chad Dickerson, explained the shift.
A Three-Pronged Definition
The online global marketplace has made the world very small. We can all see what everyone else is doing. Where before it might have been okay that some vendors at the local craft fair were selling appliqued shirts they’d paid a crew of local women to sew for them, while others were selling appliqued shirts they’d sewn themselves, now that we’re all at this virtual worldwide craft fair, with everything visible and in writing, it’s become very important to say exactly what is and isn’t allowed.
Etsy felt that the “we’ll know it when we see it” definition of handmade was impossible to enforce. As Dickerson said in his blog post yesterday this approach raised too many unanswerable questions, “What kinds of tools could you use? How many hands could shape the product? Could you use mass-produced components to put together something original?”
Formerly Etsy’s policy stated, “Handmade items must be created by the seller operating the Etsy shop (or a member of that shop). Selling commercial or mass-produced items on Etsy’s handmade categories is not permitted.”
All that has changed.
As of January of 2014 Etsy will define handmade as encompassing three values: authorship, responsibility, and transparency.
Authorship means the idea for the product began with you.
Responsibility means you’ve been involved with how the item was made from start to finish.
Transparency means communicating that story to Etsy and to your customers.
What do these changes mean on a practical level?
If you’d like to hire an outside manufacturer to produce your product you’ll apply for Etsy’s approval. The application hasn’t yet been released, but Etsy said in an email to sellers yesterday, “We’ll ask a few questions about why you chose them and how you work together.” One thing is clear: you’ll have to disclose to Etsy the names of the manufacturing companies you’re working with.
Going forward it will be mandatory that sellers create an About page. On that page they’ll have to state whether they made each product, or had help with the making, although they won’t have to list the exact source of that help. You’ll get to keep the name of your manufacturer private. Reselling items you’ve had no role in producing is still not allowed.
The people you hire to help you make your items can be in a different location from you. They can, for example, be your sister one town away, or they can be across an ocean or on another continent.
You can now use shipping and fulfillment services if you want to. In other words, your product can be stored in a warehouse elsewhere. When an order is placed it can be packaged and shipped by warehouse employees.
Does this new definition work?
Etsy says yes. “We believe this is the most clear, fair way to help you succeed and preserve the values that make Etsy special,” the email sent yesterday concludes.
During the Town Hall Meeting an audience member asked what I think was a very poignant question: “What’s to prevent IKEA from selling on Etsy?” Dickerson’s response was that IKEA products don’t have clear authorship. Is that really true, though?
A few years ago I interviewed Annie Hulden, the stuffed animal designer for IKEA. I asked her how an IKEA toy gets made.
“Everything must be as clear as possible for the designers at the factory. It is their job to interpret my sketches into a textile soft toy. In order for them to come as close as possible to what I had in mind I create many detailed drawings to try to describe my ideas. I also write down instructions as complements to the sketches so that I am describing in both words and pictures what I have in mind.”
On the one hand Annie’s authorship is very clear. She designed that monkey. On the other hand, the monkey was sold by IKEA, not Annie. So maybe it’s not clear after all? But then what about my new book? I wrote it, but Lark Crafts published it. They did the design, layout, editing, manufacturing and distributing. Even so, I’m selling signed copies on Etsy because I have clear authorship.
Looking at the factory video from my previous post with this new three-pronged definition in mind, where do we stand? Neopets were designed by Donna Williams in 1999. The company was eventually bought by Viacom who hired a plush toy designer like Annie Hulden to create the sewing pattern to make this particular pet, Flotsam, into a plush toy. These women and men in DongGuan City sewed each and every toy. Still, by Etsy’s new definition, they are not handmade, right? No single person has authorship. Donna Williams is not responsible for the factory production here. When you pulled Flotsam out of the Happy Meal the only transparency was the “Made in China” label on his leg.
Although it wasn’t mentioned in any press release, it’s safe to say that Etsy has a financial interest in the new policy. Big sellers who can afford to hire help can now stay on the site, and their large volume of sales is hugely important to Etsy’s long-term profitability. Online business wisdom would tell those big sellers to get off Etsy anyway. You’re better off building your own brand, not being dependent on the whims of another company, not to mention the inordinate fees you’ll be paying with that kind of volume. But they theoretically they could stay now.
One thing’s for sure: manufactured goods will now be in the mix with goods made by someone’s two hands, and all of this will happen with Etsy’s blessing. Does Etsy’s new definition mean a brave new world, or the death of handmade?