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Etsy Goes Beyond Online Sales to Support Local Economies

Last year, Americans spent an estimated $194 billion on online purchases, according to the U.S. Commerce Department. That’s a lot of buying! But just because we’re capable of consuming so much stuff via the Internet, that doesn’t mean we have to forget about our local economies and small businesses.

That’s where Etsy comes in.

Many of us know Etsy.com as a crafting and vintage sale website. Through the company’s global Internet marketplace, launched in 2005, shoppers can search for funky, handmade goods ranging from vintage jewelry to block-printed pillows. By requiring goods sold on the site to be either handmade or “vintage” (items should be at least 20 years old), Etsy strives to minimize consumption of mass-produced, cookie-cutter products.

But the Brooklyn, New York-based company also aims to support local entrepreneurs and communities more directly. If you want to buy something local, you can type in your zip code to connect with a person in your area who is selling something via the site. Etsy also offers educational and community resources to help small-scale producers improve their businesses and surround themselves with like-minded individuals.

“We believe that commerce can be a way to address social problems of the day—not necessarily through shopping itself, but through entrepreneurship,” says Matt Stinchcomb, the company’s Vice President of Community. “We started Etsy not as a business as much as it was a need we were trying to fill. We were makers trying to sell our stuff, and we didn't have a place to sell it.”

Now the Etsy marketplace is booming. In September alone, the web-based community gained 866,750 new members, and $76.8 million of goods were sold. And, seven years after its inception, Etsy now has two major programs to support producers and entrepreneurs on a local level.

Building community via team effort

As one of its initiatives, Etsy offers a plethora of “teams” that members can join (or create their own) as a way to develop affinity groups and find community. Teams can be organized not just by locale, but also by interest, by cause, or by a specific item that someone may make (one team, Recycled Artists, comprises members who create "green goods" from junk, vintage, and other items saved from landfills). But members who live in the same area have a big advantage: they can hold meetings and workshops in-person, and organize local craft fairs and other events.

“When you work alone in your house, making stuff all day, it gets a little bit lonely,” Stinchcomb says. “As we move toward less-traditional forms of work—no longer going to an office every day, or having multiple part-time self-entrepreneurial pursuits—this is the community that forms around this kind of work.”

Etsy supports the teams by subsidizing the cost of booths at craft fairs for sellers. The company also works with third parties to offer practical services to sellers, including accounting and shipping help. The goal of the program is to try to remove some of red tape that would bar small producers from making money off of their goods.

Etsy Labs

Etsy’s other major initiative, the “Labs” program, is not yet available in most cities, but it is expected to grow as the company expands. Currently, there are two main community centers, one at Etsy’s home base in Brooklyn, and another in Berlin, Germany. At these locations, Etsy administrators host classes to help people in the community learn how to make things and run small businesses.

The Brooklyn location, for example, hosts craft nights where both the meeting space and the equipment are open to the public (see video below). Through a monthly Hands-On series, community members can engage with and learn from creative professionals using the company’s Vandercook letterpress machine, Bernina sewing machines, Simplicity felting machines, screen printing facilities, and more. Already, the Etsy Labs MeetUp group has some 4,900 members.

“Etsy has community at its roots,” Stinchcomb says. “We realized that what’s really special about it is that there’s a person behind every product. We’re always looking to maximize the human experience in everything that we do."

As the community of makers and crafters continues to grow, online entities like Etsy can enable entrepreneurship while strengthening local economies.

Krislyn Placide is an intern at the Center for a New American Dream.

 

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Comments

The idea that the MAJORITY of Etsy sellers are trafficking in mass-produced goods is overstated. There certainly are SOME sellers who do this and it is confounding to see them get away with it when it is so blatant to anyone working in the same medium, but those are the exception to the rule. I know a lot of Etsy sellers and they all make everything they sell, myself included. I think the real problem is that Etsy now sees allowing a gray area to form as being to its financial advantage. It’s not so much that they will allow anyone to sell anything there, as that they will overlook even obvious resellers as long as the product they are offering fits within the image of handmade that Etsy has cultivated.

Posted by Chuck at January 8, 2013 at 8:02pm

Fran,
Thanks for the motivation to research a bit… some new tools (new to me) regarding mass produced 1) flagging – telling Etsy about suspicious shop 2) blog with list of resellers titled – Calling Out Resellers on Etsy or Regretsy.com 3) more awareness to be sure to support & follow up on desired purchased products.

Posted by AnnLouise at October 25, 2012 at 7:11pm

As a frequent buyer of Etsy products there are few and far between times that I recall coming across mass produced items from China and the relationship(s) that I have developed with different shop owners has been empowering for both sides of the purchase. No different than having to take the time to read the labels in any store every buyer should take a purchase further than the face value. All consumers need to learn to be more aware and desperately need to be involved with the every aspect of the purchasing process. Responsible consumerism I believe will create Responsible capitalism – the key is to create it and to actually do it!
Fran, I would like to see more information and data about your statement so that I can continue to be more supportive to people I want to support.
Martha, what a fun shop, the happy dancer is cute and love your gift tags ideas, great idea for the holidays :-)

Posted by AnnLouise at October 25, 2012 at 5:03pm

Of course it doesn’t ship from China. Resellers buy wholesale then ship from their homes. A simple google search will give you plenty results from articles where Esty even admits it has this problem, to call out blogs. There’s a huge section of Regretsy that seems devoted to spotting these resellers and there was even that recent controversy where a featured seller was uncovered to be a reseller.

Esty does not have the staff, knowledge or seeming ability to keep their reseller problem under control. It’s very easy to lie on a profile to make it sound like you’re making things handmade when you’re not.

Posted by Fran at October 24, 2012 at 10:16pm

I am a seller on Etsy and have been very happily making things myself in my own studio in New York state since 2008. Check out my shop and see for yourself! http://PulpArt.Etsy.com

Posted by Martha at October 24, 2012 at 9:01pm

I don’t believe that to be true. Every seller has a profile page wherein he or she may describe what it is they do, how they got started and so on. See for yourself. Enter a search term such as “wood trivets”. I don’t think you will find a single item that ships from China. The vast majority of Etsy vendors are one person operations working out of their homes – whether in the US or Romania.

Posted by Phil at October 24, 2012 at 8:14pm

Fran, I would like to see you back up that statement with numbers. The majority of sellers on Etsy are not selling mass produced goods. You are flat out wrong.

Posted by Lorinda at October 24, 2012 at 7:37pm

I don’t think I’d go so far as to say that the majority of Etsy’s offerings are from resellers, or mass produced cookie cutter items. Yes, resellers do exist on Etsy, but a few rotten apples shouldn’t spoil the whole bunch. I’ve been selling and buying on Etsy for over 3 years now and it’s pretty obvious, in most cases, who is reselling or mass producing. I just avoid those shops. There are so many unique and beautiful handmade items on Etsy. It’s truly my favorite place to shop. Reading shop announcements, item descriptions, and shop owner profiles will make it pretty clear who is there for all of the right reasons (because they love what they do and they want to share it with others). Etsy is nothing like Walmart, and I’m grateful for that.

Posted by Stephanie at October 24, 2012 at 5:00pm

Actually, a lot of Etsy is mass produced merchandise from China. They have a massive problem regulating their userbase and since they make money off the resellers, don’t do much to weed them out, so the majority of their offerings are just as mass produced and cookie cutter as Walmart, same as any other unregulated space.

Posted by Fran at October 24, 2012 at 2:21pm

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