Have you ever been to howetsyrapedamerica.com? If you haven’t maybe you should. It’s a compilation of posts targeting profitable and “fraudulent” Etsy sellers over the span of a year—businesses selling mass-produced goods often purchased from Asian wholesalers, under the moniker of handmade or custom made, at the expense and abuse of unsuspecting shoppers. We’re talking everything from home décor to knitted scarves.
These Etsy sellers have become increasingly prolific over the past couple years, ever since Chad Dickerson took over as CEO in late 2013 and lifted a ban that previously required Etsy sellers to manufacture goods solely by themselves. In the span of just two years Etsy has been flooded with cheap knock-off products marketed under a banner of down-home-grass-roots-made-by-barefoot-mothers-in-their-kitchens goodness.
The worst part is the average customer has no idea about any of this, and it’s negatively impacting the reputable sellers. In fact, many reputable sellers have reported their statistics and sales tanking as they drown in a feed of fake crafts, while still others have fled Etsy altogether. People have an instinctual urge to trust in person-to-person exchanges, whereas they might be a great deal more guarded and critical of advertising when dealing with a corporation. Etsy sells itself on a reputation of trust wrapped in a warm and fuzzy brand of hand crafted ideology, most of which is a façade lingering from the days of its origins. Traditionally speaking we understand hand crafted to mean crafted by the same pair of hands from start to finish. Sellers who wield that term to mean anything other are being expertly and intentionally deceptive.
How many thousands of customers are duped into buying mass-produced goods with enormous profit margins on Etsy each year, thinking they’ve just acquired a custom one-of-a-kind piece and are supporting a home-based crafter? There is no real way to know, but hazarding a guess at many, many thousands would probably be safe.
I’ve purchased stuff with judicious care off Etsy in the past. I’ve written an article for Catalyst Magazine about Etsy’s thriving indie wedding dress industry. I’m no stranger, and I’ve been familiar for some time with the presence of knock-off crafts on Etsy. However, it wasn’t until this morning that I became aware of how pervasive and under-reported the problem is.
I was browsing around on Pinterest, wasting time as best I can, when I came across a link back to an Etsy seller called Cherry Tree Gallery based out of Winnipeg, Manitoba and selling jumbo clothes pins for $37.18 a pop. After a couple raised eyebrows at the price tag I headed over to Facebook to get opinions, where I was met with this link to the exact same product via Woodcrafter.com less than 5 minutes later from a good friend Vanessa, for $5.28. It was blatantly obvious that the seller was buying the unfinished clothes pins in bulk for $5.28 each (plus a flat rate of $15 shipping), then staining them and selling them for $37.18 plus shipping. I immediately navigated back to Etsy and read the posting in full, noting the description “handmade”. Thousands of people have favourited this item. It’s a lie. A quick Etsy searched revealed dozens of other shops selling the exact same product, claiming the same handmade status. I sifted through all the reviews until I found these two four-star comments:
Louise: I felt that the quality of these were not the standard I would have expected for the amount paid. They were very loose and beginning to slide apart.
Elizabeth: After the receipt of the item I was disappointed to see the quality of my clips. The ones I had ordered to be coloured bleached birch were simply white, and in addition I could see strips of painting on the sides. It has disappointed me, especially when I think about the price of the item. (Translated from French)
In a society that runs on commercially generated goods the idea that something is hand produced by individuals is very attractive. Each hand crafted item tells the story of the palms that shaped it. Shopping handmade goods lets us touch the past and evokes an authentic experience of trading for tangible resources with real people, people who benefit on a small and measurable scale from the exchange. But we are being played, and our desires exploited, by sellers and businesses that have tapped into our cultural weakness.
In early 2015 a series of news articles and blog posts rocketed around the internet about a seller called Three Bird Nest after it came to light that the company was selling mass-produced products on Etsy. Three Bird Nest is run by a woman named Alicia Shaffer and fronted by an attractive blonde model photographed in Instagram-worthy poses. Shaffer originally claimed to employ 25 local seamstresses in the production of her wares, but was later confirmed to source much of her inventory through foreign wholesale sellers. She was estimated to be raking in approximately $1 million in revenue annually at that time the story broke. In the end the story generated enough publicity that her peers drove her off Etsy, though she’s still out there hawking her stuff. Unfortunately, the outraged masses ran out of steam shortly afterwards, despite the fact that she was just a big fish in an overflowing pond.
Since that time very little has been written on the ongoing situation at Etsy. Most of the articles available relating to the plundering taking place behind Etsy’s seamingly hand crafted front doors is old, dating back to early to late spring of 2015 when the scandal involving Three Bird Nest broke, including a New York Times exposé on the issue. I have been unable to locate any recent pieces (2016) that speak to the ongoing problems of faux crafting on Etsy. It seems the issue of counterfeit and mass produced goods has dropped off the social radar, but if anything the situation is more out of control then ever before.
Unfortunately counterfeit and faux crafted goods aren’t an issue solely relegated to Etsy. Perhaps we can’t blame Etsy for creating the problem, but we can certainly blame the company for facilitating it with loose policies that abandon its grass roots foundations. I’ve noticed this trend elsewhere, particularly on my local Facebook swap and sell groups. You know them, you probably belong to more than a few. There are some people in these groups who employ the same practices as the questionable Etsy sellers described above. People who sell faux crafts by purchasing products in bulk off eBay, Alibaba, etc. for a minuscule fee and then selling them at an alarming mark up to generate a handsome profit margin. Surely you’ve also been to craft fairs and noticed a similar trend? Perhaps you didn’t notice it before, but you will now, knowing what you now know.
All in all, faux crafters have done a terrible disservice to the industry and to consumers. It truly is a despicable and deplorable way to mar what was once such an authentic livelihood.