Etsy Exposed? How "Handmade" is Etsy "Handmade"?

I recently searched for a handmade gray tote on Etsy.  I figured this would be easy enough to find, with 50 billion sellers peddling their wares in a marketplace that unfurled a "Buy Handmade" pledge once upon a time.  I've gotten a lot of pretty neat handmade things off Etsy in the past.

What I thought would be a simple search, led by simple search terms (gray cotton tote bag) resulted in many listings to sort through, some suspiciously "handmade".  When I use the term "handmade" in front of my significant other, he always reminds me that things in sweatshops are technically "handmade" since they're made by people, too - just not people benefiting from decent labor standards.  But "handmade" doesn't say that the people making the item by hand are guaranteed decent labor standards - although it's often implied. 

Sewing Machine

Given the vendors that popped up on Etsy for my bag search at the time, I had to wonder if smaller sweatshop-using businesses had realized the very same thing - that their items were, indeed, "handmade" and they could get away with selling on Etsy, which now has huge selling power.  (And the overwhelming job of trying to monitor all of the vendors.)  Some of these vendors were based in Thailand or Malaysia, and sold many of the same exact bags, emphasizing their professional construction.  I was interested in one of the bags - but doubtful about their labor standards - so I messaged the seller, never to hear back. 

Having seen all of these sellers pop up on Etsy, hailing from areas that are usually associated with sweatshop manufacturing, I tried to do some digging around and apparently I'm not the first person to notice and question this.  I found this thread over on Etsy itself, asking how to get around non-"handmade" sellers populating every single search you do for clothing or handbags. It's a really fascinating read with the majority of the commenters stating that they've noticed mass market "re-sellers" on Etsy but unless you can prove they are re-selling, Etsy won't do anything about it.  It also brings up the question of whether people feel comfortable buying "handmade" items from countries that are known to have poor labor conditions and have no labor standards information in their shop profiles.  (Or *cough* won't answer any questions about it.) 

I do wonder if your average, every-day Etsy shopper even thinks to question whether the items tagged "handmade" on Etsy actually *are* handmade -- I mean, why WOULD you?  Etsy's whole platform is that they sell handmade and vintage ONLY. 

Have you noticed mass-producers on Etsy?  Do you check out the stores' profiles before you buy?  Or do you mainly stick to vintage on Etsy? 

At this point I buy both vintage and handmade from Etsy - but I always double-check the shop's profile and message the shop if I'm not sure fair labor standards are in play.  

What happened to my bag search?  I ended up with a really awesome bag, after all of that, but it took me a long time to find it and dragged me down a manufacturing rabbit-hole I did not expect to fall into.  I'm glad I know what I know now and can share it, but it sucks that this is what Etsy has become.  


  1. I had a coworker ask me about this just the other day. She had found a beautiful coat on Etsy and asked me "Would you label it Made In China if the seller is based in China?" She was also concerned about it's production and I urged her to contact the seller.
    Personally, while I have roamed and liked many items on Etsy, I have only bought a few things. Jewelry for my wedding and some reusable pads. I do have my eye on a beautiful bunny ring though...

    1. That is the tricky thing - there were a few crafters/handmade vendors posting on that thread stating that it was essentially discrimination to avoid anything made in those countries, which I can see being true. But I think as long as the vendor profiles of the actually-handmade folks highlight their labor, people aren't going to avoid them.

      What WILL sink them, it seems, is browsers getting tired of searching through many many NOT-handmade options to get to their handmade item. Or buyers going for the mass market stuff, not realizing it's not handmade because it IS on Etsy.

      I've gotten a few handmade things over time - I had someone do a custom tie clip for my boyfriend, my new bag, lunch wraps, some clothes (shirts, pins), etc. For most of it, the materials are likely mass market but at least the finished product manufacturing isn't.

  2. omg. Kelly and I just had this conversation the other day so, can? we? talk? and by "we" I mean "I"... writing more when I get back from work... making things... which have definitely been made by hand...

    1. Lady. It's like I was just WAITING for you. xo

    2. So I totes got sucked into all those links..yikes!

      As someone who makes 99% of their money through etsy sales of some kind, this is a really bummer to read but... not totally unsurprising. I fully believe that the cream rises to the top but sometimes that cream has to fight really hard. The lengths to which etsy will let you bullshit are CRAZY so generally, if there is a problems with copying or reselling, you just have to outlast that person/seller because, within a few months, they will have moved onto some other seemingly easy-money type scheme.

      But these larger operations never tire! It seems like they don't go away.

      Sometimes, late at night, when I am all hazy-eyed and sticking old jewelry part to old jewelry part, I start to question what "handmade" is. Because I'm just sticking some shit someone else made together. I hang my head in shame and fall asleep in the process.

      Clothing-wise, while I've definitely seen many folks selling their current F21 hand-me-downs and designer knock offs as vintage, my exposure to the "I'm a designer getting MY DESIGNS manufactured at a local factory" line is fairly new to me. There was one, now former, etsy shoe seller who was very popular with modcloth-y type fashion bloggers *ahem* who would openly post when she was putting in an order to the factory (her words) and I was always stumped how getting other people in Mexico to make your shit for you counted as handmade.

      Jewelry-wise, I find it impossibly hard to keep up with cheap, china-made, faux vintage goods. There are so many folks who just resell that shit. or stick an owl on it and call it a day. I appreciate their hustle but, damn, I sure do get discouraged by seeing how many sales they have. And when similar things started to appear in a handmade brick and mortar boutique that I sold in, almost all of the artisan sells went down the drain.

      So, yeah, reselling cheap goods from countries with questionable labor standards is pretty low. It's hurtful for other, more honest craftsmen. It's hurtful because it perpetuates stereotypes about certain areas of the globe. It's also surprising that etsy tolerates this type of behavior based on how strongly they push the affectedly low-fi, cutsey, crafty themes of their business/empire. I understand that they are a business but it's prudent to understand that no one's reputation is unsinkable.

      I know this is long and I hope it makes sense. I've spent all day working on things. Things that you can find on etsy. And still feel like there is much more to say on this. And I'll gladly answer anyone's questions about the labor practices of the I'm Your Present/With Care empire.

  3. Amazingly, Regretsy has been at the forefront of putting pressure on Etsy to be more stringent in enforcing its own rules about handmade vs. resellers/sweatshops. But apparently the economics are better for Etsy because those sellers generate so many fees due to edging out the true handcrafters on price. It's sad. It's part of the reason I went with BigCartel for my store.

    1. http://www.regretsy.com/category/not-remotely-handmade/

      Here are a bunch of examples.

    2. Wow, that's an impressive collection! Thank you for posting that. I had no idea this was already such a huge issue.

  4. i admit i hadn't thought about it, but wouldn't buy if it appeared to have a huge amount of duplicate items handmade in China or India.I get really peeved when i discover someone's "handmade" something is not. As in, dirty looks in their general direction peeved.

    1. Oh Teeny - did you see the link that So Yeah So posted above? It's so crazy! That's a whole Etsy worth of side-eye!

  5. Interesting, it is always better to buy product that you know it have been well crafted. Dutzi handmade bags in mexico is a famous brand that is well known because every bag they make is sewn by hand and exceptional from others.

  6. You can visit our page to check out awesome handmade craft works:

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