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Ideas
April 14, 2022 6:06 PM EDT
Kirby is a Chicago-based writer, artist, and zinemaker who sells her work on Etsy.

On April 11, I logged onto Etsy, put my virtual shop on pause, and joined more than 20,000 others in organizing a strike against the site. Etsy is an enormous global platform where millions of craftspeople and artists sell their wares, and when I first heard about the strike, I wondered what difference my action would make. I joined last January to sell custom illustrations. My Etsy sales aren’t just my secondary income, they’re my third—and a meager one at that.

But I wasn’t going to break the picket line. News of Amazon and Starbucks’ successful unionizations made me feel optimistic. And as I learned about the reasons behind the Etsy strike, I felt even more galvanized to join the cause.

Over the last two years, Etsy made record profits with a platform that wouldn’t exist without the labor of independent creators. In 2021, the company generated $2.3 billion in sales and acquired Elo7, the “Etsy of Brazil,” as well as Depop, a British secondhand clothing site. Even with these earnings, Etsy announced a 30 percent seller fee increase–from 5 percent to 6.5 percent.

Fees charged to Etsy’s artists and craftspeople have more than doubled over the last four years, but these percentages are just part of the reason that sellers are striking. A petition written by Etsy dressmaker Kristi Cassidy became the centerpiece of the strike, calling for changes in other fees related to advertising, perks for top sellers, and more. So far, the petition has more than 74,000 signatures.

A statement from Etsy says the new fees will go toward “marketing, customer support, and removing listings that don’t meet our policies.” However the platform hasn’t been transparent with any specific plans. To those whose careers and livelihoods depend on Etsy, that’s not good enough—and this latest fee increase is less of an inciting incident and more of a last straw, after years of decisions that don’t make sense for the people whose work is sold on the site.

So, here’s what you need to know about why thousands of Etsy sellers—including me—have paused our virtual shops.

Etsy feels like it’s turning Into Amazon

Etsy launched in 2005 to specifically highlight handmade art, as well as certain kinds of resold items with a creative edge, like vintage home goods and craft supplies. Today, the site is crowded with resellers who peddle mass-produced objects that they haven’t designed themselves. Nowadays, the site is loaded with cheap keychains, bulk jewelry and the same items you can find on other e-commerce platforms. It creates an Amazon-like experience for buyers, and it squeezes the sellers who originally made the platform popular.

Milwaukee-based artist Rachal Duggan sells hand-drawn portraits. She recently abandoned Etsy for Shopify after more than a decade of building her full-time business on the platform. She says: “[Etsy] acts like it cares so much about artists, but this is just an e-commerce site. This could be eBay or Craigslist or any other website where people can sell whatever they want.”

Etsy’s AI is micromanaging sellers

Etsy was originally designed as a haven for creative people who wanted to manage their own time and schedules by making and selling their own work. That central tenet has slowly been eroded over the years. Etsy created a perks program, driven by an algorithm, to reward certain sellers for doing things like responding to messages quickly and shipping promptly. But sellers say this program, which designates “Star Sellers,” feels like a punishment instead, and is a way for Etsy to micromanage their work without a human on the other side.

For Sky Cubacub, who runs gender-nonconforming clothing and accessories line Rebirth Garments, the Star Seller metrics feel impossible to meet. “They basically want you to be answering messages 24/7,” Cubacub says.

Top sellers also get their own digital ads—again, something that should be a perk. But Etsy charges sellers a fee for those ads, and there’s no way for sellers to opt out.

In general, getting in touch with someone at Etsy to resolve problems or explain extenuating circumstances feels harder than ever. Cubacub’s listings are sometimes flagged because their last name includes the word “Cuba”—despite the shop not being tied to Cuba, and even though sales of Cuban goods are allowed on the platform. When Etsy automatically removes listings, sellers are directed to FAQs and community forums instead of someone who can provide real, timely help. “I would love for Etsy to have any sort of support from real humans,” Cubacub says. “If [the company] is making billions of dollars, I feel like it should be able to hire people who are answering actual questions.”

This issue is coming to a head at a moment when dissatisfaction with the creator economy—where incentives are often decided by opaque algorithms and fee structures—is growing across many platforms.

In response to the strike, Etsy says the new fee structure will enable sellers to be more successful. The company said in a statement: “Our sellers’ success is a top priority for Etsy. We are always receptive to seller feedback.”

So what happens next?

The seller strike ends on April 18. If Etsy does not address the issues outlined in the petition, many sellers are considering leaving the platform completely. Cubacub is currently working with a friend to build their own personal shop, but it’s hard to walk away. Etsy’s platform makes it easier to sell to a broader audience than their work would otherwise reach. Duggan left Etsy for Shopify in January, abandoning more than 500 five-star reviews on her shop. Still, she says, the move felt worth it. Shopify’s fees are clear and not tied to a cut of her sales.

For now, I’m bummed about putting my shop on hiatus. The illustrations I sell bring people joy—that’s the kind of good that Etsy has the potential to do. That’s what Etsy meant to me when I first joined, anyway.

While Etsy has yet to directly address any of the strike’s requests, Cassidy’s petition ends with optimism that the platform can once again be a creative haven for independent artists: “Etsy can be the force for good it initially set out to be.”

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