Etsy might not change the world, but it's the best we've got for now

Etsy artist studio
CC BY 2.0 hine

The shopping world is rife with corruption and exploitation, and while it would be lovely for companies to mend their evil ways, that's highly unlikely. In the meantime, Etsy provides a decent alternative for conscientious shoppers.

A recent op-ed in the New York Times claims that Etsy, the popular shopping site for all things handmade, won’t change the world, no matter how much people believe it: “It’s chic, not morally superior,” read the headline in the paper’s print edition on May 3. Author Emily Matchar says it’s problematic to think of buying homemade gifts as a social good.

“Like locavorism and ‘eco-consumerism,’ it’s part of a troubling trend for neoliberal ‘all change begins with your personal choices’ ideology. This ideology is attractive: Buy something nice, do something good. But it doesn’t work well.”

She is right that it might not change the whole world, but if it can change a little part of the world, isn’t it still worth it?

I’d argue that the “all change begins with your personal choices” ideology is quite powerful. There’s a reason why companies are starting to jump on the certification bandwagon, whether it’s Fairtrade, Rainforest Alliance, Leaping Bunny, Global Organic Textiles, Oeko-tex, organic, B Corp, etc. Consumers are asking for it; otherwise, it would hardly be worth the effort – and wasn’t until recently.

Etsy, together with the likes of small local retailers and artisans’ markets, offers an alternative shopping experience for the countless people who are disappointed with the way companies, particularly textile, have outsourced production. A growing number of shoppers want to know ‘who made their clothes,’ which is why that phrase has become the motto for Fashion Revolution Day, commemorating the Rana Plaza factory collapse.

Yes, it would be lovely if all clothing companies cleaned up their acts and supported transparent factories such as Alta Gracia in the Dominican Republic that pays fair wages (3.5 times the national minimum wage) to its workers, but that’s very rare. Until it becomes commonplace, conscientious consumers can do little other than to seek out the few ethical retailers that do exist, and Etsy is a good place to start, with more economical prices than many of the fancier eco-friendly and fair-trade retailers out there.

I take issue with Matchar’s statement that “the vast majority of people will continue to buy what they buy for one reason: It’s a good value.” She compares a $5 Walmart scarf to a $50 handmade one from Etsy, suggesting that the former has better value. That’s simply not true. The improperly low price of a Walmart scarf is a reflection of the system that has produced it – one that treats its workers poorly, degrades the environment with toxic textile processing, and ships it halfway around the world to be worn for a single season. It will stretch, tear, and wear out long before the homemade one, not least because a person is more likely to care more for a $50 scarf than a $5 one.

(Read my TreeHugger article on "Why bother knitting a scarf?" if you want to hear me say a lot more about the intrinsic value of scarves!)

Perhaps buying handmade will not greatly reduce my carbon footprint, as Matchar states. But there are other things that make it worthwhile. How about feeling good about not supporting a fast-fashion clothing company that specializes in almost-disposable clothing made by underpaid, impoverished workers locked behind doors without access to fire escapes? That’s a good enough reason for me.

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