Buying online can come with a lot of unknowns.
It’s hard to tell if you’re really working with the person on screen or if the product they are going to send you will look like the image that captured your attention in the first place.
Online sites such as Etsy.com are built to encompass the “handmade,” small business owner feels and to market toward people who are willing to spend money for something that might be more ethically made or created.
However, this in and of itself can be difficult to pinpoint online – are you really getting what you think you’re getting?
Is Etsy ethical?
Whether or not Etsy is ethical comes down to how the consumer shops online and what they consider to be ethical. Because Etsy does not screen shopowners before letting them open an Etsy shop, determining if a product meets the customer’s views of “ethical” comes down to the customer themselves.
This means checking what materials are used in the product and where those materials come from.
Many people consider this to be a problematic way of shopping; however, like any marketplace, you have to do research if you are going to be able to shop ethically.
Can I Buy on Etsy With a Good Conscience?
Etsy as a whole cannot be considered “ethical” by the definition of the word.
This is because the entire marketplace does not adhere to specific, ethical guidelines and how they enforce the operation of their shops and businesses. Nor are they expected to by Etsy.com itself.
For example, if you started up a shop that knitted hats using acrylic yarn, you may not be considered an “ethical” shop. Acrylic is a plastic-based substance that is harmful to the environment and releases chemicals into the water supply when you machine wash it.
However, some might consider that knitted hat to be ethical because it was not made in a mass-produced factory or an international, exploitative sweatshop that many clothing brands use these days, such as Wal-Mart, Reebok or H&M.
Depending on the customer’s brand of “ethical,” each individual shop on Etsy may or may not adhere to that standard.
Different Versions of “Ethical” on Etsy.com
This doesn’t mean that you can’t find “ethical” products on Etsy.
It only means that finding and purchasing those products must be an informed choice by the seller in order to make sure that they are buying ethically.
Let’s take another look at knitted hats:
If you found an online seller who knits their hats from locally-sourced wool in their hometown, knits it themselves and does not use harmful or toxic dyes to make the color of the hat blue or purple, then yes, you may be finding someone who does use ethical means to create their hat – based on your idea of “ethical.”
However, shipping that hat to you nationally or internationally uses a large carbon footprint, depending on how far away you are from the seller. Is it still ethical?
Well, the customer who purchases the hat may still agree that that hat is ethical, and decide that they want to support locally-made and knitted hats, regardless of the shipping carbon footprint.
This is because NOT buying from those locally-sourced, handmade, and “ethical” sellers would eventually put those sellers out of business – and then where would we buy hats from?
Major corporations that don’t sell ethically.
The Problem With the Term “Ethical”
Based on this example above, you can begin to see how tricky the term “ethical” can get when it comes to buying something internationally online from someone you’ve never met.
The question, then, isn’t “Is Etsy Ethical,” but rather “Can I still buy Ethically on Etsy.com.”
The hard and fast answer is, well, “no.”
That’s not to say that Etsy sellers aren’t doing a fantastic job with maintaining an ethical production and marketing system to get products to their customers, but that transporting and getting those products to a customer by means of shipping it from an online source is always going to cost something to the environment.
The only truly “ethical” item you could really purchase is in-person from someone who sources their materials ethically and locally and that you, yourself, travel to get it without using a substantial amount of fuel.
That’s why, for the rest of this article, we are going to be a little more “loose” with the term “ethical” and instead talk about the possibility of buying from trustworthy and conscientious sellers online through Etsy.com.
Does Etsy Encourage Ethical Production from Sellers?
As we mentioned above, Etsy does not screen their sellers before they allow them to start an Etsy shop on Etsy.com.
Anyone can begin their Etsy shop online as long as they have a product to sell, an email, and a bank account connected to their shop. Once they begin selling, they are able to write a product description for each item that they sell online – this description must adhere to the Etsy standards of being transparent with the customers that they sell to.
However, it is difficult to know just how “true” those product descriptions are.
At this time, customers need to be conscientious and do their research, read customer reviews, and thoroughly cross-reference product descriptions from less-known sellers to top-sellers in the Etsy fields. If you’re in doubt you can ask the Etsy store to do layaways.
How Etsy Enforces “Ethical” Shopkeeping
As we mention in our article, “Does Etsy Sell REAL Gold, Diamonds & Jewelry?”, sellers are able to categorize and write product descriptions with as many keywords as they want to try and be found in a search result.
This means that unless someone leaves a bad review or asks Etsy administrators to look into this Etsy shop, these shops may not be held accountable for falsehoods.
However, if you did report a shop, Etsy will enforce their standards and do an investigation of that shop or seller’s wrongdoings.
Once a shop is found to be in violation of Etsy rules and regulations, they have the ability to suspend or even remove the shop from Etsy.com.
What Could be Ethical Problems from Using Etsy?
There are a few problems with being an “ethical” shopper or seller on Etsy.com.
Both of these perspectives are very important when getting the whole picture of what it is like to try to shop and sell ethically online.
We’ll take a look at both perspectives in this article:
Problems With Being an Ethical Shopper
We’ve already touched on how hard it can be to make sure you are buying ethically online – especially from such big marketplaces like Etsy.com.
This is because Etsy doesn’t screen their shops before they go live, nor do they hold sellers accountable for their actions unless the shop is brought specifically to their attention.
While there are some ways that Etsy must approve a shop – such as when a seller decides to partner with a third-party manufacturer – most of the time, sellers go unchecked.
This means that it can be hard to say that you shop ethically online unless you are shopping solely with widely approved and responsible, fair-trade brands that usually come with a hefty price tag.
Problems With Being an Ethical Seller
Even if you do everything right:
- Use Ethically Sourced and Environmentally Friendly Materials
- Do Any and All Labor Yourself or Provide Fair Pay to Laborers
- Ship or Deliver Locally to Lower your Carbon Footprint
- Be True and Honest about All Items and Materials in your Product Descriptions
You still run into the trouble of being an ethical seller on a grey-area website.
Just because you are ethical in your products, sales, labor, marketing, and shipments, that doesn’t mean your competitors will be. Furthermore, you may have to charge more than your competitors, which puts you lower on the customer-search-result totem pole.
Finally, selling alongside unethical or potentially harmful stores can give a website (not just Etsy but any marketplace) a bad name, which means that your shop’s credibility could come into question.
Whether or not you want to sell on Etsy is up to you, but make sure you are adhering to the standards that you set for yourself, and those that your customers set for you.
Is Etsy Changing the World for the Better?
There are plenty of online Etsy stores that work very hard to maintain ethical, locally sourced materials and products that they sell to customers who do believe in and support that motto.
Etsy as a whole isn’t necessarily changing the world for the better, but they do participate in programs to try and lower carbon emissions (see reference link below), and they monitor and maintain ethical expectations for those who use third-party production partners.
According to their “House Rules” (see reference link below) Etsy expects sellers to work only with production partners that meet very specific criteria:
- No Child or Youth Labor
- No Involuntary Or Slave Labor
- Humane Working Conditions
However, Etsy also states in this same article that they “cannot guarantee the conditions under which products listed for sale on Etsy were made,”
Furthermore, they make it clear that they do not audit production partners based on their labor methods.
So while Etsy does have a good history of getting rid of shops and sellers who violate their policies, it seems that their policies are a little loose when it comes to making the world a better place.
What Does Etsy Do for the Environment?
Our final stop on this research train for Etsy and how they work ethically is the environmental impact of the company.
In their article (referenced below), Etsy has announced on February 27th of 2019 that they have partnered with “3Degrees”, a group that “helps their clients and customers take urgent action on climate change,”
By partnering with this company, Etsy hopes to help “offset” the carbon footprint that comes from shipping packages all over the world to millions of Etsy customers each year.
Taking this step would mean that although they still would have the large carbon footprint of shipping packages through their sales and shops, they would give money to solar farms and other companies or methods of providing verifiable emission reductions all around the world.
While this is a great use of Etsy’s millions in profits each year, because it is such a new development in their company’s history, we have yet to see just how much it has helped in the past year.
3Degrees Inc. – Website & Mission Statement
Ethical Expectations: What We Expect from Sellers Who Work With Production Partners – Etsy Seller Handbook
Delivering a World of Good – Etsy Environmental Emissions