30 May 2023
Today we hear from Valerie, a leather crafter and Etsy seller based in Oregon. After excitement around the 2022 #EtsyStrike evaporated, she and other artisans grew frustrated with strike organizers insistent on repeating the same strategies against the giant online marketplace. So, taking a little-known page from union history, Valerie and two co-founders formed a co-op to preserve the traditions, politics, and livelihood of handmade crafts.
The Worker’s Perspective
By Valerie Schafer Franklin
My partner Geoff and I have been leather crafters since 2009, when the Great Recession was looming. We knew layoffs were coming for our desk jobs and began looking for other ways to earn an income. Geoff was one of many architects looking for work, and many architects have other creative skills. We were also passionate cyclists in Portland, Oregon, and Geoff was making leather bicycle accessories inspired by vintage Italian cycling.
On a whim, I threw some of Geoff’s creations up on Etsy. I didn’t expect it to turn into a career, but the business took off. I left my job to work with Geoff full-time as a Etsy seller.
It took a few years to see problems with relying on Etsy. The galvanizing moment came in 2012 when Etsy began featuring high-volume sellers who clearly did not represent the spirit of handmade in their coveted homepage promotion. Crafters were angry, organizing a “walkout” and other protest activities dubbed “Protesty.” The red flag was the way Etsy handled the crisis: censoring public forum posts, taking down protest treasuries, and backchanneling with one seller to make her story appear more craft-y, while insisting that no mistakes had been made. But it was clear that Etsy chose revenue over its founding principles. They had sold out.
For Geoff and me, all of our eggs were in Etsy’s basket. In response, we diversified where we sold our goods. We built our own website in 2012 on Shopify and tried many alternatives over the years – even Amazon, which we came to deeply regret.
#EtsyStrike and Aftermath
Flash forward to 2022: There are still no good marketplace alternatives. Etsy became a publicly traded company and abandoned its B Corp status in the interest of profits. They doubled seller fees, forced a mandatory advertising program, and increased demands on sellers – for example, the Star Sellers program requires you to respond to messages within 24 hours, 365 days a year, or you get dinged. Rather than working as an entrepreneur, this feels like any other job with a demanding boss.
Etsy squeezed us until we hit a breaking point. In February 2022, Etsy raised fees again, this time by 30% – in the same week they announced record profits in 2021. This hit a nerve with sellers everywhere.
A few social posts started what became the #EtsyStrike. We found it on Reddit and decided to participate. Since most of our sales come from our website and we were full-time crafters, we were financially able to participate in the strike, making our products unavailable for sale on Etsy for an entire week. We recognize that it’s not easy for everyone to commit to such an action.
It was exhilarating at first. The whole strike was organized in just seven weeks, totally online, and attracted mainstream media attention around the world. Strike organizers claimed 30,000 shops joined the strike, which is supported by a 1% drop in listings of 5.3 million shops tracked by Etsy blogger CindyLouWho2. A Coworker.org petition netted 80,000 signatures. But Etsy ignored all of this. When asked about the strike at a Wall Street Journal event, Etsy CEO Josh Silverman was dismissive: “Each of our sellers is a blade of grass in a tornado. They’re someone you haven’t heard of.”
After the strike, I had a chance to take a breath and ask, Now what?
Towards the end of the strike, I volunteered as blog manager and media tracker. I proposed to the leadership that we consider making our own marketplace, but that was declined. I proposed polling their followers to see what they wanted the movement to do next, but that was also declined. The strike wasn’t as effective as I would have hoped, but the leadership wanted to do more of the same. They organized a letter-writing campaign to Etsy HQ, which went unnoticed, and were planning monthly protests. They decided to form a union-like nonprofit organization to fight against marketplaces for “indie” sellers (not just handmade, and not just against Etsy): the Indie Sellers Guild.
I found myself not wanting to fight Wall Street, to bang my head against a wall. Instead of directing my energy against Etsy, I wanted to do something for crafters and makers. Having worked for nonprofits in the past, I was already weary of the Guild’s proposed model. I wanted something self-sustaining, not reliant on constantly asking for donations and pandering to donors.
Crafting an Artisan-Owned Alternative
I didn’t have a deep history in co-ops, but one of my first jobs in college was working at a food co-op. It was my favorite job because they were good people who believed in what they were doing. So I started doing some self-learning and research, checking out books on co-ops and researching cooperatives online. The more I thought about how to be for crafters, the more I realized that the best way to help shops like mine and compete with Etsy was to create an artisan-owned marketplace.
As John Curl writes in “For All the People,” the strike-to-cooperative transition appears throughout history: fed-up workers strike, get disappointing results, and decide they can do better by forming a cooperative instead. Since at least the 1830s, it was even a conscious union organizing tactic taken in anticipation of future hard times, with co-ops providing employment for striking workers.
For me, the issue with Etsy was more than just the increased fees: it was about quality of life and meaningful financial participation in the value I create. I don’t want artisans to have a seat at the table, I want us to own the table! What’s more, Etsy has no like-for-like competitors, and Elo7, DePop, and other competitors get gobbled up by Etsy. If they’re honest, investor-funded start-ups are hoping someday for the same. They’re just starting the enshittification process anew.
I figured that by organizing a co-op, we can share the labor of maintaining a website and pool our customers. And I had confidence in the idea because I saw others thinking similarly on social media posts about the strike. Even one business reporter covering the strike suggested the same idea: “[business] analysts, though, said that those who rely on platforms for their livelihoods could emerge victorious by joining together in cooperatives or establishing different platforms.”
But on the #EtsyStrike Discord server, admin squelched conversation about a co-op. They created a bot that auto-replied to the word “co-op” with a message that said they weren’t building a co-op. They made the channel I created to discuss co-ops “invitation-only” instead of open to all. Fortunately, I had developed relationships with people through direct messages. One of them, Dani, a Discord power-user, suggested we start our own server so we could reach out to others and talk freely.
The first thing Dani and I did was see if we could join an existing co-op rather than create a new one. Only one matched our vision, Guild.art, and we reached out to the founder, Marc, about joining forces. Marc was a programmer who wanted to support artists but he hadn’t begun developing a community. He agreed to merge efforts. Dani, Marc, and I were a well-matched trifecta: Marc was the technology specialist, Dani was the social specialist, and I was the business specialist.
We started building Artisans Cooperative in July 2022 on our own Discord. While we were growing our community, the most important thing we did was attend a co-op webinar. Co-op allies were welcoming and transparent, and would help us. That webinar gave us the confidence to keep going, even though we were basically starting from scratch.
Formalizing our Co-op
This is how we built our model and brought it to life. We announced our plans in October 2022 and continued adding more volunteers, growing our email list, and getting a few donations. In January 2023, we applied to the Start.coop business accelerator and got accepted, which came with $10K. We used most of that for legal incorporation in May, becoming a multi-stakeholder cooperative corporation with 3 types of members: artisans, supporters, and workers.
Unlike Etsy’s overly broad scope, we developed policies to preserve craft traditions. Our Handmade Policy helps solve the problem with “handmade-washing” that goes on in marketplaces like Etsy. It has a community-powered verification system that doesn’t rely on bots; we moderate the marketplace ourselves, motivated and incentivized by our cooperative business model.
Co-ops reward dividends based on patronage activity, but rather than divide contributions by class, our Points & Tiers Policy rewards all kinds of contributions by all members equally in one currency. Artisans can earn patronage for purchases like supporters, as well as from sales. They also earn points for handmade verifications. When we hire staff, which will be soon we hope, they will be worker-owners.
Expanding our Membership
This summer, we are growing our membership and building our marketplace in three phrases. We aim to raise $25,000 from memberships by July 31. Members help us fund the initial pilot website development and help us secure financing from co-op friendly lenders by demonstrating demand. This first round of membership will pay for the pilot website using Shopify.
To get the word out, we’re tapping on the shoulders of people we know. We couldn’t connect in obvious ways. Etsy makes it hard to meet your colleagues; we don’t know who is selling handmade or where they are located, and we can’t reach them through the Etsy platform. We also haven’t found a way to work together with the #EtsyStrike organizers, and haven’t been able to share our story with their petition list of 80,000 or their membership list of 350.
So, we continue to grow our community bit by bit through blog posts and social media, but most of all, word of mouth. We have a grassroots tool kit for members, with graphics, flyers for local bulletin boards, cards for events, and even simple ideas like adding us to your email signature. And today, we’re writing in this newsletter, the kind of software solidarity we believe in.
If you want better goods, or if you know an artisan looking for a better selling channel, please send them the link to our Membership page or tell them to get in touch. Artisans Co-op is part of a bigger story of how undervalued, less protected workers need alternatives. Etsy crafters are home-based gig workers, too. It’s also a story about moving beyond a strike against a giant online marketplace with another form of collective action that can lead to stable, dignified, meaningful work.
With gratitude to TWC for the support, and especially to Tamara Kneese for her contributions to this piece and her past writing on the topic.