Between April 11-18th, thousands of Etsy sellers collectively put their shops on “vacation mode” to protest a 30% increase in transaction fees announced by the site. Many sellers essentially closed their stores for a week — losing income in the process. It’s estimated that 20,000 sellers took part in the strike, and many used social media to continue to amplify their message and share their list of demands. These included canceling the fee increase, taking action on resellers who list mass-produced items vs. handmade goods, providing better support for dispute resolutions, giving sellers control of ads, and eliminating the “Star Sellers” badge, which requires sellers to answer customer messages and ship orders within a tight timeframe.
Platforms like Etsy tend to achieve market dominance by raising funds rather than relying on early profitability. Once they’ve edged out competitors and become firmly established, with people loyal to their platforms, they can increase their fees as they wish (or in other cases, like Instagram, increase advertising). In Etsy’s case, this process puts sellers in a precarious situation. Unlike unionized labor, the strikers that took part in the Etsy strike are not employees but independent sellers on a platform, which functions as a middle man in all transactions. The recent strike therefore points to an urgent question for precarious small business owners in our contemporary gig economy: What could a labor movement look like for today’s independent platform workers, and how could it be effective?
For many designers and illustrators, selling work on Etsy has become a key source of supplemental income — and for some, it makes up their entire earnings. To pay respect to yesterday’s International Workers’ Day, we wanted to hear from artists themselves who are affected by Etsy’s new announcement. So we spoke with three illustrators who sell on the platform about the strike and what it’s been like organizing remotely and digitally as platform workers, and how not every artist can financially afford to participate when their shops are their only source of income.
Why did you start selling on Etsy?
Dana Drew: I started selling on the platform during the pandemic when I lost my dog walking job and was still not getting any of the pandemic assistance. It was a great way to make a little cash in exchange for artwork but since my business has grown it’s become less ideal. I think Etsy is really perfect for people who are using the site as supplemental income or to cultivate a hobby since the algorithm and ads help you reach new customers easily; however, the fees and cost of simply having an Etsy store have grown to be so significant that relying on the site for your primary income just isn’t sustainable.
Sarah Epperson: Etsy is undoubtedly the biggest marketplace for smaller creators and for people looking to purchase from smaller artists. They make it extremely easy for artists to set up their shops and have a massive built-in user base. For creators who cannot solely focus on running a shop or hire someone to help them, Etsy’s platform is highly appealing.
Liz Pavlovic: I found the user interface/shop dashboard very easy to use (simple to keep track of orders, print shipping labels, message buyers, etc.) Etsy is a well-known name so it’s easier to point people towards an “Etsy shop” rather than a “Big Cartel site” or something similar, especially when I started mine 5 years ago. Another big part of why I’ve stayed with Etsy is because folks go there to search for specific things that you might not be able to find elsewhere (like my West Virginia hotdog pin or cryptid map).
What’s the response been like to the strike and how are you getting the message out digitally?
DD: As an artist, I prefer to connect with my audience through my art. I drew an illustration and made some dinky infographics for the strike. I shared this on my Instagram page which has over 76,000 followers. I encouraged my followers to share my post, boycott Etsy for the week, and support creators in other ways like buying directly through their own websites, supporting them on Patreon, or engaging with their content online even more than usual.
SE: The response has been massive, and mostly positive. My Instagram post about the Etsy Strike has almost 30,000 likes and over 70,000 shares. It was shocking and especially affirming to have Jessica Walsh share my post. She and her mentor, Stefan Sagmeister, have been artists whose work I have admired since I was in school. Having her support and approval was huge, especially in moments when I would also be getting some not-so-positive feedback. Feeling solidarity and support from across the online artist and creator community was incredible.
Liz, you posted on IG that you feel conflicted about the strike. Not in terms of what it’s trying to achieve but that for many artists who use Etsy, this is their main source of income and so pausing work for a week creates even more of a financial strain. Can you speak more to that?
LP: I’m totally in support of everyone who did pause (or close) their shops last week. I wasn’t able to close mine: My store is currently my main source of income, especially after the last two years’ of canceled/delayed events, so shutting it for a week would be even worse than putting up with Etsy’s fee increase. I did what I could by signing the petition asking Etsy to reconsider the fee hike, avoided buying anything myself, and didn’t post any new items to my shop. I think it’s an especially hard situation for creators in isolated places like West Virginia, where the gig and e-commerce (especially art related) economies are finally starting to grow.
It’s an especially hard situation for creators in isolated places like West Virginia, where the gig and e-commerce economies are finally starting to grow.
How does this strike tie into broader questions about striking in the gig economy, and could this be a start of a new labor movement for platform workers and independent artists?
SE: I think the strike ties a lot into the broader questions about both the gig economy and also the labor movements we are seeing. I have been so inspired by the massive organizing movements we have seen throughout the country in the past few years. Kelloggs, Starbucks, Amazon, Teacher’s Unions, etc… People who have taken such a massive risk to stand up for themselves and for all workers, to demand better working conditions, especially from companies that are making billions of dollars off of their work.
Some of the pushback I got was that Etsy sellers aren’t a union, Etsy isn’t our employer, and if we don’t like it we can just leave. To me, this is all just more of a reason that coming together to demand better at this junction is critical.
I heard from many people that Etsy have previously locked them out of their accounts for months, and that during this time they had been unable to receive any of their funds, or get in contact with anyone at Etsy to help them out. I cannot imagine how stressful and distressing it was for these people, and I never want this to happen to anyone. If I can make a sacrifice that ends up making Etsy a better platform for the millions of sellers that use it, that’s what I’m going to do.
If I can make a sacrifice that ends up making Etsy a better platform for the millions of sellers that use it, that’s what I’m going to do.
LP: I think artists and gig workers have long been underpaid and undervalued, so it would be really exciting to see that start to change. I’ve read that one of the founders who spearheaded the Etsy strike movement is considering forming a union for Etsy sellers, which would be a good start.
DD: I’ve had so many people reach out to me about alternative websites. Many people have ideas, a passion for doing what’s right, and an eagerness to support small businesses in a way that big corporations like Etsy simply don’t. I’m actually chatting with a few different people about what we’ll do if Etsy doesn’t respond positively to the strike and it’s clear that we have options and numbers to make a big change towards a different platform. I won’t be shocked at all if this is the start of something new and promising for gig workers.
What do you hope for in the future when it comes to selling your work through Etsy and other platforms like it?
DD: I originally loved Etsy as a consumer. Finding niche, weird gifts or easily ordering a custom piece. I’ve found so much cool stuff there. But knowing how they treat their sellers, and how oversaturated the site is with fake small businesses pumping out mass-produced products, and how much stealing and shady practices go unchecked on the site… I just don’t feel good about giving them my money anymore. And as a small business owner, I feel emboldened to go where I’m valued and can make a profit while still keeping my prices accessible. Creatives should be compensated, but art shouldn’t be something that only the wealthy can afford. In a similar boat, selling your art shouldn’t be something only wealthy people can afford. And that’s what Etsy is basically saying.
Creatives should be compensated, but art shouldn’t be something that only the wealthy can afford. In a similar boat, selling your art shouldn’t be something only wealthy people can afford.
SE: I hope that Etsy can find its way back to its mission statement: “Keeping Commerce Human.” Etsy is a unique platform, unlike Amazon, eBay, or any other selling platform, whose main or sole objective is to get a product from the seller to the buyer ASAP, for as cheaply as possible. Etsy demands of its sellers not only the highest quality, and attention to detail, but also impeccable customer service.
LP: I hope Etsy listens to the shop owners and tries to get back to their core values of helping small-scale creators—between lowering the transaction fees, changing or getting rid of the recent Star Seller program, and communicating better with the artists that make it what it is.