Amazon’s quest to be all things to everyone is nearly complete as the company launched its Handmade craft site this week. But while the move takes aim at top craft site Etsy, the online retailer’s new venture could also unearth disconcerting labor issues that come with non-factory made items.
Amazon first announced its intent to capitalize on the artisan crafts marketplace in May, sending invitations to Etsy sellers in hopes of poaching them. Etsy went public in April and has been hemorrhaging money ever since — losing nearly $37 million in the first quarter.
But Etsy sellers and consumers wondered long before the IPO whether the company was losing its indie soul and selling out. Amazon — with its proud aspirations of being the world’s one-stop shop — has never had that problem. But it could inherit some of the quality concerns plaguing Etsy, and because of Amazon’s global platform, absorb the labor concerns plaguing much of the world.
To participate in Handmade, crafters must adhere to Amazon’s strict policies that forbid factory-made items of any kind or those made from a kit. As the company put it, Amazon wants to ensure each item available has a story that extends a connection from an artist in Kenya to the Manhattan-condo dweller.
“Knowing an item has a unique story behind it creates a personal experience that customers have told us makes owning handmade items special,” said Amazon Handmade’s vice president Peter Faricy in a statement. “Handmade at Amazon offers customers more than 80,000 quality handcrafted items from around the world, and over 30 percent can be personalized by artisans to delight customers.”
Amazon’s approach is a direct shot at what Etsy sellers griped about for years. The original crafts site garnered criticism in 2013 when it amended its “handmade” guidelines to allow some manufactured goods to be sold. Etsy then clarified its changes in 2014 saying that outside manufacturers were allowed to help sellers keep pace with demand, but only if the seller retained creative authority and passed the application process.
Etsy was scrutinized earlier this year for permitting the sale of counterfeit luxury goods. According to a report from Wedbush, at least 5 percent or 2 million items for sale on Etsy were fake — a revelation that contributed to the company’s financial woes.
Counterfeit items are typically handmade — frequently by children or in otherwise oppressive conditions. That is an issue that unfortunately haunts every goods manufacturer, making it nearly impossible to ethically buy goods without a semi-personal relationship with the crafter.
And Amazon can’t get away from it simply by eschewing factory-made items. For example, a Harvard report from 2014 found that handmade Indian rugs sold at top-tier retailers such as Neiman Marcus were made by children.
Compared to Etsy, Amazon’s Handmade is a regression: Etsy is the American dream, going from a niche haven for entrepreneurial crafters to allowing outside manufacturers help with bulk requests; while Amazon the e-commerce behemoth seeks to give space to small artisans worldwide.
Amazon’s Handmade certainly has great opportunity potential for creators everywhere who want to share their culture and creations, but it also opens up a murky and unregulated world where artisan items could be possibly made in conditions that wouldn’t fly in the U.S.