The Truth Behind That “Handmade” Label.

Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash

For those who don’t know, handmade items are the new next big thing. It’s more than just a hobby; it’s a big business.

The popular website, Etsy was worth over three billion dollars when it went public last April. A month after Etsy went public, Amazon launched a direct competition to it with a section called Handmade, which specializes in handmade goods. The February 2016 issue of Better Homes and Gardens reports that 18 percent of all vendors on Etsy sell their goods full-time. In a nutshell, there is a lot of money to be made in the handcrafted industry.

However, the question remains: When we purchase a handmade item, do we ever really know what we’re getting?

Much as the popular buzzwords “local,” “organic” and “natural” conjure up certain images, which may have little to do with reality, so too does “handmade.” As with many unregulated terms, just because an item says it is handmade, that does not necessary mean it was made by the hands selling it—or indeed, it may not have been made by any hands at all.

Even more confusing are the policies of many sites like Etsy and Amazon. As a Think Progress report explains, while the latter, “forbid[s] factory-made items of any kind or those made from a kit,” Etsy does not. In fact, starting in 2013, Etsy allowed for the sale of some manufactured goods. The next year, they amended that by 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.”

If you think the confusion is limited to the online sector, you’d be mistaken.

Just north of me is Washington, DC, home to the Crafty Bastards Arts & Crafts Fair, which bills itself as, “an exhibition and sale of handmade goods from independent artists.” It is held twice a year, and by its own admission it is quite competitive to get vendor space. Per their website, “In past years, we’ve received over 500 applications for 170 available booth spaces.”

While the rules, especially the one calling for all products to be handmade by the vendors themselves, seem to promote “local,” this isn’t necessarily the case. For example, one vendor, DeNada, who is indeed based in Washington, DC, actually has their products made in Peru. While they claim to be handmade—and there is no reason to doubt their word—the fact still remains that a customer at the fair is not actually going to meet the person who made their item. (An inquiry as to where the items sold at Crafty Bastards were made was answered with the following: “Crafty Bastards [will be] a mix of items that were handmade by Virginia in our studio as well as items that were handmade by artisans in Peru.”)

For those wondering why this is even an issue, it’s because the use of child labor is often a problem in the handmade goods industry.

In 2014, a Harvard report entitled “Tainted Carpets” found that the use of child labor was extensive in India’s handmade carpet industry and some of these rugs were sold in upscale U.S. stores, including Neiman Marcus.

Another problem is counterfeit items. (At least one report found over one million fake items on Etsy alone.)

So, what is a consumer who wants to buy handmade items to do?

Until there are better regulations, we can know who made our purchases. Ask directly who actually made that sweater, table or ring. If someone says they designed it, ask if they actually made it themselves, because in some case, the designer and the person or persons who made said items may be different.

Furthermore, don’t be afraid to get an expert opinion, especially when it comes to buying items that claim they are silver, gold or containing gemstones.

Lastly, think about why you are purchasing an item. There is nothing wrong with purchasing an item because we simply like it, but those of us who want to buy items that are ethically-made and environmentally friendly need to look past the term, “handmade.”

As the above demonstrates, even if an item is made by hand, it may not be made by the hands we assume.


Relephant Reads:

Confused About Sustainable Fashion? 5 Easy Tips for Buying Ethically.

10 Steps to Becoming an Ethical & Conscious Consumer.


Author: Kimberly Lo

Editor: Toby Israel

Image: Joanna Kosinska/Unsplash


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comfrey Feb 7, 2016 9:15am

Great Article. I have friends who sell on Etsy, and they really do make their own stuff. Pretending they're on the same playing field as people having things manufactured is not fair, and it was not Etsy's original model. Even when hand made items come from other countries with fair trade practices, it's not the same as people making their own stuff with their own creative ideas, it's an importer bringing things in making most of the profit- not saying that's bad but it's not the same as supporting local artisans.

I spent significant time in India and remember seeing on Indian tv and reading in local news papers about factories being closed down when the authorities busted them for child labor. The children were crying, sometimes dragged from their work stations as they did not want to lose their miserable jobs. Their parents could not get jobs as unskilled adults, and so they spent their days begging while the kids could go to work. The children kept their families fed, without those factory jobs the family would only have begging. It's horribly sad, but it's not like those kids would be going to school or having much fun if they weren't working. They will just be hungry on the streets. They were also empowered in a way, they knew they were useful and took pride in keeping their families together, very different from children in the US. We need to stop expecting our trinkets to be so cheap, someone somewhere always pays the price. I don't have the answers, but it was sad to see kids losing their jobs, knowing that horrible job was the difference between a little rice everyday or no food at all. We need a whole new economic system, the current one will always support this conundrum.

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Kimberly Lo

Kimberly Lo is a yoga instructor and freelance editor & writer based in Charlottesville, VA. In her spare time, she enjoys needlework, travel, and photography. Connect with her on Facebook.