Is Shopping on Etsy Ethical and Sustainable?

October 28, 2020

A handwritten note from an Etsy seller thanking me for my purchase

‘Tis the season for holiday gift shopping, and many of us are hoping to approach that in a more mindful way. Instead of standard gift guides, I’ve seen more experience gift guides, Amazon alternatives posts, and sustainable gift ideas.

Etsy is commonly recommended as an ethical and sustainable shopping platform, as the site was intended to be a marketplace for small creators. Unfortunately, the site doesn’t regulate its sellers very well, and you won’t always get handmade items by original creators.

In this post, I’ll dive into the nuances of conscious shopping on Etsy, and show you how to spot unethical sellers and mass-produced listings.

This post contains a couple affiliate links to Etsy items I’ve personally vetted. This means that I may earn a small commission on any purchases, at no extra cost to you. If you’re planning to shop on Etsy, it would mean a lot if you clicked through those links!

Etsy’s Sustainability Measures

First, let’s talk about what Etsy is doing well. Etsy is the first major online shopping platform to become carbon-neutral. They offset 100% of emissions from product shipments by funding verified emissions reduction projects through 3Degrees.

3Degrees is a certified B Corp that offers environmental consulting and carbon offset projects. Their partnership with Etsy includes investments in forest protection, clean energy, and more eco-friendly automotive manufacturing (this last one might sound like an oxymoron, but they’re reducing greenhouse gases from the production process; of course, reducing demand and production would be the best solution).

These carbon offsets come at no extra cost to consumers—Etsy is funding this initiative. So, at the very least, Etsy is investing in environmental projects, and the emissions from each shipment are offset (of course, don’t take this as a justification to overconsume).

Unfortunately, carbon neutral shipping doesn’t mean the product itself is sustainable or ethical. Let’s dive into the problems with many Etsy sellers and items.

A pair of heart-shaped gold wire earrings with a peach-shaped pearl at the top of the heart and two wavy wires down the middle to create a vulva shape
Here’s the pair of earrings that came with the above note (they’re vulva-shaped lol, but they’re pretty subtle)

Etsy’s Problem with Mass-Produced Items and Drop Shipping

Etsy’s Seller Policy states: “Etsy is a unique marketplace. Buyers come here to purchase items that they might not find anywhere else. Everything listed for sale on Etsy must be handmade, vintage, or a craft supply.”

Unfortunately, not everything you’ll find on Etsy falls under these categories. In fact, in some product categories, mass-produced items have overtaken the handmade listings.

I actually ran into this problem myself, when I bought a pair of earrings in June. The listing said “handmade,” but I later noticed other sellers offering the exact same design. I even eventually saw the same earrings on Shein, a massive fast fashion site (*cries*). And when I checked the seller’s storefront, I noticed they had over a thousand items with tons of inventory per item—it’s pretty unrealistic to handmake that much stuff.

A pair of gold earrings outlining a nude female body
The body earrings I thought were handmade but weren’t.Search results for 'body earrings' on Etsy with many duplicate designs
Look at all the copies of the same design!

There are also some drop shippers on Etsy. Drop shipping is when sellers place orders with a third party supplier (usually a wholesale company or the manufacturer). The item never passes through the sellers themselves, and you can sure bet that these items are mass-produced.

Basically, Etsy doesn’t do a great job of regulating its sellers. I’m not sure if it’s because of the sheer volume of sellers, or because they don’t care that much and just want the profits from selling fees.

Tips for Identifying Mass-Produced Items and Drop Shipping on Etsy

So, how can you avoid these unethical sellers and ensure that you’re actually buying an original item? Here are my tips:

1. Look for duplicates of the same design.

Search up the item keywords on Etsy (like “body earrings” in my case), and scour the results page. If multiple other sellers have the identical item, it’s probably not original. You might also do a quick Google Shopping search or reverse image search as well. If you can find the same item on platforms like Shein or Aliexpress, that’s not a good sign.

If you can’t find duplicates, that’s a good indicator that the item is original and likely handmade. That said, keep in mind that sellers will sometimes have their designs ripped off and mass produced. Sometimes their images will be stolen too and used on drop shipping sites.

An example of this are these iconic watering can earrings. There are multiple duplicates of the original creator’s design, but you can tell that their storefront looks legitimate, and they also state in the item description that they have the original RAW image files to prove authenticity.

Listing results when you search 'watering can earrings' on Etsy with the original design circled

So, even if you find duplicates, check the different sellers to see if you can find an original creator, and read each item description carefully!

2. Check the seller inventory and number of sales.

If the seller has over a thousand items and thousands and thousands of sales, they’re probably drop-shipping or selling mass-produced pieces. No one person can make and sell that many things. Of course, there are some prolific creators and small businesses with a team of employees, so there could actually be a legitimate seller with hundreds of items and thousands of sales.

If the designs appear to be original, then larger seller inventory and sale numbers might not be red flags.

3. Find the shop’s social media accounts.

Many legitimate sellers have Instagram or TikTok accounts to promote their products. Look up the seller or shop name on these platforms, and see if you can find an online footprint. Sellers often post behind-the-scenes photos and videos of their work, so that can be an extra reassurance that their items are original and handmade.

A pair of gold wire earrings on a white sheet surrounded by springs of lavender

Let me know if you have more tips for spotting sketchy Etsy sellers, and if you have any stories of good (or bad) sellers you’ve encountered.

On a final note, I just want to encourage you to gift experiences rather than things, if you can. Or better yet, ask what your friends and family want and get them exactly that! The holiday season comes with a lot of waste, as people are gifted things they don’t want or need. It might seem less thoughtful to ask what someone wants, but I think it’s actually more thoughtful—you’re showing you care about getting them something they’ll use.

If you are planning to shop on Etsy, I’d love it if you used my affiliate link to do your shopping. This income allows me to keep writing sustainability posts like these!

You may also like these posts:

Sustainable or Greenwashing? How to Evaluate Fashion Brands
9 Common Misconceptions About Sustainable Fashion

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2 Comments

  • Nina | Lemons and Luggage October 29, 2020 at 2:51 am

    Oooh, I love this post! The first time I tried to buy something on Etsy it wasn’t possible because of some restrictions in Greece, and since then I never got around to buying anything from there. I’d always seen stuff on there but honestly didn’t even know what they were really about. This post really cleared that up for me. Now I know they’re actually doing some really good work, but that, as with everything, it’s important we do our own research as well!

    • Lily October 29, 2020 at 9:37 am

      Thanks for stopping by, Nina! Yup, I’m glad to see Etsy invest in environmental initiatives, but we definitely still have to do some digging on our own to find legitimate sellers!

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    I'm Lily, and I run races and go places (& blog about it). I also try to advocate for the planet & its people.
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