Amazon Handmade: It Might Not Mean What You Think

When thinking about the essence of handmade items, many consumers conjure up images of lone, talented individuals crafting beautiful items, and making a living from their passion. Buying something from Etsy or Amazon Handmade might even be seen as more ethically sound because it’s rewarding a person for their work, instead of a big corporate entity. However, as the different definitions from Amazon and Etsy show, paired with the history of handmade items in large stores, things aren’t always as they seem.

Amazon Handmade arrives at a time when the internet giant is already the leading destination for online shopping, with re/code recently reporting that they are “eviscerating other retailers,” with almost four in 10 people turning to Amazon first when looking to shop online.

Amazon Handmade is a strong addition to their portfolio of shopping options, which will allow them to continue in their quest to become a “one-stop-shop” for online shoppers seeking almost any product. Amazon Handmade will bring arts and crafts to the huge marketplace and give artisans access to Amazon’s huge market of buyers. Handmade products being sold through Amazon also puts them into direct competition with Etsy, the current leader in the space.

The first area consumers need to be aware of is that there is currently no definition of handmade that is “set in stone.” Amazon Handmade, as reported by Think Progress, is closer to a true handmade experience than Etsy. Etsy, in 2013, started to allow some manufactured goods to be sold on the platform, under certain conditions.

Amazon Handmade will also be keen to avoid some of the flak is was reported that Etsy received for the sale of “counterfeit luxury goods.”

“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.”

The oppressive conditions under which many handmade items are not a problem unique to Amazon’s new marketplace. Since outsourcing began, big business has sought to procure products at prices that would be unachievable from “Made In America” sources, largely due to workers being paid and treated in ways that would be unacceptable at home.

Seeing handmade items purchased through Amazon, or anywhere else (Harvard noted that handmade rugs from India sold at many top stores in the U.S. were made by children in sweat shops) as rewarding craft and being an ethical purchase requires moves towards a clearer definition of what is handmade and what is fair.

Fortune reported that Amazon Handmade announced they would be “factory free.” Being “factory free” doesn’t guarantee Amazon’s handmade goods will be ethically produced or truly art. A visit to the Jewelery Quarter Museum in Birmingham, England, allows one to peek inside the world of handmade “manufacturing,” which has now been largely outsourced abroad. Workers under intense pressure, in cramped conditions, using simple tools to make jewelry by hand, risked losing appendages daily as they rushed to create enough pieces per hour to be profitable.

Buyers looking to make ethical purchases from Amazon Handmade can choose to purchase only from America, or other countries with strong labor protections. For those small handmade operations, Amazon is offering an exciting alternative to the loss-making Etsy, and offers them access to another outlet for their goods. By supporting genuine handmade craft on Amazon, rather than the mass-produced, low-wage, sweatshop style of handmade production, consumers can shape Amazon Handmade into a true market for quality goods and for skills that we were at one time in danger of losing for good.

What do you think — will Amazon Handmade be a successful market for artisans, or descend into a market for overseas handmade sweatshops to peddle their wares?

[Image Source: Amazon Press Release]