We have all experienced it: Some organization or service starts out good — or great, even — and then as time goes on, either costs and fees go up, or quality declines.
In the context of a dominant economy that demands faster production, cheaper labor, and lower quality — all for the sake of channeling wealth upward to shareholders who have little to do with the real-world value created by a business — it is understandable that people may feel cynical about any type of retail organization.
This is a story of how the makers who create a living off their hard-earned skills, banded together to challenge this dominant business ethic, and about the cooperative they built that’s just now getting off the ground. It is a venture that aims to grow at the speed of trust to serve the makers, the customers, and the staff who run it.
#EtsyStrike and the Artisans Cooperative
In February 2022, many artists and craftspeople who operated shops on Etsy were feeling the pain caused by the profit-first ethos. Etsy, which became a publicly traded company on Wall Street in 2015, had announced record profits in 2021. But in the same breath — in the same quarterly earnings report — Etsy also announced a 30% increase in transaction fees, which would eat into sellers’ profits.
“The human reaction to that is being upset,” said Valerie Schafer Franklin, a leather worker and writer, “that they were both more profitable than ever, and they were going to raise fees on sellers by a lot.”
In response, thousands of Etsy shops banded together for a strike in April 2022. The strike lasted a week, but Etsy did not change anything as a result. It didn’t change its fees or offer concessions. It didn’t respond to the strike at all.
“After the strike, there was sort of a moment of, what do we do next?” said Schafer Franklin, who had taken part in it. “We didn’t want to ‘bang our head against the Wall Street.’ That’s not a good way to spend our limited energy as busy, working, small business owners and crafters. We decided to make a go of trying to make our own alternative that would be owned and managed by the people who use and love it, as a cooperative.”
That platform, Artisans Cooperative, just launched its marketplace in October 2023, ahead of the holiday season. It is a place where artists and makers can list and sell their goods, and collectively run a business. It is a place where customers can browse and find actually-unique items that they can trust are made with care and skill.
What is “handmade” really?
To ensure that the marketplace does not get filled with goods that aren’t truly handmade, Artisans Cooperative uses unique criteria. One of the three criteria is that the goods sold on the platform must be crafted with “the workmanship of risk”. The idea comes from the artisan David Pye, and according to the Artisans Cooperative website, “In essence, it means that at some point in the process, the artisan could ruin the work.”
“Our definition was crafted after reading several different theories about craft theory and art theory,” said Shafer Franklin. “The workmanship of risk really resonated with artisans. Anybody who we told it to was like, ‘Yes! That’s it!’”
Are 3D-printed goods allowed on the platform? Perhaps surprisingly, yes. It’s the same with crafts made with laser engravers or power drills. Tools are allowed, even if there is a degree of automation to them. “The question is: Are you making something original, authentic under the workmanship of risk?” said Shafer Franklin. “And we’re relying on the 3D printers on our site to be like, ‘Oh, I know that’s not original, [or] authentic because that’s a standard template or whatever.’”
Artisans themselves review and certify new sellers who offer similar skills or crafts to their own, and are paid for that time in points that contribute to their member-ownership. This review process also kicks into effect to review sellers who have been repeatedly reported for offering goods that may violate the handmade policy.
The multi-stakeholder co-op model
Since it’s a co-op, artisans are member-owners. This means they have decision-making power, as well as receive dividends when the platform turns a profit. This also means becoming a member-owner requires putting something into the co-op. Artisans Cooperative uses a point system, where one point is equivalent to one U.S. dollar, and it costs 1000 points to become a member-owner.
“I [thought], this is a really awesome idea, but we don’t have that kind of money to invest right now,“ said Miya Kressin, who runs a business called Pixie Wolf with her husband. Kressin writes books and makes resin items, and her husband makes items out of pewter and glass.
That’s when she found out that there are other ways to earn points toward member-ownership, making it more accessible to those who cannot afford a $1000 expenditure.
This is referred to as sweat equity, where artisans earn 25 points per hour by contributing their skills to the co-op. Kressin said she had spoken with co-op staff recently about contributing her skills in this way, to work toward member-ownership. “I’m a stay-at-home mom, [and] mostly disabled. I can put in a couple hours a week helping out with bookkeeping and social media.”
There is a schedule of other actions that earn points toward member-ownership, which include sales on, and referrals to, the platform.
Another key element of Artisans Cooperative is that it is a multi-stakeholder cooperative. While readers may be familiar with businesses that are run as worker co-ops, and might even be members of consumer co-ops (like grocery co-ops and credit unions), multi-stakeholder co-ops are a little less common and combine these two models. They can also offer other types of stakeholders a voice and a vote regarding how the organization is run.
Currently, Artisans Cooperative has about 300 artisan stakeholders and supporter (customer) stakeholders, with plans to expand it to include staff stakeholders, once the co-op is able to hire paid staff.
At this time, artisans can only sell on the platform if they are in the process of becoming a member-owner, but there are plans to change this in the future. Once any remaining kinks have been addressed on the new platform, the co-op says it will enable artisans to sell on it even if they do not initially intend to work toward member-ownership, and there is a waitlist for this.
Supporters are another important membership class for Artisans Cooperative. A supporter-member “… could be a shopper, could be a nonprofit, a collective, an organization, or a values-aligned agency that wants to support this option for artisans,” explained Shafer Franklin. “It’s a very free, flexible category just to allow people who are stakeholders in an artisan marketplace to be able to be involved.”
Supporter-members get a say in the decision-making process in the co-op and get to share in the profits of the platform. Supporters also get more access to community discussions than regular shoppers.
“With a co-op, it’s very simple: one member, one vote,” explained Shafer Franklin, illustrating how the model is more equitable to those who have less financial wealth. “Whereas in a typical business, if I, as the founder, had put in 20% of the startup capital, I would have a vote worth 20% instead of one.”
In addition, Artisans Cooperative is actually incorporated as a cooperative, which is less common in the United States. To do this, many steps were involved, including guidance from the U.S. Federation of Worker Cooperatives, and support and funding for legal fees to incorporate from the co-op accelerator Start.coop.
Since policies are designed and enforced by those who actually make things, this seems to have made the platform more welcoming to those who haven’t turned their skills into a business yet and for artists who cannot work as fast as a machine, for various reasons.
“I was really, really afraid to go on Etsy because I knew things [about it] like you have to respond to messages in a certain time frame,” said Lee Cattarin — a trans, queer, and disabled artist living outside of Seattle with his wife — citing negative impacts on mental health that Etsy’s policy of requiring sellers to always respond to messages in 24 hours. .
“I print shirts,” explained Cattarin. “I don’t have enough demand to pre-stock those shirts, and I print a wide variety of designs on a wide variety of styles. So when I get an order, I let a few orders build up. I order those blank shirts, I print them, and then I ship them out. And that timeline, coupled with ink drying time — the ink I use needs to sit for a week to fully set… Etsy would hate that. Etsy would penalize me to bits.”
Artisans Cooperative’s Discord server shows a stark difference between the sense of kindness and community that permeates the co-op and that of Etsy.
“I’ve made some friends. I’ve done a lot of networking. It’s been really, really good for getting more engaged with the artistic community, and learning skills and helping others,” said Cattarin, who is also enthusiastic about getting more involved in co-ops in his hometown. “I really like anything that tries to put power in the hands of the people who actually get the work done.”
***This story was written by Aaron Fernando and edited by Jennifer Foley. Due to a temporary bug in our website, we’re not able to correctly credit the author.