Monday, August 18, 2014

My Visit with Etsy

So Etsy has a bi-weekly event called Eatsy, where all employees of Etsy eat together.  Etsy employees, known as Etsy admin, can invite Etsy members for a visit and a tour, plus meet with various staff members that might be helpful to their shop.  I got invited to one last week by Bernadette Sweeney, Director of Community Connections.  Etsy is located in the Dumbo section of Brooklyn, which is only a subway ride away from my house. Not every Etsy member is that lucky and I felt very privileged to get picked.  What I took away from the hour I spent there is that Etsy really practices what it preaches.  I’d love to work there - if I wasn’t already doing too many things full time, lol. 

Etsy Reception Area

Etsy Office Space
The first thing that struck me when I stepped through the entrance was how relaxed and welcoming everything looked.  The foyer is lined with plants, and the reception area contains lots of handmade items that set the tone for the company, which is all about handmade after all.  The work areas are open and spacious, dress is casual, and nobody has to punch in and out.  There are no phones on the desks (they’re not really needed) but there are little “phone” booths off to the side where one can make calls or sit with someone and chat privately. Bernadette allowed me to take some photos to share with everyone on my blog.

Etsy has a sizable kitchen area.  Lunch is catered twice a week by local restaurants, it is organic and sustainable whenever possible, not served on plastic plates but recycled paper with real silverware.  Every lunch has a vegetarian option.  There is a compost and the paper is collected separately.  There are coffee machines and refrigerators, but no plastic cups, only mugs which you can take outside to get a coffee at one of the local shops.

During lunch, I got to meet Kim Alfonso who is the Director of Seller Development.  She's the force behind the seller's handbook, the success tips and some of the other blogs.  We swapped stories about possible blog entries and we talked a lot about what works well on Etsy, as well a little about where there could be improvements.  Kimm was very interested in finding out my views about the seller platform, which is why it is so important for Etsy to meet with some of its sellers in person.

I also met with Nadine Heintz, the Seller Editor Content Manager, with whom I had a long chat about the convo system and custom orders.  As those of you who ask for custom work with me know, the convo system can quickly get unruly and then it is hard to find the important part of the conversation where the details of the order were settled.  And since I often manage 10 or more custom orders at once, I can easily get mixed up (and I have!).  I also get a lot of questions more than once.  To help with this, Etsy has created snippets, where you can copy snippets of conversations, i.e. my policies, with a couple of clicks, so you don't have to write everything twice.

Another thing I took away from our discussion was that I should create a custom order sheet which can be uploaded into the convo system.  That would eliminate some of the back and forth.

One of the things that really surprised me during my Etsy tour was that dogs were allowed in the work area.  I met Beanie (photo) and two other cuties that lazed around near their respective owners.  I wish more companies did that!  Etsy also has rooms with couches and other seating areas where you can work if you don’t feel like sitting at your desk, another thing that made the atmosphere very relaxed.  Those rooms are often used for meetings, or for workshops held by employees that want to share their craft.  In fact just about every room and every desk was decorated with some handmade item or other which the staff had bought on Etsy (every new hire gets a $100 gift coupon to buy something for their desk).

Kitchen Area

Working Space with Couches

Etsy is what's called a B-Corporation, which is short for Benefit Corporation.  This is a for profit corporation but it has a special certification, similar to Fair Trade (for foods and apparel), that holds corporations to a higher standard of accountability, purpose and transparency (you can find the full explanation at online).  The non-profit company B-corp is the certifying body, and there are now over 1000 B-Corporations all over the country.

The B-Corp standard is presumably why Etsy and its staff are so open to visitors.  I personally found it very reassuring that my mission to be sustainable and promote local artisanship aligned so well with Etsy’s own standards.  It makes me be very happy to be a part of it.
Etsy Mascot - Handmade of Course
Etsy Foyer

Bike Room

Wednesday, August 6, 2014

How Are Gemstones Sourced, and is Their Sourcing Ethical?

That is actually a question I come across fairly often in some shape or other.  I.e. are your gems ethically sourced, do they meet the Kimberly standards, are they Fair Trade?  I have written about this before, but I think it is time to revisit the issue.

               Three observations, an anecdote, and finally an indeterminate conclusion:  First observation. Most countries in which gemstones are mined these days have few to no laws that protect workers or the environment, and few offer anything like “fair pay” (however much that is).  Second observation: the Kimberly process only applies to diamonds not colored stones - and there is a lot to be said about whether it even works in the first place.  Third observation: the label “Fair Trade” does not exist when it comes to minerals.  Fair Trade covers only food stuffs and more recently, apparel and home goods.  So given the way the questions were phrased above, the answer is simple: no, no, and no.  But it is more complicated than that. 

               Now the anecdote – or rather, two anecdotes.  My German geologist friend Jochen Hintze had recently heard about some new tourmaline finds in the Congo that he wanted to investigate.  He travelled to neighboring Rwanda, first to a town called Kigali and from there, together with a local friend, he took a bus to Gisengy, right at the border to the Congo.  Upon his first try at crossing the border to get to a town called Goma, he was refused entry because he didn’t have a visa.  But after some negotiations with the border chef which presumably involved money, he was given a “special” visa – there is no such thing according to the law, but the practice is nevertheless common.  The town of Goma is dangerous so one can travel only during the day.  Jochen had heard of various shops where minerals were being traded, but none of them seemed to exist any longer.  So his Rwandan friend placed various phone calls to old school friends which resulted in an invitation into the house of a local official.  The official loaned them a car and a bodyguard for a “tour of the city” and placed some phone calls of his own.  Shortly thereafter, people came to Jochen’s hotel to offer goods.  They explained that the local shops no longer existed because they kept getting robbed, so all trading now takes place privately and through connections.  Jochen was offered some faceted tourmalines at a fixed price, and he bought a few.

               Jochen then travelled back to his office in Arusha, Tanzania.  There, he was told by local brokers that some tourmaline crystals of an interesting yellow and pink color had been found at Mwanga the day before.  Negotiations took place a couple days later, once the locals had decided on the value of their parcel.  Jochen bought the entire 2 kg lot in the end.  How did he know what to pay?  After all, there are no fixed prices, only what the market will bear, or what someone is willing to pay.  In making his offer, Jochen has to calculate his travel costs, the costs of the shows at which he will offer out the goods, how much of the lot might move at which price, how much of the lot may not sell, and what kind of total income this will yield.  The locals in turn have to figure out how many possible buyers they have, who will be honest and who will cheat, and what the competition can offer that is better or worse, and at what price.  And those are just a few considerations.

Mwanga Tanzania

               Mining itself is usually done in locations without electricity and with very little equipment.  Stones can be washed out of rivers, or drilled out of rocks, sometimes just on the surface, sometimes a few meters below, and in a few cases, like Tanzanite, up to a few hundred meters down.  Very little energy, except human energy, is used.  The price of rough depends on availability of buyers and material.  Profits are shared among locals, with some percentage going to the local government for the use of the mine.  Or the mining is “illegal” meaning somewhere in the middle of nowhere where nobody is watching and people just take what they can, then sell it.  In a sense therefore, there is a system, but by American and European standards, it is ad hoc and involves little to no government control.  Still, among locals, the rules can be clear and will be adhered to.

               Let us now revisit our original question.  If I buy some of Jochen’s tourmalines, did I source them ethically?  Did he?  What is your view? 

               I usually do know where my materials come from, and of course just like you, I have access to information about how that particular area or country is structured in terms of mining, or how what type of mining it is.  I also tend to think that the more money flows back to the original source, the better.  I am against cheating, against the use of violence in sourcing materials, and I would like to see those who work to find these gems paid and fed.  I’d like the environmental impact to be minimal.  But is this enough?