Etsy and the ecology of crafters and makers

If human beings are part of nature and human civilization is Gaia’s premiere evolutionary strategy (Michael E. Zimmerman, Humanity’s Relation to Gaia: Part of the Whole, or Member of the Community?), then Matt Stinchcomb, Vice President of Values and Impact at Etsy, has something important to teach us about the inextricable relationship between natural and cultural creativity.

Stinchcombm, a former musician, was tired of touring and was offered a job at Etsy: “you can be our marketing guy!”

He had not training in marketing.

His first poster depicted a kid throwing a stone at a factory: “End mass production!”.

We stressed self-sufficiency, being able to not buy into a system that we knew was corrupt and felt wrong to us.

He learnt marketing from books.

The more I read the worst they felt to me: “Really? That seems so weird. Where are the people in this equation? Why wasting time and money on advertising when with the same money you can build a community?

So he traveled around the world, on tour once again, and met with local groups of etsy sellers. At the time, 97% of sellers were women. They are 90% now.

I went around and tried to learn from those communities, figuring out how we could support them. We realized that it was the community that was key to etsy. So we created community spaces in our office with labs where people could come and make things: Etsy labs (community spaces). From the very beginning we understood that they were to be our partners in this endeavour: “We are not making this thing for these artists, but with them”.

Now they employ 600 people all over the world. From 200,000 dollars worth of goods in 2005, they climbed to 1,350,000,000 dollars in 2013.

Stinchcomb holds that business is meaningful, it can be the tool for creating more value for the world than it takes from the world. We just need new methods of production and consumption, a lifestyle made for permanence.

He got that from E.F. Schumacher.

The key is: a big number of small things instead of a small number of big things. It works in nature and it works in business because there is no economy without ecology.

So now there are all these human-scale economies interconnecting through Etsy (see How are Fibonacci numbers expressed in nature?).

At the end of 2009 he moved to Berlin to open the first Etsy office over there.

The birth of his son Francis forced him to ponder the nature of work: what is my purpose in life? What is it that I am trying to do?

In 2011 (the very same year) they hosted the first Etsy conference/event:

This was a pivotal moment, marking a shift from “a place where you can buy and sell the things you create” to “well actually it is a platform where we can build a new economy”.

Stinchcomb believes that business is just a tool and it is all about how one uses it. We are called to re-imagine what business is, its purpose. Hence, the new mission statement: “Our mission is to re-imagine commerce in ways that build a more fulfilling and lasting world”.

This will lead to a world more durable, but also more enjoyable and connected.

Durable economies equals good communities.

What we really need is a shift in consciousness.

What can we learn about business from looking at nature?

There is a ton of incredible information there. You cannot have ecosYSTEms without Etsy in the middle.

Ecosystems are complex and distributed, like Etsy.

With over a million small businesses, this company is an ecosystem based on a big number of small things, rather than a small number of big things.

This is a very resilient structure for business.

I started to think about how sadly a large part of agriculture as it exists today is not like this: you have these monocultures of soybeans and corn in places where at one time there was a rich biodiversity.

To sustain that system, to keep it “alive”, you need to use more and more chemicals.

But what happens if you get a blight? Well, the whole system collapses, because it is not a very resilient structure with all those brutal concentrations. And this is true for economies too.

Stinchcomb explains that, gradually, the current economic model pushes for consolidations of small enterprises into ever larger units. 

And what happens when a large factory leaves a town? Once again, the whole system collapses.

This means that the system is not resilient (cf. Resilience, Adaptability and Transformability in Social–ecological Systems).

Like ecosystems, businesses are always changing and he attributes his longevity at Etsy to the fact that:

I don’t hold on too tightly to things, I am flexible, I move with the flow of things, I feel that people who get too caught up in an identity (“I am this person/role, I need to do this”) are the ones who don’t last.

Their businesses don’t last either.

Ecosystems are patterns within patterns, they are made of ever smaller systems.

He uses Etsy as an example: his body is an ecosystem, placed within the Etsy team ecosystem, in the larger ecosystem of buyers and sellers. All these parts are interdependent. The success of Etsy depends on the success of all the other parts:

If you see yourself as part of an interdependent ecosystem, then you need to make the decisions that create the most benefits for as many stakeholders as you can and you should not make a decision that come to the detriment of them, lest you harm yourself. Business must be good for your peers, your neighbours, your employees, yourself and, most importantly, for the planet, the ecosystem that contains us all.

There is no economy without ecology: everything is connected.

Modern man does not experience himself as part of nature but as an outside force destined to dominate and conquer it. He even talks of a battle with nature, forgetting that, if he ever won the battle he would find himself on the losing side (E.F. Schumacher).

[We must work with nature, not against nature. We are stewards, not parasites (Author’s Note)].

Stinchcomb observes that, in ecosystems, the most wealth is generated at connection points such as edges of a forest, estuaries, and so forth: it is there that on can find the greatest biodiversity, the richest soil. And this is true for our businesses too. We create our most abundance when we perceive ourselves as connected, individually and collectively.

A lot of the work we do at Etsy is to strengthen connections between sellers, to help buyers. Then you are able to see the interdependence and make the decisions (as producers and consumers) that make the most value for the people on this planet…[…]. Choose connections and live in fragments no longer.

Etsy_HeadquartersI wanted a nonsense word because I wanted to build the brand from scratch. I was watching Fellini’s 8 ½ and writing down what I was hearing. In Italian, you say ‘etsi’ a lot [eh sì]. It means ‘oh, yes.’
Robert Kalin, co-founder, How Etsy, eBay, Reddit got their names, CNN, 22 April 2011

Decades of an unyielding focus on economic growth and a corporate mentality has left us ever more disconnected with nature, our communities, and the people and processes behind the objects in our lives. We think this is unethical, unsustainable, and unfun. However, with the rise of small businesses around the world we feel hope and see real opportunities: Opportunities for us to measure success in new ways… to build local, living economies, and most importantly, to help create a more permanent future.

Notes From Chad: Funding Etsy’s Future

Our power comes from protecting what we love – love of place, love of life, people, animals, nature, all of life on this beautiful planet Earth. And I would say for the entrepreneurs amongst us, it also is about our love of business. Business has been corrupted as an instrument of greed rather than one of service to the common good, yet we know that business is beautiful when we put our creativity and care into producing a product or service that our community really needs.

Judy Wicks, Business for the Common Good: Building Local Living Economies in the Age of Climate Change

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