Firebird in the New York Times! March 27 2014, 19 Comments
When someone contacts you and asks if you'd like to be interviewed for the New York Times, you don't say no. I mean come on- it's the New York Times!
I was told it was a "trend piece" about "beauty products on Etsy" and the reporter seemed genuinely interested in this whole "underground" beauty culture that she never knew existed. Our interview was conducted over the phone while I was driving back from vacation in the Outer Banks last summer, and the signal kept cutting out as we drove through areas without reception, so the conversation was a little stilted and I came away from it feeling like there was a lot more I would have liked to have said.
The article came out today- you can read it here. While I'm certainly grateful for the exposure (and look at that huge picture of me! ack!) I am pretty disappointed with the content. I've been speaking to Rhonda from Erzulie Cosmetics, who was also featured, and she feels similarly conflicted.
It not that it was an unflattering portrayal of either of us- it wasn't. And I wouldn't expect any article to be all sunshine and roses- it's not an advertisement. But the second half of the article presents a very biased and one-sided perspective. In our interview, I addressed virtually all of the points the author brings up- yet my perspective on those issues is mostly absent. The impression it gives me is that she approached the article with a certain point of view (a different one than she led me to believe, for the record) and then chose quotes and information to support her perspective, ignoring anything that didn't. Which- this is a column, yes? It's more editorial? So she's free to do that, I suppose.
But it's disappointing. I feel like I can't share this article in good faith without attempting to address some of the the inaccuracies and misleading statements in it. So I'm going to do that here. I'm going to start at the bottom of the article and work my way back up, because that happens to be how I would rank the strength of my objections from least to greatest!
"The goods sold on Etsy can disappear overnight" (Noella Beauty)
I do not know Jackie from Noella Beauty and I have no idea why she appears to have closed her Etsy shop and shut down her business. People close their businesses for all sorts of reasons- I think it would be disrespectful to speculate. But we were interviewed for this article EIGHT months ago. The only other contact I received from the author was an email three days ago to fact check my sales numbers and let me know the article would be running today.
You've probably read some of the statistics reporting that more than half of small businesses fail in their first few years- some sources say as many as 8 out of 10. That one of the three businesses profiled for this article closed sometime in the last 8 months is not only unremarkable- it's statistically very likely. And it's hardly an "overnight disappearance." The author could have acknowledged this fact or omitted Noella Beauty from the article, or simply added a post script that the business had since closed- that she chose instead to salaciously imply that all of us could disappear at any time (as if that weren't true of ANY business, internet based OR brick and mortar) speaks to a bias that comes through in much of the article.
"Although problems are rare, they can arise" (Glittersniffer)
Or rather, they arose once. Three years ago. And never before. And not since.
We all cringe when Glittersniffer is brought up. It was an awful situation. Again, I don't know Lela, I've never spoken to her, I was made aware of the situation the same way everyone else was- through blog posts and social media. If you're not familiar you can probably do some googling and get the background on the story. Essentially, a mineral makeup seller was discovered to be using colorants in some of her eye shadows (neon soap dyes, I believe- don't quote me on that) that were not meant to be used in leave-on products or around the eyes. People had some skin reactions. There was a big scandal, with accusations and coverups and drama and witch hunting (certainly justified, but still. You know how the internet is.)
It was ugly. And it was disturbing both to buyers ("how can I trust that the products I'm buying are safe?") and sellers ("how are we ever going to get customers to trust us after this?")
What Glittersniffer did was HIGHLY irresponsible and dangerous. I don't believe (and if you know otherwise, please correct me) that any serious injuries or lawsuits came out of the scandal, and all parties involved are extremely lucky for that. It could have been a lot worse.
But I think the fact that this was an isolated incident speaks volumes. If this was something that happened all the time- if handmade beauty product sellers regularly used unapproved ingredients and harmed people- you'd be hearing about it. The way the Glitternsiffer scandal grew from some rumblings and questions from customers on some message boards to a full-blown Internet Scandal that shut down the business is a great reminder that we do not live in an era where things like this can slip by unnoticed. The investigative powers of groups of people on the internet are quite a thing to behold. And their mob justice is swift and vicious.
The fact is, for many of us this is our livelihood. We take it seriously. One lawsuit from a customer could easily ruin any of us (not just our business, but our lives), not to mention the p.r. fallout that even a hint of wrongdoing would bring. The risk of making unsafe products is so very great, and the reward is… what, exactly? If there was anyone who didn't take those risks seriously before, surely this opened their eyes.
"The 'ick' factor"
Here's where the author's bias becomes clear. It's pretty telling that she chose only to include quotes from a dermatologist (who is obviously unfamiliar with handmade beauty products) and none of the responses and counterpoints that Rhonda and I made addressing those sort of concerns, or comments from experts on our side of the fence (a spokesperson from our trade organization, for example), or comments from customers who are actually buying these products.
"Some people are just grossed out by the concept of buying makeup that has been made at someone’s kitchen table." "You don’t know …how clean the person’s kitchen table is.”
Of course, as Rhonda from Erzulie Cosmetics and I both explained in our interviews, we don't work at our kitchen tables. Like virtually all of the soap and cosmetics sellers I know on Etsy, we have dedicated workspaces purely for manufacturing our products. We follow the FDA's Good Manufacturing Practices as much as we are able with the space and equipment we have. We keep up with regulations and labeling laws. We take cleanliness and the health of our customers extremely seriously. I come from a food service background and regularly apply my knowledge and experience with sanitation, avoiding cross contamination, keeping a clean workspace, proper storage of ingredients, and so on.
We are professionals and we conduct our businesses professionally. And the author was given plenty of information about that, which she chose to ignore in favor of this narrative about kitchen tables. (Because. The ick factor!)
"It’s like what your mother told you: don’t share makeup with your friends,” In a worst-case scenario, Dr. Baxt said, consumers could contract pink eye, a staph infection or contact dermatitis (effectively, a rash). “This could happen with regular makeup, too, but at least you know what is in it and how it was made,” she said."
Setting aside the fact that the dermatologist quoted seems confused about the difference between USED cosmetics (which could certainly give you pink eye or a staph infection, if the person who used them before you had either of those conditions) and handmade products (does she think we are scooping ingredients with our fingers and smearing them on our faces before we make them into lip balm?), the last part is the most telling to me.
You guys are Etsy shoppers, so I think you know where I'm going to go with this.
"[With commercial products] at least you know what is in it and how it was made"
Alright. Deep breath. Have you ever read a statement that so bluntly misses the entire point? I explained all this to the author (not that you'd guess it from the article!) when she asked me why I did what I did, so I will address myself instead to the dermatologist.
Ms. Baxt, let me introduce you to a little website called Etsy.com, and this cultural phenomena known as the handmade movement. We are living in a consumer culture that is heavily invested in the disconnection of makers and users, buyers and sellers. We shop at big box stores, where every item inside was assembled in distant factories overseas by countless pairs of hands attached to people we know nothing about, who know nothing about us. We buy our meat from the grocery store, in hermetically sealed packets of styrofoam and plastic, carved into little cutlets that bear no resemblance to the animal from whence they came. Where do things come from? They come from the store. Before that, they come the factory. Before that- who knows. Who cares?
I suppose I can't blame you for your squeamishness. We are so disconnected from the sources of things and how they are made that the idea of someone else's hands touching the products we buy can seem gross and wrong to people. Nevermind that every time you eat at a restaurant, multiple pairs of human hands have touched your food, and that yes, in the factory those commercial cosmetics have been handled too. You don't see those, so you can ignore them.
But you see, there are a lot of people out there who are dissatisfied with this system. People who are seeking a deeper level of connection to the things they buy and use, and with the people who make them. People who want to buy their meat from the farmer and not the megamart. People who want to buy something made by someone, not just manufactured somewhere.
Do you really know more about what's in that lipstick you bought at Sephora than the soap you bought from me? Do you know more about how and where it was made? Who do you think cares more about you as a customer, your safety, the quality of your product- the assembly line worker at the cosmetics plant and the sales associate who takes your money at the store? Or the sole proprietor who designs, makes, packages and ships and corresponds with you directly, whose entire livelihood depends on your happiness as a customer and your willingness to return and purchase again and spread the word about my company?
These handmade products- you worry because you don't know who has touched them? Oh, but you do.
Here I am. These are my hands. This is my workspace. This is where your lip balm is made. You know exactly where my products have been and how they were made because I am right here to show you and tell you and answer your questions. Do you really think you know more about the products you buy at Sephora?
Rob Kalin, the founder of Etsy, once described the site's mission this way, and it still pretty much sums it all up for me:
"Etsy's marketplace is a community. At the heart of every transaction is a direct relationship between the maker and the buyer.
We, the members of this community, join together to earn a living from what we make and to support those who make things. Our vision is to build a new economy and present a better choice: Buy Handmade. Cradled in our community, our intention is to support the independent artist and create viable alternatives to mass-produced objects in the world's marketplace.
With the Industrial Revolution we lost the connection between producer and consumer; we no longer know who makes our daily bread, our clothes or our furniture.
We are using the Web to reconnect: to once again allow the producer and the consumer to know each other; to swing the pendulum back to a time when we bought our bread from the baker, food from the grocer, and shoes from the cobbler.
Through the forging of friendships and with a commitment to hard work, our community and our cause will prosper."
To which I would add (with a few more borrowed words): if you have to ask why this is important you're not going to understand the answer anyway.