Etsy’s New Policy Riles Magical Communities

Terence P Ward —  June 25, 2015 — 25 Comments

Etsy, a widely-used site for selling handcrafted and other items online, sent shockwaves through the Pagan online vendor community by clarifying a company policy on spell-related items. While “clarify” was the word officially used to describe the action, in effect the change banned even a whiff of the supernatural in the names and descriptions of items for sale. An email sent to shop owners advised of the policy updates, but it wasn’t until items — and entire shops — were being disallowed that people really started to notice.

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An article on the policy shift at the Daily Dot explained what has changed:

 . . . under Etsy’s previous rules, spells and hexes were allowed to be sold, as long as they fit two criteria: They didn’t guarantee results, and they produced something tangible. . . . Recently, however, Etsy quietly adopted new guidelines that prohibit the sale of spells and hexes. According to its new rules, ‘any metaphysical service that promises or suggests it will effect a physical change (e.g., weight loss) or other outcome (e.g., love, revenge) is not allowed, even if it delivers a tangible item.’

As reported by The Daily Dot, Shop owners reported notifications of suspensions as early as June 9. They were given no advance notice that their shop or item descriptions would have to be changed.

Etsy spokesperson Sara Cohen spoke to The Wild Hunt using nearly identical wording to the responses given to the Daily Dot, as well as the phrasing in the policy itself. This suggests that the message is being tightly controlled. She said:

Services have always been prohibited on Etsy. Any service that does not yield a new, tangible, physical item is not allowed (for example: tailoring, restoring or repairing an item, photographic retouching or color correction).

We’ve recently updated our policies to reflect that this includes metaphysical services that promise or suggest a resulting physical change (i.e. weight loss) or other abstract outcome (i.e. fortune or luck), even if they deliver a physical object. We appreciate that it is a tricky, nuanced area, and our policy and enforcement teams weigh many factors to fairly, reasonably and consistently enforce our policies.

By tightening restrictions in the metaphysical arena and in “clarifying” the policy, Etsy has also removed the categories of ‘Religious Services and Readings’ and ‘Spells, Rituals and Readings’ entirely. It is following in the footsteps of eBay, who banned the sale of curses, spells, hexes, magic, prayers, blessings, magic potions, healing sessions and similar items and services in 2012, despite a petition signed by 2,845 people in opposition. Unlike eBay, Etsy did not give its vendors clear advance warning, which might explain why a similar petition seeking to end this ban has gathered 6,180 signatures to date.

[Courtesy Astrelle] Goddess ritual bath salts removed from her shop.

[Courtesy Astrelle] Goddess ritual bath salts removed from her shop.

The organizer of the Etsy petition drive, Astrelle, runs the Celestial Secrets shop on Etsy. What happened to her and others she spoke to didn’t suggest that the implementation of the new policy was done reasonably:

I had some listings deactivated by Etsy for not fitting within the parameters of their guidelines, though I have been luckier than most. I have noticed stores with more items that they consider ‘services’ than not have been entirely removed. I have been told this erases all of their customer info and wipes their shops. Many have said this happened without warning. I have been in contact with other shop owners, and some have said they only received warning after their shops were deactivated.

Astrelle’s experience, as well as those she reported, were very different from the approach that Etsy representative Cohen said has been taken:

Our goal is to support as much of the metaphysical community on Etsy as possible, and that is why we worked hard to reach out to individual sellers to help bring them into compliance.

To be clear, we are not shutting down all metaphysical shops as part of this policy update; we’re contacting only those shops or items that violate our policies. Sellers may continue to sell astrological charts, tarot readings, and other tangible objects, as long as they are not making a promise that object will effect a physical change or other outcome, such as weight loss, love, revenge, or a medical cure or claim.

While gauging the full scope of the reaction is difficult, there were a number of comments on various threads indicating support for the protection against fraud, while others attacked the alleged lack of consistency in enforcement. One commenter said, “What’s funny is that ebay stopped allowing spells to be sold over a year ago-and all the crazies went to Etsy; the ‘big booty’ ‘penis enlargment’ and ‘breast augmentation’ spells were all over Etsy. They allow those but not spell kits?”

As some users tried to parse the meaning of the word “suggest,” others, including petitioner Astrelle, saw a pattern in the shops and items being targeted for removal; a pattern that gave Christian-themed merchandise a pass. Thelemite blogger Scott Stenwick put it this way:

The problem, though, is that mainstream religion gets a pass on metaphysical claims in the minds of many people, and it’s starting to look like the Etsy admins are no exception.

The example of someone told to change a ‘spell kit’ to a ‘prayer kit’ is precisely what I’m talking about. A prayer that is intended to produce a tangible effect is the same thing as a spell. Also, a ‘kit’ is not a service but rather a collection of items, so why that would fall under the new policy remains a mystery to me — unless there’s an admin out there who just doesn’t like the word ‘spell.’

Spokesperson Cohen addressed that concern by saying, “We would like to be clear that this is NOT targeted at witches, Wiccans, or any religion. Etsy strongly believes in freedom of thought, expression, and religion, and we will never institute a policy that discriminates against sellers for their religious beliefs or practices.” And, when asked about items such as the St. Christopher medallion which was linked to by both Stenwick and The Daily Dot, she replied, “Due to the nature of our platform, where anyone may list anything at any time, it is possible that a service may appear for sale on the site before our enforcement teams have a chance to remove it. Members are welcome to flag these items and report them to us; we have a timely review process for all flags.”

[Courtesy Astrelle] Money Cones; one of the items removed from Etsy.

[Courtesy Astrelle] Money Cones; one of the items removed from her Etsy shop.

Nevertheless, the change has generated interest in finding alternatives to Etsy. Some shop owners are disheartened by the sanctions imposed, or are struggling to rewrite item descriptions to fit in the newly-clarified guidelines. Others don’t feel comfortable including disclaimers stating that their products are not intended to help, heal, diagnose, or do anything else in any way. They feel that such wording would run counter to the intent of the magic, and could well invalidate any spells actually cast.

“This is a part of my kind of people’s religious views! I don’t see how it’s anyone’s else business,” wrote Jenya, a Russian Pagan who was left very confused by the new rules.

Among the alternatives are lesser-known platforms like Square, Storenvy, and Folksy, which is only available in the United Kingdom. It’s also possible to simply sell through one’s own web site. None of those options can match the internet reach of Etsy, but a less establish seller needs to be engaging in some kind of marketing to drive traffic regardless. For top Etsy sellers, the revenue hit may be significant.

Terence P Ward

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Terence P Ward is a moneyworker, journalist, Hellenic polytheist and convinced Friend who lives in the bucolic Hudson Valley with his wife, five cats, and multiple household shrines.
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  • But this is okay, right?

    https://www.etsy.com/listing/215048794/childrens-prayer-box-kits?confirm_reported=1

    I went ahead and reported it for violating Etsy policy, as it clearly is saying that the kit will help grant your wishes.

  • Baruch Dreamstalker

    If the difference between “spell” and “prayer” is purely confessional, then barring one and giving the other a pass — overtly or covertly — is religious discrimination in the transaction of a business, contrary to US law. Practically, a legal remedy has two requirements: standing to sue, and deep pockets.

  • DverWinter

    Unfortunately, Etsy is getting worse and worse as time goes on. They don’t seem to have any problem with the vast amount of Chinese resellers on the site hawking supposedly “handmade” stuff that is totally mass-manufactured, but they go after stuff like this.

    I recently had some items pulled because they were cat and dog bones, which Etsy disallows even though they are perfectly legal. I responded to their email, twice, and sent support requests, twice, and never got even a form letter type of answer, they just ignored me.

    I’m already considering options for transferring my small hobby crafts shop and vintage shop elsewhere, but I would warn anyone looking to make a living from Etsy to be wary – you never know when they’re going to change their policies and screw you, not to mention just watering down their brand by letting in a bunch of junk.

    • Christina McDonald

      Do you know of any other place to sell? Oh and can I see a sample of the chinese resellers…for my own education on the subject 🙂

      • MadGastronomer

        Storenvy and Artfire are ones I’ve seen people using.

        • Christina McDonald

          thanks i’m going to look into those ones first

          • MadGastronomer

            You’re welcome.

  • Zanna

    Okay, here’s the first thing: Etsy doesn’t do services that do not create a new item. For example, they don’t allow tailoring, photo retouching, or antique repair. Even if you have a homemade candle, string of beads, whatever, and selling it as part of a “spell kit,” you are making claims beyond what the item can do on it’s own and selling a service.

    Secondly, the difference between a “spell kit” and a “prayer kit” is that it is accepted and understood that prayers are answered at the discretion of their god no matter how many candles you burn, whereas “spell kits” are sold for a particular purpose, the point of which is that the spell actually provide tangible results. One is understood to be hit and miss, the other is expected to work, period. End of. Kind of an interesting nod to the implied belief in the efficacy of witchcraft over prayer, but there you have it.

    Third, if you really want to go after a business entity for discrimination, go after PayPal and Square. Their terms of service expressly forbid the sale of anything “occult” on their platforms.

    • Baruch Dreamstalker

      I disagree with your distinction between prayer and spells. First, it’s not that cut and dried. Second, it’s not, imho, a legal distinction; if Etsy doesn’t address this discrepancy it may be legally vulnerable.You may have a point about “occult.” It’s not as clear cut but it seems valid.

    • If you are selling a candle to attract love, you are not selling a service, you are selling a special kind of candle. Yet those are still not allowed. Meanwhile a Christian “healing shawl” is still being allowed to be sold, as is a man selling his Christian prayers for $6.00 a pop.

      • kenofken

        Exactly. If fraud or false claims were really the issues at hand, the whole thing could have been handled by a rule barring promises of effectiveness of any supernatural or spirituality oriented item.

        It’s not “tricky and nuanced”. They’re spinning it that way because they’re not willing to admit the obvious, and clumsy religious discrimination behind their policies. My guess is some Etsy exec wanted to purge the company of “occult” listings, maybe under pressure from some “family values” group or big influential retailers of an evangelist bent.

        I also don’t buy the idea that (presumably monotheistic) prayers are qualitatively different from spell kits in commerce. Even though they may chalk up the power of prayer to the will of their god, Christian traditions are full of implied claims of effectiveness. Catholic tradition is overflowing with claims of very specific powers and effects for specific saints, relics, prayers etc.

  • Susan

    There used to be a Pagan owned auction site about 10-15 years ago. I don’t think it had much of a reach and to my knowledge is no longer around. I believe it’s time for Pagan businesses to band together and create their own platform, in the same way Etsy did. There are enough Pagan/Heathen/Occult themed blogs around now that if we all commit to promoting the new platform (leaving personal differences aside, as adults are supposed to be able to do) and abandon Etsy, I think it could not only survive, but succeed in a big way. It will help in two ways: it will hurt Etsy by taking that business entirely away from them, and it will help Pagan themed businesses to be showcased in an environment friendly and supportive to their endeavors.

    • MadGastronomer

      I remember that site! What was it called again?

      A pagan/polytheist/magical/occult shop platform could could work, but to get it started you’d need seed money and at least a few programmers and a web designer to get it started, plus somebody with experience (or contacts who have experience and can advise) doing internet startups to create the business model. The seed money either needs to be large enough to pay the person putting it together and the programmers and web designer, or all of those people need to be both willing and able to commit a lot of time and energy into gift work or on speculation, which most people don’t have these days.

      I’m a former (brick and mortar) business owner with a bunch of contacts in tech startups, a wife who’s a programmer and occasional web designer (because sometimes she builds a backend and then has to slap a functional frontend on it), and I have a vague idea of how much work putting together something like this would take from watching the people I know build online businesses. It’s a lot more than it sounds like you think, and it’s not just a matter of artisans and store owners banding together. If we really want a platform of our own, that platform has to be built. There are pagans (etc) with the skills to do it, but they gotta eat while they do, and it’s months of full-time work for multiple people, with no guarantee that the business will actually work and they’ll continue to have jobs, and that’s for a really bare-bones shop platform with minimal features. (I just asked my wife. That’s what she said.) A good programmer working on contract will probably want a hundred dollars an hour, and you’d need, oh, two or three of them, plus a designer and a sysadmin or two (unless you’re using some sort of cloud service). That’s just to create the site. You need somebody who can handle the business parts, which get complicated. You need customer service people, people who can investigate fraud (all it takes is a couple of charge-backs, and you’ll lose your credit card processor)… And it’s not a thing most of those people can do part-time.

      It’s a huge project, and an expensive one. Do you really think pagan (etc) business owners can afford to put together, oh, at least $100k to start with? In this economy? Because a niche business like this is not going to attract venture capitalists and angel investors. And most new businesses fail.

      • kenofken

        Would it be easy? No, but the alternative is living at someone else’s whim. This is not only a Pagan problem by far. With all of these big companies – Ebay, Etsy, Facebook, etc., everyone pisses and moans when they take wild advantage of their customer and vendors, but almost nobody walks away and stays away. They don’t respond to complaints and why should they? They know we’ll all slink back and take their terms at the end of the day.

        The solutions may be an alternative platform, existing or new, or building your own brand and site a little piece at a time. If you stake your living on someplace like Etsy, you’ll generate bigger sales and followings, but at the end of the day, you have nothing because it can all be taken away without recourse.

        • MadGastronomer

          I you’re really underestimating just how hard it is. By orders of magnitude. Can you find a hundred pagans with a thousand dollars to invest, or any other combination of people to get the money together? Plus somebody who knows what they’re doing to run the company?

          This kind of thing is not something a community can do, the way Susan spoke of it. The community might be able to raise the money for it, but if you try to build a platform of the kind you’re talking about by committee, it will fail. You’ll never get to an alpha version, because you’ll never get people to agree on a sufficiently small set of necessary features; they simply won’t know how to do it. Even an open source project won’t achieve it, because you still need a small core of programmers that can make decisions about those first features without the intended end users poking their noses in constantly. And really, you don’t want anything that’s processing credit card payments done open source, at least not any of the parts that actually touch any of the payment information, or any of the parts that store things like addresses. Besides which, you can’t run the site on an open source model. This is not a “we” project.

          No. This is the kind of project that’s currently best done by a small, dedicated group. A company. A community can support that kind of company. You might even be able to make it a nonprofit. But there would still have to be enough money to get it started and keep it running, and there still needs to be a small number of people who know what they’re doing to create and run the platform. And our community doesn’t have a good history of actually doing enough business to support a company like this.

          It is, in theory, possible. As in, it’s possible to put together such a team and to build such a platform, and there are people who would want to use such a platform, both as buyers and as sellers, and I’m pretty sure there are pagans (etc) who have the necessary skills to build it. And I think we need such a thing. But I do not think actually getting it done is currently feasible. The community won’t actually put together the money to get it started. There are too many other projects that we also need, and most of us don’t have a lot of money to spare these days. Current fundraising projects aren’t getting the money they need already. And we are simply not a market that traditional investors are going to want to put money into, because we’re small and niche and don’t have a lot of disposable income.

          You’re convinced it’s possible, but do you really understand what such a project would entail? Financially, technically, practically? It requires vastly more work, time, money and resources than you seem to think, not just to get the site designed and up, but to run from the second it goes live.

          Let’s see. It took an initial three-person team two and a half months to get the original Etsy site — which was much simpler than the current site, and if we tried to start a site with that few features now, users would object — and most startups average at least 60 hour workweeks. That’s 1800 person-hours, more or less. Gonna hafta hope you can get people who’ll take significantly less pay than I mentioned before. Call it $40/hr per person, or, for preference, a yearly salary of 80k, which is you’ll want to offer. You want to offer a salary instead of an hourly rate precisely because they’re going to be working way more than 40 hours weeks. 60 at least, probably more during this first push. We’re already at 50k, right there, for those two and a half months. Now you have to pay for equipment, servers (not necessarily physical ones at first), bandwidth, lawyers and accountants to get your company set up, licensing fees, corporate taxes, additional equipment… yeah, you could maybe do the initial build and setup for under $100k, but you need to have enough to keep you going for a couple of months before it starts making money.

          You’re going to need at least one customer service person ready to go the moment the site goes live, and your tech people are going to be both probably not well suited to the job and too busy to do it. So now you have to start paying another person, too.

          Technical needs! I don’t even know what this requires, and my wife’s gone to bed. Taking a wild stab at basics I know you need: secure forms and a secure interface with a credit card processor; secure databases for customer and seller information; a mechanism by which to create and organize shops that can be used by nontechnical people — and that alone can take a couple of months to develop, ask any blogging platform; tagging systems (also harder than it sounds); a way to organize each individual shop; a way to organize all the shops; a user interface (and people expect much nicer and slicker interfaces today than they did ten years ago when Etsy started, and those are correspondingly much harder to create now)… I’ve run out of things I know about.

          And I’m massively simplifying all of this.

          “Not easy” does not even begin to cover it. And since you’re not volunteering to do any of this yourself, what you’re actually saying is that somebody else needs to shoulder the immense amount of work and the huge risk of taking on this project, because some other people including you think it ought to be done.

          Other platforms already exist. I linked to two above, and those were just ones I knew of off the top of my pointy little head. A lot of pagans (etc) are already using them. You can’t get all or even most of the pagans (etc) to move to just one of the platforms, for a whole host of reasons, some of those platforms won’t last, and some of the others do or will have the same problems as Etsy. We are now running into basic problems of the marketplace — and problems that other economic models have not provided solutions for, so the answer is not just “smash capitalism”, which would end up smashing all these small business ventures anyway — and the way businesses work.

          People should definitely find other platforms, and people who have the ability and resources should definitely set up independent shops that don’t rely on a platform like Etsy. There are solutions on the individual level. There is not a good solution for the pagan (etc) community at large, though. And you aren’t actually suggesting one, you’re just shouting about the problem, and partially blaming the people who are hurt by the policy for it. And with this comment, you’re shouting at me, since I’m the one you replied to.

          So I’m the one who’s telling you that you don’t know what you’re talking about, and you aren’t contributing anything to the conversation. Venting has its place, but doing it at me when I was actually discussing practical matters? Don’t do that.

          • kenofken

            It’s not venting, and I’m not at all underestimating the difficulty of building something. I agree that it’s not something that can be done on a “community” basis. I don’t even think the ultimate answer is necessarily to build a brand new Pagan version of Etsy. I do know that so long as we (Americans, not just Pagans), roll over and accept the online monopolies as inevitable, they’re gonna have their way with us in any way they like.

          • MadGastronomer

            Then what you’re saying doesn’t actually have anything to do with the conversation we were having.

  • Christine Rietsch

    If it doesn’t fit Etsy’s business model–they don’t have to allow it. Sorry. It’s supposed to be the fore sale of handcrafted goods. Unless you are making the items in a spell kit–it’s not really handcrafted is it?

    • MadGastronomer

      Except, of course, that it fit their business model for years and shops were making money on it, which means that Etsy was, too. They made a brand new decision that is discriminatory.

    • kenofken

      They play very fast and loose with the handcrafted rule, and in any case, it’s not the guiding principle for their new ban. Handmaking the items in a spell kit will not protect you from having your listing yanked.

  • I’m a little surprised that the article mentions Square as a possible alternative, since it has been long reported on the Wild Hunt that Square includes a provision in its seller agreement that (sec. 6a, item 25) “occult materials” are prohibited. I tried for approximately a year to get a clarification from Square on what constituted an “occult material”, but they eventually just said that I would have to guess and take my own risk.

    Specifically, Square’s final communication with me on the subject (dated 8 April 2011) was as follows: “In short answer, the issue is indeed a gray area. As a company in which we process merchants who do business we can can only see that these business use their best judgement when determining if the items being sold would be questionable.

    Overtime [I presume that this is a typo for “over time” – CLV], as our Risk & Fraud team goes over every transaction that goes through our system, if we find that the materials being transacted are inappropriate we will disable any account in question. We appreciate you being firm in this matter but can only go as far as saying that as a business you will be able to determine which factors will affect your business apart from Square, which is a tool in growing that business.”

  • From all I’ve been hearing Etsy is Not only going after “spell” related materials, listings for candles and crystals and gem stones have also been discontinued. They have been removed regardless of whether or not there was a disclaimer written on the page selling them, and doing something as innocent as listing the traditional properties of crystals appears to be cause for removal. Candles can be hand-made and often are, and polishing crystals is also frequently done at home by sellers, so the objection that items aren’t made by hand isn’t even valid. Supposedly Etsy just changed the categories for these items but if you search for them (or other magic supplies) they have become Much More Difficult to find, and sellers are therefore suffering the drop in sales! Now please explain how selling a hand-crafted wand is in violation of their new policy? It truly is discrimination, very simple and straight forward. And why should one religious group be told it can only sell items sacred to it if it writes disclaimers such as “for entertainment purposes”? That is offensive in the extreme. I completely agree with another commenter, … let’s insist a rosary seller has to write that on each rosary and see how long it takes for the company posting that policy to suffer consequences.

    These new restrictions are very frustrating for those of us who wish to shop for our items online, and want to support fellow practitioners when we buy. I know it isn’t the buyers living that is being threatened and this point is less significant but for those of us isolated and unable to buy locally or afford to attend gatherings a place like Etsy was/is as good as it gets!

    According to a commenter on the Raise The Horns article that appeared recently on this subject Amazon has opened a new platform specializing in hand-made items to sell. But as impractical as it might be to wish one cannot help wishing that the Pagan community did have a viable alternative that would allow them to make a mass withdrawal from Etsy. If there was such an alternative then companies like Etsy would need to care about the loss of business, truly the only language I expect they understand.

  • Melanie Silver

    and other religious and spiritual stuff is left alone. when they began accepting imported made crap instead of hand made crafts, i got pretty much done with them anyway

  • Ellena Mackay

    At the end of the day it will be Pagans, Wiccans, Shamans etc that will be buying these items and use the magic within them, I would consider it stupid that anyone else would buy an item for a religion they don’t believe in and therefore complain about it, from what I know there has been nothing that is causing this apparent discrimination and so there really has been no need for this, if you don’t believe then don’t buy it, if you do believe then you will get your desired results if it is made properly and you can carry on with using the item for any spells, charms, or rituals you need. Some people who follow the faith need help from others to create certain items, especially if you are new to the religion and the items sold on Etsy have made spell making etc easier as you grow and learn within the religion.