Etsy is awash with illicit products it claims to ban, from ivory to
dangerous weapons and mass-produced goods
Rob Price, Business Insider
April 30, 2021
Etsy says handcrafted items are its "heart and soul." But the delicately
carved miniature sculptures known as netsuke probably aren't what it had in
The often thumb-sized objects — depicting figures, animals, and the natural
world and tracing back to Japan's Edo period — were commonly made from
elephant ivory, which contributed to a deadly trade that drove elephants to
the edge of extinction.
Today, the manufacture and sale of elephant ivory are subject to sweeping
national and international prohibitions. But listings for the purchase of
ivory netsuke and dozens of other products carved from elephant tusks, from
jewelry to antique accessories, are readily available on the publicly
traded online marketplace Etsy.
And that's just one of the company's rules that are being openly flouted by
rogue sellers on the platform.
An Insider investigation identified roughly 800 listings on Etsy selling
banned products, which encompass nearly every one of the site's categories
of prohibited items. From dangerous weapons to pornography, from poisonous
plants to cat and dog remains, from pseudoscientific miracle cures to
T-shirts bearing the Confederate flag, the marketplace is overrun by the
products that it says it bans.
And while Etsy markets itself as exclusively for handmade or vintage items,
the site is awash in listings for mass-produced products, from charging
cables to massage tools, air fryers, and wholesale clothing.
Altogether, the abundance of prohibited items show a widespread failure of
the company to monitor its online marketplace and enforce its rules. The
breakdown is especially striking at a time when platforms like Facebook and
Twitter have faced intense scrutiny over their track records for keeping
unwanted content like political misinformation and hate speech off of their
When presented with Insider's findings, Etsy deleted the rule-breaking
listings and said the company had been planning to increase its investments
in systems to detect such content. But even after the takedowns, it was
still easy to find many more rule-breaking listings almost identical to the
ones Insider originally flagged.
On Friday, the company announced that it would spend "at least" $40 million
in 2021 to beef up its enforcement capabilities. Citing "an even greater
responsibility to foster a safe and trusted platform" amid its
pandemic-fueled user growth, Etsy said it would increase staffing and
develop tools "to enable these teams to more effectively and efficiently do
Missing from the announcement, though, was an explanation for how so many
prohibited items were able to be openly sold on the site until now — and
whether Etsy had failed to notice the problem or simply neglected to take
Etsy's Illicit Arsenal
In the muddy hell of the First World War, some desperate soldiers resorted
to building trench clubs: Homemade clubs adorned with spikes, nails, and
bolts for bludgeoning enemy soldiers to death.
In 2021, you can buy a steel-spiked trench club advertised as fully
functional on Etsy.
It's just one of hundreds of dangerous weapons that have been sold on the
online marketplace. Banned but available products included small items like
a knife disguised as a necklace and brass knuckles; resin daggers and other
defensive keychain items; pre-sharpened carbon-forged steel spearheads;
concealed cane swords; and a four-bladed "apocalyptic ripsaw mace."
Etsy's rules prohibit "items that are presented as weapons or to be used to
inflict violence," while allowing exceptions for "tools" or "an unusable
decorative item," as well as "foam, rubber, or plastic reproduction weapons
for training or roleplay." But many of the listings for historical-style
weapons on Etsy, such as medieval longswords, say the items are shaped from
metal at professional forges and advertise the ability to inflict "maximum
damage." The buyer of one studded mace wrote in a review that they kept it
in their truck "for easy access if it's ever needed."
Etsy has eight broad categories of prohibited items — from "Alcohol,
Tobacco, Drugs, Drug Paraphernalia, and Medical Drugs" to "Pornography and
Mature Content" — and it carries product listings from almost every single
one of them. Through simple keyword searches based on Etsy's
prohibited-items policy and its seller policy, Insider identified hundreds
of rule-breaking listings that made little or no attempt to disguise what
The company does not allow "items made from cat and dog parts or pelts,"
but it had listings for domestic cat skulls, the mummified remains of
goldendoodle puppies, and the preserved fetuses of kittens.
Etsy says it bans tobacco products, but the site has listings for dried
tobacco. It listed T-shirts and license plates with the Confederate flag,
despite a ban on the symbol. It says it bans vehicles but listed vintage
cars, Ford ambulances, and a $20,000 wood-carved, fully functional electric
motorbike. Hundreds of prohibited drug paraphernalia like roach clips and
tools for using cannabis concentrates are available. Hardcore pornography
is for sale, in violation of Etsy's rules. And despite a ban on radioactive
material, it even had a listing for uranium ore.
Pseudoscientific claims are common on Etsy's marketplace, despite being
banned, with dubious alternative remedies promising to tackle tumors,
COVID-19, erectile dysfunction, and other ailments. Illicit weight-loss
products are also common. And for the supernaturally inclined, the
marketplace is also awash with magical "spells" varyingly promising wealth,
love, health, and gainful employment. Etsy says it bans spells promising
"metaphysical outcomes," but some sellers have racked up thousands of sales
from customers, with premium magical rituals costing hundreds of dollars
And clearly fake products, such as clothing and iPhone cases with the logos
of designer brands like Louis Vuitton, Yves Saint Laurent, and Gucci are
Many of the offending listings pay Etsy for advertising to boost their
ranking in internal search results, and the company takes a 3 to 5% cut of
every sale — meaning it directly profits from the marketing and sale of
ivory, weapons, and other problematic products.
Etsy describes itself as an "unjuried" marketplace, meaning that it doesn't
directly handle any of the goods sold on its platform and sellers are
responsible for abiding by its rules. The company said in a statement that
it was always working to improve its system to prevent inappropriate items
from appearing on the site through a combination of automated and manual
tools, as well as user reporting.
"Etsy's Trust & Safety team uses flags from users to review listings and
take appropriate action as quickly as possible, prioritizing the most
potentially harmful complaints," the company said.