Shutting Down the Etsy Endangered-Animal Trade

The Citizen's Guide to the Future
July 24 2013 1:55 PM

Shutting Down the Etsy Endangered-Animal Trade

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These baby American crocodiles won't end up as purses on Etsy.

Photo by Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Etsy, the popular e-commerce craft site, updated its policies this week to crack down on the trade of illegal animal products. This includes a ban on many of the usual suspects, such as snow leopard fur and elephant ivory, but also some materials that may surprise you, like chinchilla fur and alligator skin.

The move may seem obvious, but it actually differentiates the online marketplace from some of its rivals, like eBay and Google Shopping. Even Amazon, which has a page called Amazon and Our Planet, still lists such products. You’ll notice many products include descriptors like “pre-ban,” “vintage,” and “antique,” though online retailers have little way of knowing when a material was really harvested. (In fact, the policy shift seems to be in direct response to a petition written by the Snow Leopard Trust after one of their bloggers discovered around 1,000 results for the term “pre-ban.”)

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The new Etsy restrictions include any products made from an animal designated as threatened or endangered by the U.S. Endangered Species Act. What’s less clear at the moment is whether that protection will extend to lookalike species. For example, the American alligator was taken off of the Endangered Species List in 1987, but it’s still considered “threatened due to similarity of appearance” because it closely resembles the American croc. To ban one without the other would either require extreme trust or some detective work on Etsy’s part to determine whether the skin appeared to be alligator or crocodile. And that’s not even considering the Chinese crocodile, the African dwarf crocodile, the Cuban crocodile, the Nile crocodile, and half a dozen other crocodilians that are listed as either threatened or endangered. (As of today, there are almost 3,000 results for “alligator leather” products.)

Interestingly, Native Alaskan artists will not be held to the same restrictions as the rest of the world. According to the Etsy’s news blog, “The US government has found that the preservation of Native Alaskan culture is important enough to merit an exception to the Endangered Species Act, and Etsy agrees. … Under our new policy, these Native Alaskan artists can continue to sell items made from animal materials as long as they adhere to applicable US laws.”

Etsy did not immediately respond with comment as to what distinctions it will make or how it’ll make them, though in its defense representatives have been very politely answering more than 600 user questions since the changes were announced on Monday. A cursory browsing seems to show equal outpouring of concern between those who hope Etsy’s restrictions don’t go too far—such as banning bird feathers—and those who argue they haven’t gone far enough. The latter tend to cite the Migratory Bird Treaty Act of 1918, which raises another important question: How much obligation does an international business have to a treaty signed by only half a dozen nations?

Of course, the question of where to draw the line is at the heart of every juicy Internet debate. Politicians in Britain want to protect the children by restricting Internet porn. The U.S. government wants to protect its citizens by logging their every move. I’m of the mind that whatever Etsy decides, restricting animal products is a step in the right direction. Even if might mean losing access to the sprawling genius of whoever created this.

Future Tense is a partnership of SlateNew America, and Arizona State University.

Jason Bittel serves up science for picky eaters on his website, BittelMeThis.com. He lives in Pittsburgh. Follow him on Twitter.

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