Etsy Barnstorms Berlin

Interconnected, human-scale economies are the focus of Hello Etsy’s European summit on small business and sustainability. 

Berlin, Germany has become the world’s contemporary creative capital not in spite, but as a direct consequence, of its post-Apocalyptic legacy. In the humiliating and fragile aftermath of World War II, the Soviet construction of the Berlin Wall effectively calcified the society’s healing process, and the city remained a willy nilly bastion of still recent blood-let and stark economic inequity. Officially, the Wall fell over 20 years ago, but its first cracks were but symbols. Its physical dismantling was hard-won, and this is to say nothing of the intervening, painstaking gains toward cultural reunification.

View of Berlin from Hello Etsy conference center rooftop

In the wake of the global financial crisis, Germany’s export driven industry has emerged as an economic powerhouse and finds itself in the awkward position of propping up the entire euro-zone from financial collapse; yet Berlin, a city of artists and ex-pats, remains poor, with unemployment rates hovering around 12 percent. It’s Berlin’s ongoing monetary malaise that has over the past twenty years evolved this locale into a destination spot for creatives the world over – visionaries attracted by the city’s ever diversifying internationalism, cheap rent, and abiding sense of emergence. Berlin is, if anything, a city that is still coming into being and lacks a singular, unified cultural definition – in this marvelous metropolis there is nobody telling you what to do.

These reasons make Germany’s capital the ideal location for last weekend’s Hello Etsy: A Summit on Small Business and Sustainability. A wildly successful, 2005 founded online marketplace for handmade and reclaimed goods, Etsy is even more so an alternative economic template that relies on interdependence and human scale sustainability rather than competitive, winner-takes-all free-market capitalism. The conference in fact wasn’t an occasion for the transaction of wares and currency at all, but rather an international convergence of creatives sharing skills and exchanging ideas about community based initiatives.

ewerk dining hall – note industrial hook in upper-right panel

Hosted in ewerk, the oldest preserved commercial power plant in Germany (constructed in 1885), Hello Etsy held court in this building surviving two world wars, enduring destructive Communist rule, and eventually emerging as one of the world’s most influential techno music clubs. Against this storied backdrop, Etsy was in full form, ratcheting up the DIY factor with all manner of artisanal accents – from bright hued bricks of handmade soap and homespun towels by the bathroom sinks to conference dining hall tables decorated with reclaimed milk cartons repurposed into planters for potted herbs and other green flora.

The line-up of approximately 40 speakers addressed over 500 attendees and delegates from the United States and Europe, and included a broad spectrum of thought-leaders – from Facebook’s Head of Commerce Partnerships, Google’s Conversion Specialist and Twitter’s European Communications Manager, to an urban farmer, filmmaker, and author. Panels and lectures ranged from practical education (nuts and bolts of running a small business, for example) to the theoretical (corporate globalization is unsustainable, unethical and Etsy’s word, “unfun“).

Attendees at Hello Etsy listen and learn

Main Room speaker Judy Wicks, a spitfire social activist in her retirement years with no intention of slowing down, delivered a talk about what she calls the Local Living Economies Movement. This theoretical framework emphasizes an alternative business model in which growth is measured not in terms of market expansion, but rather through maximized relationships-businesses reinvesting profits right back into the community generating its revenue to develop deeper networks of solidarity, belonging and, Judy’s word, “fun.”

Hello Etsy conference organizers also published an event specific compendium of essays penned by the summit’s panelists and speakers, with a wellspring of advice, abstracts, and inspiration from figures like Alabama Chanin founder and designer, whose contributing essay “The Commandments” offered ethical business entrepreneurs advice such as: Quality is its own testament. Run toward fear. Share and play well with others. Get a good accountant (and an understanding of QuickBooks).

Do bricks of handmade soap really hold the answer to our future? Etsy thinks so

At its core, Hello Etsy was a celebration of business, a critical examination of capitalism’s current un-sustainability as well as ideas about harnessing and transforming the existing system to grow a sane, compassionate future. Judy Wicks in her lecture put it well:  The heart of business doesn’t have to be an engine of greed, but rather sharing love within your community to yield a ‘living’ return on investment.

Business, at its core, is about relationships; money is but a tool for building them.