Amazon doesn’t make it easy
Since the United States Tariff Act of 1930, the Country of Origin of every product needs to be marked clearly on the packaging of every product that is imported into the United States. Look at the label or the packing box of any product you’ve purchased lately, and you’ll see where that product came from.
Unfortunately, there aren’t currently similar laws that make listing the Country of Origin mandatory for online listings, which is why it seems almost impossible when you’re browsing a product listing on Amazon, Walmart, or Target to figure out where a product was made (hint: if it says “Imported” anywhere in the listing, it most likely came from China).
The reasons are simple. Retailers know that obfuscating this information is better for business. And so those of us who want to be more informed consumers have almost no way of making informed decisions.
Making matters worse, Amazon doesn’t even look like it’s trying. If you search for the phrase “not made in China” in their search bar, their search algorithm isn’t intelligent at all.
On the screenshot below, I searched for “toys not made in China”. 7 of the top 10 results were made in China (And one result isn’t even a toy–it’s a bag of dog treats!)
I found an even more nefarious example when I was researching face masks not made in China, 12 out of the first 12 results for “face masks made in the USA” were, you guessed it, made in China.
Honestly, I think Hanlon’s Razor applies here (never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity). That said, even though “not made in China” and “made in USA” are almost certainly two of their top search phrases, they don’t seem in a rush to want to fix it. That’s because most customers are just taking their search results at their word and assuming none of these products are made in China.
India leads in mandating Country of Origin Labeling Online
The country of India took a bold move in 2020; starting on July 21, 2020 they mandated that Amazon India add “country of origin” to their product listings. And sure enough, if you go to amazon.in and search for any product, you’ll see a beautiful “Country of Origin”
The government of India, perhaps being right on the border with communist China, realized the existential threat to their national security by letting cheap imports from China flood in and subsume their economic infrastructure.
Country of Original Labeling in the United States
Can we hope for something similar in the United States or Europe? Sadly, no, at least not for a while.
Back in May 2020, legislation was introduced that mandated disclosure of country of origin be put on online product listings, just as it is already mandated to be printed on boxes and products (as it has been since 1931). It finally passed the Senate in June 2021, and was clear and concise in its mandate.
The bill went to the House in January 2022. Instead of adopting the bill, the House decided to write an entirely different, monstrous 2912 page bill that omitted any reference to country of origin labeling. This was thanks to Amazon and other retailers who spend untold money to lobby against it, and of course there are politicians on both sides of the political aisle that are heavily funded by those who support (and are even funded by) the CCP.
I wrote a long Reddit thread trying to educate people about what has happening. There was a shred of hope that the House would adopt the Senate’s language, but after coming out of conference committee, the House and the Senate ended up coming up with the CHIPs act which contained a lot of spending of our tax dollars to reward big corporations and special interest–but no mention at all of mandating country of origin online, which would have cost the taxpayer NOTHING and would have allowed we, the consumers, to make informed choices.
Some Hope with Amazon
In 2021, Amazon already mandated that sellers provide country of origin when they submit product information. I have noticed throughout 2022 that Country of Origin is in more and more of their product listings, which is a good sign. But since it’s voluntary, there are no repercussions if Amazon, its suppliers, or its sellers decide to omit country of origin information, or even to lie about it.
And so, it’s up to us, the consumer to educate ourselves and to do what we can to provide each other the knowledge and transparency that retailers refuse to provide. Here are my “tips” for always making sure you buy a product that’s not made in China on Amazon:
How to tell if a product is made in China
Until a law passes that mandates accurate country-of-origin information online, for people like you or me who want to do our research to avoid products made in China, what can we do?
- Visit a brick-and-mortar store and look at the product and the box for yourself.
Yeah, I know. We’ve gotten used to shopping online to the point where making the schlep to a retail store seems antediluvian. But visiting a physical store is the only way to make sure you know the product you’re interested in came from a country other than China. Since the Tariff Act of 1930, it’s been mandatory for anyone shipping a product from overseas to the United States to clearly mark their products or their packaging to say where the product was made. Specifically, if you see a label that says “Made in” a certain country, it means that it’s that country where the most “substantial transformation” of the product took place, generally meaning it’s where the product was assembled and finished before packaging.
Truth is, you can’t always trust Country of Origin information even on a box or label; in some cases China manufactures most of the raw ingredients or parts, but because the product is assembled in another country, it’s that country which gets the “credit” on the label. Still, one thing you can be sure of is that if it says “Made in China”, that no other country or country’s government benefitted from making that product.
- Search the customer questions & answers section and the reviews section on the Amazon Product Page.
On the Amazon Product Page, scroll down to the section that says “Have a question?” or “Customer questions & answers”. Type in phrases like “made in”, “made”, “origin”, “USA”, and “China”. Chances are, especially with a more popular product listing, that someone has already asked the question and that someone who owns the product (and therefore has access to the product label or the outer packing box) has answered it, either in the Q&A section or as part of a Customer Review.
This method isn’t foolproof–in some cases a product that used to be made in another country years ago eventually switched to China. In other cases, manufacturers maintain multiple factories in different countries, so there’ll be no way of knowing where the product you’re buying really came from. But again, the Question and Answer section is the only place on Amazon where you’ll be able to get remotely accurate information.
The more popular the product, the better chances you’ll have customer reviews that contain the country of origin. In fact, In cases where the manufacturing was changed from one country to another, sometimes you can infer through the timestamp of the review exactly when a product changed from one country to another.
If this information doesn’t exist, help out the community by asking the question clearly: “Where was this product manufactured?” or “In what country was this product made?” In most cases, the seller or someone who purchased the product and can read the physical label will chime in with the correct answer.
- Find another retailer that discloses this information and reward them by buying from them
Here’s a screenshot from Williams-Sonoma. Yes, they may be a bit pricier, but they clearly respect their customers to the point where they fully disclose the country of manufacture of all products listed on their site. It’s this kind of respect for you, the consumer, that needs to be rewarded.
Click through this link to see the research I did on e-commerce Web sites that divulge country of origin. There aren’t a whole lot of them, so make sure to reward the ones that do respect you enough to be transparent with this information by giving them your business.
- Avoid the “fake brands”.
If there’s a brand you never heard of, it’s almost probably a “fake brand” from a China company. Granted, buying from a brand you heard of may support China in some way, but buying from one of these “fake” companies definitely well. And yes, I count Amazon Basics as one of those “fake brands”.
Trust me, you’ll be doing yourself a favor. At least with recognizable brands that have been built over many years there is some incentive for them to maintain a certain level of quality control. With fly-by-night fake brands, as soon as a few negative reviews come in, all they need to do is take down their page, change their brand, change their labels, and put up a new page. How many can you spot in this list of coffee maker brands? If you guessed brands like SHARDOR, CHULUX, OUTON, and SUNVINI OUTDOOR, you’re on the right track.
- Learn how to spot “fake reviews”
There are services like FakeSpot that attempt to automate the detection of fake reviews, but the fakers are getting more and more sophisticated at avoiding the kinds of patterns that these sites (and Amazon themselves) use. All said, the best kind of test is the “sniff test”.
Here’s an example I randomly pulled from a toy listing. First off, notice how there’s a steady stream of 5-star reviews immediately after a new product launches. That doesn’t happen organically.
Then, read each review out loud and ask yourself if it sounds like something you or one of your friends would say in a conversation.
“Hey Bob, how did you like the new toy you got for BIlly?”
“It is a great STEM toy for kids to enhance their creativity skills. The quality of the pieces and the tools is great”
- Educate others
Share this page with your friends to let them know how to look for China-made sources. If you have definitive information about Country of Origin for any given product, leave Amazon reviews and answers that help others steer clear of China. Share your own experiences on this site and others where users trade information.
- Write your elected representatives and ask them to require online companies to put Country of Origin on their online listings.
Funny thing is, I tend to think of myself as somewhat libertarian politically, so I generally don’t tell people to “wire Congress”. But this is an example where it’s literally their job to protect our country and our local economies from those enemies foreign and domestic who would not hesitate to destroy both, whether out of malice or out of sheer ignorance. Even though the law to mandate country of origin failed to pass, keep writing your Senator or Congressman to insist that this law be passed. Or vote them out and vote in someone who will represent you.
And of course, you can just ask. Write a question on the Amazon product page. Or, check one of these sites that I’ve personally found useful.
China Never: Products Not Made In China – Probably the most popular site that researches brands that proactively (and proudly) state that they have kept manufacturing to the US, Canada, or the EU. The site is slightly out of date, so read the comments to make sure that all the brands are still adhering to their commitments.
Alliance for American Manufacturing – Non-profit and non-partisan partnership that identifies companies that still manufacture in the USA.
Not Made in China Directory – A database that lets you search for brands and products and clearly discloses the Country of Origin
r/avoidchineseproducts on Reddit – An active subreddit where you can post a question (or provide an answer) if you’re curious about a specific product, product category, or brand.
Not China Made on Facebook – A Facebook page with recent news and finds
Save. Spend. Splurge – A blog that gives good advice and keeps a relatively up-to-date list across multiple categories.
And of course, there’s the new forum on this site where I will commit to checking and using whatever search skills I have to find an answer for you.
Hopefully these “tips” will help you be able to better recognize China brands so that you can avoid them and warn others to as well.
In total, Marketplace Pulse reports that as of 2021 46% of all sellers are based in China.
And that number is growing rapidly. According to Marketplace Pulse, in 2021 75% of new sellers in Amazon’s top markets are from China (this is up from 47% in 2020 and 41% in 2019).
This number is hard to tell because Amazon does not reveal country of origin information. But when you calculate the product sold by third party sellers plus the percentage of consumer products from first party sellers that are made in China, the number is staggering. Some estimate it at up to 90% or more.
The easiest and quickest way to tell is to look at the Seller (look for “Ships from” and “Sold by” under the Add to Cart button on any product page. If it’s shipped from and sold by Amazon.com, chances are the supplier has been vetted by Amazon. That’s not to say they’re not from China, but you’re protected to a certain degree because the seller is going through Amazon.
If you see another name under “Sold by”, click on it. Amazon’s rules state that all sellers must provide accurate contact information. If you see something like this…
Business Name:shan tou shi bei bei jia mao yi you xian gong si
Business Address:cheng hai qu cheng hua jie dao
xi men zhong tai san lu nan 3 hao di wu ceng
…then run away. It doesn’t matter how cheap their product is or how good their reviews are. Just run. Because the reviews are probably fake and the product is probably garbage. And good luck getting “customer service” from a company like this. In most cases, companies like this will sell a ton of product and then close up shop and open up under a different name.
China companies are getting smarter. You may see American-sounding names. You might see addresses of LLCs that were established in the US. So your best bet is to avoid third party sellers altogether.
With traditional retail, there are lots of layers to navigate to sell a single product. You need brands, manufacturers, wholesalers, distributors, marketers, sales, and many more disciplines working together to get a product to market.
Amazon revolutionized retail by allowing brands and manufacturers to cut out the middlemen and go straight to the consumer. That’s an amazing thing. But it only works when all of the companies involved play by the rules.
In China’s totalitarian state, “playing by the rules” means something different than in the West. In the West, there’s a natural aversion to cheating and subverting rules. Not to say that it doesn’t happen (it does all the time), but the Western culture is such that when someone is found cheating, it’s not a good look.
In the People’s Republic of China, cheating is not only condoned, it is encouraged. Because the most important value in China has nothing to do with personal integrity or honor. It has everything to do with what advances the Chinese Communist Party’s power. And so if a company cheats to get ahead–especially at the expense of Western companies–
Bottom line, Chinese companies–egged on by their government–have made an art of exploiting the free and open nature of the West to dominate. Consumers are clueless, because they assume that Amazon is policing their systems to punish abuse. Amazon is helpless, because their platform was built on the assumption that all of its users would be governed by Adam Smith’s “Invisible Hand”, and not the “Invisible Hand” of the CCP.
There’s an excellent analysis by EComCrew here. My analysis above is largely from my own experience as a consumer, an SEO expert, and a sporadic seller, but their analysis dives deeply into what it looks like from a merchant perspective. It’s not pretty, and it’s not getting any better.