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.
For the US, it’s in Congress’ hands
Can we hope for something similar in the United States or Europe? Let’s hope so. In May 2020, legislation was introduced that mandated disclosure of country of origin. It finally passed the Senate in June 2021, and (if I remember my Schoolhouse Rock) will make its way to the House and then, upon passage, be sent to the President for a signature. From what I can see, the version that passed the Senate was pretty solid.
You can bet that Amazon and other retailers will be spending 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. If you live in the United States, write to your representative and ask them to support the U.S. Innovation and Competition Act (USICA), which includes the Country of Origin Labeling (COOL) requirements in Section 2510.
Perhaps not coincidentally, earlier in 2021, Amazon already mandated that sellers provide country of origin when they submit product information. So Amazon has the information; they’re just choosing to sit on it.
The good news is that we come towards the end of 2021 I’m starting to see more instances where “Country of Origin” is appearing on at least some Amazon product listings; perhaps Amazon is doing the right thing and actually listening to its customers (who have been begging them for this for years) by putting this on at least some of their front-end. Or perhaps they see the writing on the wall and know it’s only a matter of time before it becomes law in the United States. Let’s hope this trend continues–and if it does, that Amazon will enforce honesty from its Sellers.
[January 25, 2022 update – The House Democrats released their version of the USICA called the America COMPETES Act today. As you might expect, it is a monstrous 2912 page bill filled with all kinds of pork. Tragically, the clear language in Section 2510 of the Senate bill seems completely watered down.
Here’s the text that was in the original Senate version of the bill:
And here’s the closest thing I could find to anything like it in the House Democrats’ bill:
“Watered down” does not even start to describe it. I’m not lawyer, but it looks like the original mandate for ALL online retailers to clearly display country of origin online has been watered down to apply only to “third-party sellers”, and even then there are all kinds of weasel words that would enable any online retailer to escape liability.
If there’s a lawyer out there who sees something I’m missing, please let me know. But if I’m not missing something, it’s not looking good. You need to write your congressperson now more than ever.
[March 19, 2022 update – The America COMPETES Act passed the House on 2/4/22, without the country of origin mandate. The next step in the process is for members of the House and members of the Senate to convene a Conference Committee to reconcile the differences between the two versions. As I comment on my Reddit post on the subject the major retailers, through their gargantuan lobbying organization, are fighting tooth and nail to kill any reference to requiring country of origin online. It’s critical for everyone to write your Senator or Congressperson to demand it–if this gets stripped out of the final bill, it will be years before such legislation gets introduced again.]
How to tell if a product is made in China
Until then, for people like you or me who want to do our research to avoid products made in China, what can we do? Here are some tips.
- 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. Truth is, you can’t always trust Country of Origin information even on a box or label, as it’s probably that certain raw materials or parts passed through China. But at the very least, you’ll be able to know if a product was 100% from China or if someone outside of China was part of the manufacturing.
- Search the customer questions & answers 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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. Like I said, the COOL Act is past its first hurdle, but we’ll need the House and the President to do the right thing and make it law.
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.