How to Be an Informed Consumer of Sustainable and High-Quality Goods
April 28, 2022
Many consumers now prefer to buy sustainable and high-quality goods, and they are willing to put in effort (and pay more) to ensure that’s what they get. Unfortunately, being an informed consumer is easier said than done.
Consumers are inundated with millions of product choices online, and retailers have become adept at influencing buying decisions. About half of all retail purchases in the United States by 18 to 24-year-olds in 2018 were impulse buys.
This could be why retail sales in the US have been climbing steadily since 2009. Total sales were approximately $6.6 trillion by the end of 2021, about $1 trillion more than in 2020.
Those big numbers represent millions of products bought and paid for by Americans every year. While total sales dipped during the pandemic, online retail continued to rise—sales are expected to reach $1.329 trillion in 2025. And the retail trend does not change much if we look at comparable retail numbers in other parts of the world.
You have likely done your part in contributing to the e-retail economy. The question is if you have made those purchasing decisions as an informed consumer. And if you have adopted a sustainable lifestyle, how do you know that the things you bought were as advertised?
Common Tactics Retailers Use to Hide Information
Many businesses use tactics that gloss over or hide critical information about their supply chain and the products they make or sell. If you want to buy local or a product made using sustainable practices, it can be difficult to parse the truth based on information shared by the manufacturer or seller.
If you want to be an informed consumer of sustainable and high-quality goods, you need to learn about these tactics and how to counter them.
Below are some of the most common ones you must watch out for:
Tactic #1: Concealing the Product’s Country of Origin
Many countries, including the US and Canada, require country of origin labeling on imported products and/or imported containers of products with a few exceptions; however, there are no such requirements to disclose country of origin in online listings of imported products. This means retailers of most consumer goods in marketplaces such as Amazon or Walmart do not need to disclose where products are made.
Legislative efforts in the US to require country of origin disclosure for imported products sold online as an amendment to Senate Bill 1260 (Endless Frontier Act) are underway. However, online retailers and manufacturers have expressed strong opposition to the bill.
Why is that? Well, 75% of new sellers on Amazon in 2021 sold products made in China, and Walmart’s inventory consists of 80% of Chinese products. These percentages are likely reflected in numerous other retail marketplaces. Couple that with survey results showing that 40% of Americans would not buy “Made in China” products, and it’s easy to see why retailers want to keep this information concealed.
This is not to say that products made in China or other countries are necessarily low quality or unsustainable. There’s no guarantee that those made in the US or Canada are better, either.
But the truth is that there is a high probability that a significant portion of your home inventory is from China. This is perfectly fine, but only if you were aware of that fact at the time of purchase. Unfortunately, the lack of country-of-origin information denies you the opportunity of deciding this for yourself.
If you encounter a product listing without an explicit country of origin listed, you can check the Q&A section or product reviews. If you still cannot spot the information, ask the seller directly. If they do not respond, you might want to pick a retailer with more transparency.
Tactic #2: Using Popular Brand Names
Many consumers are brand conscious, which means they prefer to buy products from brands they recognize. Retailers take advantage of this by creating a similar brand name to a trusted one (brand twins), such as Delta Faucets or Apple Records.
There are no regulations to stop retailers from using the same brand name as they are very different products. But this can lead to confusion among consumers, and it is something that brands can take advantage of. Consumers may attribute one brand’s reputation to its bigger, more reliable twin, leading to sales.
Brand piracy is an entirely different phenomenon. This is when retailers use brand names that are deceptively similar to popular brands to sell the same products. Digital marketplaces don’t verify the authenticity of name-brand products of their third-party sellers, so it is not always easy to spot counterfeit goods.
An obvious red flag is when the price of a product is much lower than the competition. You might be tempted to buy the product anyway because you want to save money. However, buying counterfeit goods can have serious consequences.
You can spot counterfeit products by taking a close look at the images and descriptions on the listing. Poor quality images and confusing content are reasonable indications of a fake product.
Reviews are also a goldmine of information. Genuine reviews will tell you right away if the product is genuine.
Fake reviews also have value as they are a good indication of a fake product. On Amazon or eBay, you can click on the reviewer’s name to see if they have posted other reviews. If they don’t, the reviewer is probably fake. Parse the language used in the review—if it doesn’t provide information about the quality of the product or use natural-sounding language, it may not be trustworthy.
Look at the seller’s profile to check out the other products they sell, store reviews, and other types of feedback. When you do your due diligence, you can make an informed decision.
Tactic #3: Creating Multiple Brands
Some retailers count on the law of numbers to push their products. They create multiple brands to circumvent sanctions by the platform they are selling on.
For example, if Brand A has multiple strikes against it on a certain marketplace, the seller simply creates a new merchant profile using Brand B and sells the same (likely low-quality) products.
The best way to ensure you are about to purchase high-quality online goods is to be vigilant. Thoroughly check the product listings, reviews, and sellers you want to buy from. If the store is new, contact the retailer to determine if they are legitimate.
Tactic #4: Displaying No Barcodes
Most marketplaces require products sold in the US and elsewhere to have a numerical Universal Product Code (UPC) or European Article Number (EAN) and accompanying barcode.
This is not the same as a stock-keeping unit (SKU) which is specific to the retailer (similar to how Amazon Standard Identification Number (ASIN) is a number specific to Amazon). The UPC/EAN is unique to a product and is guaranteed to be the same across retailers. For example, if you buy a pair of Nike shoes from one retailer with a certain UPC/EAN, all retailers elsewhere in the world carrying that pair will have the same UPC/EAN as well.
The product manufacturer purchases the UPC or EAN from the GS1 to identify a product in the supply chain. It contains a wealth of information for consumers regarding the product’s origins, especially if they scan it with a home inventory app such as Nest Egg.
Nest Egg has a database of tens of thousands of product manufacturers based on barcoded retail products, so you can find similar items and compare prices by scanning the barcode. You can also record warranty information and serial numbers for future reference and safekeeping.
Unfortunately, retailers are not required to display the barcode on their product listing, displayed products (for brick-and-mortar stores), or include it with the products they ship. Some retailers include a card or insert claiming the products come from a US-based company, but there is no barcode that can verify this.
Why do businesses do this? Aside from preventing consumers from finding out where the product comes from, the lack of a barcode makes it much more difficult for people to find other retailers for the product and compare prices.
Ask the seller for one if a product listing does not include a barcode. If they don’t respond or provide an unreadable barcode, move on.
Note: There is a common misconception that you can tell a product’s country of origin from the first three digits of its UPC. This is not precisely true. The business may be registered in one country, but that does not mean its inventory was manufactured there. At other times, the manufacturer, distributor or retailer may have bought UPC(s) from an intermediary like upcs.com or barcodestalk making figuring out the country of origin even trickier.
Tactic #5: Using Local Subsidiaries
Some retail companies get around the location bias of consumers by establishing local subsidiaries. These companies often have complex corporate structures, so finding out where they operate can be very challenging.
For example, a manufacturer based in China might establish a limited liability company (LLC) in the US to sell their products. When you look up the seller and product barcode, you will see it is a US company.
However, these subsidiaries might operate through a registered agent and may not have a physical office in the country. There is no real assurance that you are only buying US-made, sustainable goods, and that you can get reliable after-sales customer support from a US-based team.
You can look up the company and check the Better Business Bureau for any complaints against it. However, there is no guarantee you will find the exact nature and location of their manufacturing plants and where they source their products.
Your best bet is to buy only from authorized sellers and distributors of established brands. Listed prices may be a bit higher than those on other ecommerce platforms, but you will have all the reliable information you need to be an informed consumer.
Safe Shopping Tips for the Informed Consumer
To ensure that you are buying only high-quality goods from reputable manufacturers and retailers, you must be vigilant.
The US and UK governments have shared the following consumer tips to ensure your safety. We think these tips work no matter which part of the world you live in.
Safety Tip #1: Read Beyond the Marketing
Buzzwords such as “natural,” “sustainable,” and “made from 100% recycled materials” are very misleading. These broad, vague marketing terms are not regulated by the US Federal Trade Commission—there are no real definitions or strict standards to follow before a product can be labeled as such.
Sadly, many companies use such tactics to entice environmentally conscious consumers into purchasing from them. This phenomenon is called “greenwashing,” and it has become very prevalent—marketers have figured out that simple brown packaging, nature-related illustrations, and buzzwords related to sustainability can boost their sales.
When you spot these terms on product packaging or marketing materials, do not take them at face value. Do your due diligence and find out if the manufacturer can back up these claims.
Safety Tip #2: Look for Official Certifications
Reputable environmental organizations provide certifications to environmentally friendly companies and products. Green certifications such as the Green Seal (for overall sustainable practices), Energy Star (energy efficiency), Forest Stewardship Council (responsibly harvested forest products), and USDA Organic seal (organic products) are a few examples.
You can also look for B Corp Certification provided by B Lab, a global nonprofit organization that assesses companies’ environmental, social, and governance policies. As of 2022, there are nearly 5,000 certified B Corporations in 79 countries.
Safety Tip #3: Avoid Deals That Are Too Good to Be True
In the digital age, online consumers can look up all the information they need about a certain product long before they make a purchase. Research is more important than ever because of the seemingly endless options available, no matter what type of product you are interested in.
When you look up a product, you can instantly have a good idea of the average price and quality across various retailers and manufacturers. It may be tempting to check out a significantly cheaper listing from an unverified source, but this is one of the most basic online shopping scams out there. Do not give them your financial information or buy the product at all; there’s no telling what will end up at your door.
If a deal seems too good to be true, it’s likely a scam. Stay far, far away.
The retail industry has a number of quite effective tactics to make it harder for consumers to make informed decisions about products sold. However, with a bit of research and a helpful home inventory app such as Nest Egg, you can get past these and be an informed consumer of hiqh-quality, locally grown or made, sustainably produced or responsibly sourced goods.
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