I first learned about the rampant counterfeit industry – particularly in online marketplaces like Amazon, Wish, and AliExpress – through Jennifer Myers Chua. She is co-owner of Hip Mommies, a distribution company for ethically, responsibly, and safely made children’s products, and has first-hand experience with the dangers of counterfeit products.
I interviewed Jennifer for the Missing Pillar of Health Podcast because the stories she was telling me are so important for every parent and caregiver to hear.
We’ve divorced ourselves from the whole supply chain process with shopping on things like Amazon. Sure it’s convenient and inexpensive. But at what cost? This blog shares our conversation, and I hope give you some food for thought about how you shop.
You can also listen to our conversation on your favourite podcast app or the player below – and you can check out the show notes with referenced links here.
When did you first become aware that there was a difference between well-made, and less than well-made products?
It really hit home for me after my daughter was asked to model for some advertisements for a brand that we represent. And then I started finding those images on the Wish app and AliExpress. I was trying to trace back the copyright, who’s given these images to them, and it turns out that counterfeiters had stolen the images from the legitimate advertisements, and started using her photos.
We were running photo searches, doing all this stuff trying to get those taken down, and then I really began to understand the absolute massive breadth of this. And then, just with the popularity of the brands that we picked up the last couple of years, they are the kind of products that counterfeiters love, and it has spiraled out of control. The internet, and Amazon, and all of that have really contributed to that a lot.
When you say counterfeiters, they find a product that’s popular and then they figure out how to make something that looks similar?
That’s correct. There are counterfeiters obviously domestically, however most of them are overseas. A large portion of the counterfeits are coming from Asia.
The counterfeiters are all master replicators, they’re often linked to things like organized crime and human trafficking. I know this sounds outrageous, but it’s absolutely true. Environmental atrocities from unsafe manufacturing and disposal practices are also a problem.
Counterfeiters don’t care about the end user, they don’t go through safety testing, et cetera, which is tremendously expensive. If you’re trying to just make a quick buck, safety is not what you’re going for because it is outrageously expensive and every country has different requirements.
What do we have here to protect the marketplace from these fraudulent products?
Yeah, so this is the tricky thing with the internet, right? If you were importing a product legally, going through a channel like ours where we have vetted the product, read the safety testing reports, the brand manufacturer is very interested in keeping things safe, and they get all the correct documentation, we do have checks and balances here during the importing process to make sure that those are legit. But, if you can now go online and in a couple of clicks order something direct from a manufacturer in China, they might have labeled it as FDA approved or BPA free, etc.
They’re writing that down, but they’re just copying that off of the genuine product and it’s not actually true for the fake version they’ve made.
If you’re ordering it direct from them to your home, there are no checks and balances in the in between. The government knows it’s happening, but there hasn’t been an effective way to do this.
Amazon is saying that they’re coming up with things to deal with counterfeits, but over the last couple of years we haven’t really seen that materialize.
What has been your experience with, because products that you sell have been caught up in all of this, did you do background research to figure out all of what was going on and how deep rooted this problem was? Where did you figure this out?
Yeah. I have done quite a bit of research. I’ve also talked to the RCMP’s anti-counterfeit division. I was interviewed for an article with Today’s Parent where they did a really deep dive, and that’s a really, really interesting article as well.
And then over the years, I’ve been alongside the owner of EZPZ, which is one of our most popular brands, who has gone so far into this fight. She’s been invited to the White House to speak on a panel about counterfeit products, so she’s given me a lot of information too.
In the States, the problem there is even bigger than Canada because Amazon and all these marketplaces are even bigger there. It’s astonishing, to be honest with you, how many moms are buying counterfeit products, and just think it’s like a knockoff handbag.
It’s not the same thing!
And I think the scariest thing is that the most counterfeited products, the ones that are most popular to counterfeiters, are things that are potentially very unsafe like feeding products, strollers, baby carriers, sunscreens, and medication.
The risks aren’t just logos printed wrong, these products can contain lead (which is a neurotoxin and has no safe level for children), chemicals that are banned or restricted, defective safety mechanisms, etc.
How can we protect ourselves, then? How do we know if we’re getting a fraudulent product, and how can we avoid the risk of getting stuck with that?
I definitely suggest, and this is something that I say often, if you have researched a brand and you do like a product, you can either buy direct from the manufacturer or you can contact them and ask for an authorized reseller. Or you can go to the distributor in that country and ask for an authorized retailer to make sure that you’re getting a proper one.
I personally would avoid buying baby products online if possible. I know that’s not possible for people that live in remote areas or for time and access constraints, but when you’re shopping at a small, independent boutique, generally the person buying the product is the same person who may be selling it to you or at least there’s not as many people in between. They’re often the ones really hunting down a distributor to help them, and then the goods are legitimate.
Plus when you go into a store, you can hold something in your hands. Weight, flexibility, what kind of smell does something have… All of these can help demonstrate the product is legit.
I know that sounds crazy, but smelling a product can give you what it may be made of. Same with colour. You want to be careful particularly with silicone products because they can be colored using leads and other materials that are really unsafe. We’ve seen testing reports and it’s not good.
You also want to look at packaging for spelling and grammar mistakes on the packaging because if the replicators are just trying to do this really quickly, oftentimes they don’t translate properly. You can also look for certain indicators, for example on EZPZ products there is a little dial on the back that is the batch ID.
These product identifiers are there in case of a recall or in case something happened with one batch, and they want to keep track of that. That is generally not on a counterfeit product. They don’t bother doing the extras because they just want you to buy it, they don’t care what happens after.
Often the photos can be photoshopped badly, which is quite funny, awful but funny, because they will take their counterfeit product and Photoshop it into a legitimate product’s photography.
Is there a way to shop online or on Amazon safely, or safer?
Absolutely. The problem with Amazon is that it’s kind of a pay to play model, so the counterfeiter can put up the images, they can copy the verbiage.
So as the consumer, everything looks exactly the same. The product looks exactly the same, it’s just a few dollars less.
When you see that something is Amazon’s Choice, that does not mean it’s been vetted by Amazon and it’s the best one. It is just an algorithm that’s saying this one has been selling the most, they’ve paid the most to boost it, et cetera. Amazon’s Choice, a lot of people think that means all of a sudden it’s legit, it’s not. Necessarily, it’s not.
Same thing with Amazon Prime – it just means that they have spent more money to ship some of those goods to have Amazon ship them directly.
The best thing you can do, which is still not perfect, is to make sure the product name is the same that you would find on the manufacturer’s website. Instead of Smiley, Happy Face Mat, it says Happy Mat, or something like that. And then, you want to say, “by” and then the manufacturer’s name. So, ideally you’re buying it directly from the manufacturer’s name.
Again, that doesn’t necessarily mean it’s legit, but that is your best case scenario. You also have to keep in mind that sometimes if they do have outrageous shipping fees or additional shipping fees or long ship times, those are coming directly from China a lot of the time.
You want to avoid that because you want things that have been imported legally that have most likely been vetted by somebody, and passed those tests. The only other scary thing about that in terms of internet shopping is that there are websites that have been set up that look like they’re one stop shops, but they are drop shipping from AliExpress, et cetera. They are just selling counterfeit products.
Another tip is not to shop with a brand that doesn’t have an active social media page. You want a brand that shows they’re a real brand, they’ve been doing this for a long time, this is a legitimate store. You want to see some sort of about us information on the website. You want an email address or a phone number or an address, so you can tell that they’re a real company. Oftentimes these larger baby boutiques that have been around a long time in Canada, we have West Coast Kids and Snuggle Bugz or some of these smaller boutiques that have been around for a long time on your main street, those do have an online store, and those are often an authorized retailer.
If you see a bunch of reviews, you can review those. Amazon does have issues with deceptive reviews, but it’s often a good indicator if there’s a lot of people saying this product smells funny when I got it, et cetera. Don’t be lured by Facebook ads or Amazon ads because a lot of the time, again, they’re stealing those images from a legit brand.
If you’re going to shop online, I would say, Amazon should be a last resort. Try to buy it directly from the manufacturer if possible. If not, try to go to a reputable Canadian store or whatnot, and get it from there.
I’ve heard you talk about returns, and what most people don’t realize. Can you share what we should know?
It’s this culture that we now have when it comes to online shopping about free shipping, free returns, and what happens with your returns. We know that up to 80% of goods that are returned to big box stores and these online marketplaces are just trashed because they don’t want the liability to do anything, but also it costs them a lot of money to inspect, restock, et cetera. To unbox, inspect, restock, it costs them more than just to throw it out, and then they get tax credits for throwing these things out. So it all gets thrown in the garbage.
(CBC Marketplace did an episode that aired after we held this interview, which goes into detail on Amazon Returns. You can read more about it here.)
It’s not just that store that is at fault here. We as consumers need to be mindful. You need to think about what’s going to happen to your return.
And a lot of the time, the baby products can’t be returned. They’re not eligible for returns unless they’re defective or damaged, so the consumer marks it’s defective or it’s damaged and in that case we have no choice but to dispose of it.
If someone just returns it because it doesn’t fit or whatever, but it’s never been used, we resell those on our shop on Sample Sale. People love that because it’s also getting a second chance. However, if it’s been marked defective or whatever, I have to dispose of it, and that is atrocious and it kills me. We try to properly dispose of everything and recycle it, all of that, but it’s still not great.
Small boutiques are often really passionate and they’re the lifeblood of a thriving community. They’re offering the breastfeeding support classes, and the first foods classes, and all of that stuff, they want to help you find the right product. If you go to them and say, “Oh, I want something that fits this size,” or whatever. They’re like curators, they’ll find you the right thing, and then you don’t have to return it, then you know it’s going to be safe most of the time, etc.
It’s about consumers shopping mindfully.
If you want to better understand how to lower toxins in your home, without overwhelm, check out our Prepping for Pregnancy course if you’re trying to conceive or in your 1st or 2nd trimester or pregnancy, and How to Health Proof Your Home for Baby if you’re in your 3rd or 4th trimesters.
If you are a retailer or you have a product and you are looking for Canadian distribution, you can learn more about Hip Mommies at hipmommies.ca. If you are a consumer and you want to see what they have available, you can find those at shop.hipmommies.ca. Check them out over at Instagram @HipMommies.