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Blog: Buyer’s risk – online marketplaces challenge product safety

21.11.2018 11.30 | Published in English on 28.11.2018 at 14.30
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It looks exactly the same and it is so much cheaper! It costs EUR 10 here, but I can get it for a tenth of the price posted free of charge from a faraway country. So why would I pay more for the same product? Or is it not the same product?

Social media is full of threads like these. An awareness-raising campaign run by the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency and 13 other organisations earlier in the autumn also called attention to the subject. The aim of the campaign was to draw consumers’ attention to the fact that any goods ordered from outside the EU are purchased at the buyer’s risk. There is no organisation in Europe responsible for accepting returns or paying compensation if such goods turn out to be faulty. 

As part of the campaign and in order to learn more about goods sold through online marketplaces based outside the EU, the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency tested and studied the safety and regulatory compliance of approximately 30 products in September. We chose the products on the basis of a risk assessment from online marketplaces established outside the EU. All but one turned out to be unsafe, and many were downright dangerous. All that the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency can do about these kinds of products is to ask the seller to recall the product, if the online marketplace has signed a Product Safety Pledge with the EU.

Ensuring product safety is one of the key responsibilities of the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency – in Finland

Finnish authorities only have control over goods sold through Finnish online marketplaces. Other EU countries carry out similar controls over their domestic markets. Businesses operating within the EU have a duty to ensure that any goods they manufacture or import comply with safety regulations and other requirements. Consumers shopping in online stores based outside the EU need a new kind of nous and the ability to study the properties of products and the terms and conditions of sale more closely.

The campaign sparked a debate on the pros and cons of online shopping. People shared both their successful and disastrous experiences. In addition to safety, the discussions brought up many perspectives relating to the structure of society, such as the impact of foreign online marketplaces on employment, the cost of disposing of unnecessary products shipped to Finland from the other side of the world, the negative environmental impacts of such shipments, supporting the postal services of developing countries and the recyclability of foreign goods.

People’s shopping habits are changing quickly, and these kinds of discussions are important. However, every consumer ultimately makes their choices on the basis of their own principles and needs.

The Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency has a vested interest in consumers’ safety, and ensuring the safety and regulatory compliance of goods sold commercially is one of our key responsibilities. The safety of a product can rarely be assessed on the basis of a picture, and instead we need information and test results on the structure of the product, its materials, documentation, markings and instructions for use. If the Finnish Safety and Chemicals Agency’s tests show that a product is defective, we can order the manufacturer or importer to fix the product or recall it from sale or from consumers. We can also charge the costs of the tests to the manufacturer or importer. We cannot do this in the case of goods sold through online marketplaces established outside the EU.

New kind of regulation needed for online marketplaces

There is an ongoing lively debate on how to ensure that goods imported to the EU without a middleman comply with EU requirements and to guarantee fair competition regardless of the origin of a product or the logistics chain involved. The EU is planning a new regulation on market surveillance, which would ensure that a body within the EU always has the ultimate say on product safety and regulatory compliance. The possibilities of using artificial intelligence to search for products in online marketplaces are also being explored.

The ways in which people shop are changing, and there is an urgent need for new tools to ensure that the products sold to consumers are also safe in the future.

There is still time to take advantage of the Black Friday sales. However, if you do find something tempting, make sure to study the product information a little more thoroughly than at other times, read other people’s reviews of the product and the seller, and check that you can find the manufacturer’s or the importer’s details and that the product can be returned. If an offer sounds too good to be true, it probably is not true! 

For more information about the campaign, visit:
Video: Ordering a mobile telephone charger from outside the EU – at your own risk

Video: Ordering a muscle gain product online – at your own risk

Tuiri Kerttula

Tuiri Kerttula
Director, Products Department