You can’t spend any time on Instagram or TikTok without hitting a drop shipping scam or a flashy direct-to-consumer startup. You’ll see a nice set of pans in your feed, only to find out later that the company itself doesn’t hold any inventory and is outsourcing to somewhere in China. Or you will look at a nice pair of workout shorts in the store and will wonder, “I wonder where they make those?”
What if I told you there was a fun, quick way to find out exactly who supplies companies with their goods? Enter ImportYeti, a free-to-use and user-supported tool by David Applegate to track company suppliers.
ImportYeti works by searching the bill of lading for companies to see what cargo they are importing, where it comes from, and what the stated contents are. Like flight records, “B/L”s are public information but have been traditionally hard to search. ImportYeti takes that information and makes it easily searchable for normal people. The site not only shows you exactly where American companies are importing from, but it also gives you a breakdown of what is theoretically in there and the frequency of shipments over time and shows you other companies are importing from the same place.
Without naming names, let me give an example. I bought a combination laptop / gym bag from a popular tech startup. It’s good! But the company almost certainly outsources its production, so I input the name into ImportYeti and got a similarly named company. Most of the shipments to Laptop Bag Startup are from one supplier out of Dongguan, China. When I go to that supplier’s page, I can see that they mainly shipped goods to the aforementioned Laptop Bag Startup, as well as another ubiquitous bag company that makes nice enough-looking D-tier backpacks you buy at Urban Outfitters. It will also give me the address of the company, frequency of shipments by date, and a series of quick search links to sites like Alibaba and Aliexpress.
Now, this does not mean I personally am going to go to the factory and get them to make me a bunch of knockoffs (lord knows there are plenty of Reddit communities devoted to that kind of thing). What it does do is provide a search engine for a slice of the global trade and manufacturing happening in the US. And it’s a blast to mess around with!
I have dumped hours and hours into ImportYeti, trying to figure out how the sausage is made by companies across the board, from international behemoths to soothingly branded Instagram startups. It is not a game per se, but it feels spiritually close to playing GeoGuessr. The more time you spend in ImportYeti, the more you begin to pick apart what is normally an opaque web that underpins the economy. Things really start to ramp up when you search by HS and HTS codes, the classification system used to describe products being shipped. Ever want to see a map of all the cork shipments in the US? HS Code 45 is a good place to start. You can get far more granular on your cork-based journey if you dig into headings and subheadings.
The global economy is terrifying in scale. It can sometimes feel that the number of scam companies is multiplying at an exponential rate, that nothing feels real and everything is rebranded. And while ImportYeti can’t help with that creeping sense of alienation and dread you get looking at Instagram, it grounds the products we buy to real people and places. There are moments while clicking around ImportYeti where you can see behind the curtain just a tiny bit more and get lost in an endless sea of cork and cork-related imports.