“Where’d you get those sunglasses?” I overheard my husband ask his best friend during a recent cookout in our backyard. It was a blindingly sunny day – the kind where the sun turns a surreal shade of Carolina blue – and my husband’s favorite shades had become the latest victim of our 13-month-old son’s rampage of destruction.
“They’re Oakies,” my husband’s friend informed him.
“You mean Oakleys?” my husband corrected his friend.
“Nope, I mean Oakies,” the friend repeated. “They’re knockoff sunglasses. Picked ’em up for $6 in Chinatown on our trip to Chicago last summer. They look like the real deal, huh?”
Before I even had a chance to cast the first stone, I remembered the slew of Kate Spode, Couch, and Louis Button handbags collecting dust in the nether-reaches of my closet. I used to consider those fake handbags – mostly obtained during so-called “purse parties” during my high school, college, and grad school – to be my treasures; they were a sign that, even though I couldn’t afford the high fashion (and high cost) items, they were at least on my radar.
These days, I still can’t afford to spring for the real deal as often as I’d like, but I’m also no longer a poseur, trying to be – or have – something I’m not. The reason has nothing to do with fashion, or ego, or even legality – it has to do with being a responsible consumer.
The Fine Line of Legality
It’s an urban legend that buying fake handbags or knockoff sunglasses – or any other type of counterfeit goods, for that matter – is against the law. Let’s put a stop to that rumor right now: it’s not illegal. The misinformation gained traction in spring of 2011, when a New York City councilwoman proposed making buying fake handbags a misdemeanor, punishable by a $1,000 fine and possibly jail time. The measure, however, failed to pass. You can still get your Guchi and Prado bags along NYC’s Canal Street without fear of legal reprisals.
However, that doesn’t mean the law fails to hold the other side of the exchange responsible for selling those counterfeit goods, although there are plenty of shades of gray here too. Say you try to sell a pair of fake Air Jordan shoes, pawning them off as the real deal – that’s against the law. Why? Because it’s trademark infringement. But if you just sell a pair of tennis shoes that look like Air Jordans, but don’t use any of the logos (like the Nike “swoosh” or the silhouette of Jordan soaring through the air for a dunk) – and, most importantly, don’t claim they’re the real deal – you’re likely in the clear.
Stats On The Trade of Counterfeit Goods
Want to get a clear idea of just how many people are buying and selling counterfeit goods? Fat chance. Despite droves of research examining the potential economic and legal repercussions of everything from purse parties to pirated DVDs, computer software, and video games, there’s scant data regarding the actual numbers.
Makes sense, though. I mean, the poseurs of the world are likely not going to tell you that their closets are stuffed full of Fendy handbags and Channel suits.
Why It’s Still Wrong
So you can’t get arrested for buying counterfeit goods, but does that mean it’s ok? You may be able to justify buying knockoff handbags or fake sunglasses based on the economical boost it gives your frugal mind, or even because of the lack of criminal implications. But just because you won’t face jail time because of your off-brand purchase doesn’t mean there isn’t a trickle down effect.
Consider this…

  1. According to the Government Accountability Office, one key impact of the sale of counterfeit goods is lost revenue for the business that actually owns the trademark. For example, if enough people buy “Oakies,” the actual company “Oakley” is going to take a financial hit. Not only could that cost the company revenue, but it could cost workers their jobs. And the trickle down? Because counterfeit goods are sold on the black market, Uncle Sam isn’t collecting any taxes on your purchase, meaning the government will have to make up that lost revenue elsewhere.
  2. The fraudulent use of a brand or trademark can stymie the expansion of intellectual property. That is to say, when you know someone is going to knockoff your high-end label and pawn the lower-priced product as the real deal, what’s the incentive to grow?
  3. I mentioned the impact of counterfeit goods on jobs at the actual company, but what about the workers who actually produce those knockoff handbags? According to the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development, counterfeit goods are more likely than the name-brand to come from sweatshops, where workers are paid pennies – fractions of pennies – on the dollar for the products they make, contributing to human rights’ violations.
  4. The black market is often synonymous with organized crime. A 2009 report by the International Chamber of Commerce suggested that G20 nations lose nearly 20 billion Euros ($25.2 billion USD) for every one percent increase in crime caused by the production and sale of counterfeit goods.

As for me? Well, my husband certainly won’t be picking up a pair of Oakies anytime soon. It’s also unlikely I’ll be pulling my knockoff handbags out of retirement any time soon (and not just because they’re a good decade out of style).

Have you ever bought counterfeit goods? Did you feel guilty about the purchase?

Libby Balke
Libby Balke