Jo Large, Teesside Centre for Realist Criminology
This post draws upon my research on the consumption of counterfeit fashion goods, with the aim of developing a more critical understanding of this work in relation to leisure, consumption and harm: outlining some ideas from my forthcoming paper “Negotiating Harm, Consumption and the (Counterfeit) Fashion Industry”. I’ve argued elsewhere (Large, 2011) that despite suggestions from anti-counterfeiting agencies that consumers view counterfeit fashion as a ‘victimless crime’, this belief reflects quite a simplistic view of victimisation and crime. Indeed, data I collected from qualitative interviews and focus groups with consumers (who identified both as counterfeit and non-counterfeit purchasers), suggested that most people recognise the counterfeit fashion industry as in some way bad. This begged an analysis that situated the consumption of counterfeit fashion goods and associated harms in the wider socio-economic and political context. Further, lending weight to Raymen and Smith’s call for criminology to ‘interrogate more closely the underlying drives, meanings and motivations at the heart of the quintessential consumer experience of shopping’ (2015:390).
Putting aside research which explores illicit and criminal forms of shopping (i.e. theft), and business/consumer behaviour research which tends to focus superficially on purchase intentions, there is little research examining consumer attitudes and behaviour within a criminological context that recognises the blurred relationship between the illegal and legal. One exception existing at the nexus of leisure and crime is research on the ‘criminology of shopping’, which provides rare yet important insights and useful conceptual frameworks to build upon. However, at the moment, this remains constrained to the perfectly legal (in terms of consumption at least) but ‘feverishly competitive’, violent and anti-social event of Black Friday (Raymen and Smith, 2015). The consumption of counterfeit fashion can be viewed quite differently: it is not necessarily consigned to a particular event, and the shopping process could be considered much more mundane and less ‘carnivalesque’. However, an element of deviance remains: the product being purchased is illicit and questions exist around the harms associated with the manufacture, production and retail of these products.
Shopping for Fashion as Contemporary Leisure
Shopping for fashion goods has become a common feature of contemporary leisure (McCracken, 2005; Miller, 2008). The demand for cheap, affordable and fast fashion is high with ‘shoppers seeking something new to wear every week’ (Morgan and Birtwistle, 2008:190), as well as a strong demand for more expensive branded products in an era of affordable luxury. Fashion is another example of hyper-consumerism based on the process of ‘introduction and imitation’: where the very nature of fashion is based on imitation. This further blurs the boundaries between products which are deemed as problematic i.e. counterfeit and those which are not. These arguments are largely caught up in notions of harm – although these constructions of harm can be problematic too. As Hilton et al. (2004:345) argue, the ‘problem’ of counterfeiting ‘partly lies in the industry itself’.
On a more general note, fashion is seen as a communicator (Baudrillard, , 1998; Veblen  1998); consumption is ‘fundamentally expected’ with consumers having an ‘unapologetic, unrepentant sense of desire’ (Hayward, 2004:161). Buying clothes can make you feel good – even if only for a short time before guilt and anxiety about overspending kicks in. For some, shopping for fashion is a pleasurable experience, for others it is hard ‘work’. The decision to purchase can be rational (can I afford it? does it fit?), but this is often caught up with emotion and desire (this makes me feel good, this makes me feel better):
I went into Topshop the other day, and I’ve got no money but in Topshop I saw these lush high waisted shorts and they were like £30, but I had to have them. I was in the changing room and this woman was like ‘they look so nice on you’. I had to have them.
The argument that I want to put forward here, is that the consumption of counterfeit fashion goods doesn’t fall outside of the broader reasons why people buy fashion more generally; it is a situated everyday part of consumption and leisure practices. Whilst situational and contextual factors (such as cost, location and availability) are important on the surface level, there is also something more innate about consuming the products themselves. Indeed, in my research concerns about style and identity were key for consumers who either engaged or did not engage with consuming counterfeits.
It was a cheap bag and I liked it. So I bought it and I thought well it’s only a few quid… It was ten euros so I just bought it.
When I was on holiday with my mum, I bought a Prada bag, just a black one, but again that was more because I liked it; I hate Prada! Actually, that’s a lie: I went looking for a Chanel bag. I wanted the style; I don’t like to flash labels.
In terms of exploring consumer views in relation to fashion counterfeiting and harm, the research findings challenge focusing on a narrow understanding of crime and harm. Consumers were generally unconcerned about potential financial harm to the legitimate industry, or indeed wider loss of tax revenue. However, many were acutely aware of the potential ethical issues associated with the counterfeit fashion industry.
Over the past couple of years I’ve become aware that when fashion goods are cheap there is likely to be an element of exploitation in their production – I think I’m less bothered about tax revenue or authenticity of brands and more concerned about the conditions of workers who produce the goods. I know that lots of high street brands are guilty of exploiting workers in developing countries – my main concern with fake fashion items would be that working conditions could be even less regulated and more exploitative.
(Survey Respondent, Aged 29)
Many consumers recognised the ethical issues of manufacturing and producing counterfeits, but also the association of ethical issues with the manufacture and production of fashion goods more generally. Whilst fashion companies would be inclined to deny any poor procedure, there is a wealth of evidence suggesting poor practice in the industry. This reinforces the need to consider the consumption of counterfeit fashion within the context of consuming fashion. Likewise, the need to establish a more critical appreciation of the harms of late-capitalism. But, if we are to do this, there must be admittance that many consumers view the illegitimate counterfeit industry in a similar light to the legitimate fashion industry. These are not ‘flawed consumers’ (Bauman, 2004), but in some cases, as in Raymen and Smith’s study ‘extremely competent consumers’ (2015:402). Admittedly purchasing counterfeits is not everyone’s cup of tea – some respondents actively disliked counterfeit fashion – however, this tended to relate to their views on identity and style, as opposed to concerns about the harms of counterfeiting.
The Value of a Deviant Leisure Perspective
Through examining the micro dynamics of consumer motivations and behaviour, it is possible to see how the nature of living in a consumer society driven by the desire to gain pleasure through consumption, means that there is little we are actually prepared to do about the counterfeit fashion industry. When it comes to consuming counterfeit fashion items; ‘the seemingly innocuous pastime of shopping becomes an instrument of harm’ (Raymen and Smith, 2015:394). This could be positioned as an extension to the harm in which consumers are prepared to tolerate with their more general consumption of fashion.
I suppose like some of it is like slavery and that, a lot of clothes are made on the back streets of India and in the slums. So you have got all of that, which I do know about because I saw it on TV. But I wouldn’t say that it bothers me too much because that’s just how it is. It’s just how it is isn’t it?
Interestingly, when we consider consumer motivations for buying (or indeed not buying) counterfeit fashion goods, it is possible to see that whilst the situation and context of actually buying a counterfeit is important, the nature of consuming fashion as a means of leisure and identity is much more fundamental. This lends support to Raymen and Smith (2015:402) who, from their ‘deviant leisure’ perspective, and in a similar effort to others (Hall et al, 2008; Hayward, 2004), argue for ‘the importance of a critical analysis of consumer culture within the discipline of criminology’. Through shifting the focus within the deviant leisure framework proposed by Smith and Raymen, which focuses on the ‘transgression of the ethical ‘duty to the other’’, one could argue that consumers who buy counterfeits, ‘are not transgressing but conforming to capitalism’s disavowed core ‘values’ and ‘practices’ which are exploitative, acquisitive and socially irresponsible’ (Hall and Winlow, 2015:51).
Baudrillard, J. ( 1998). The Consumer Society. Myths and Structures. London: Sage Publications.
Bauman, Z. (2004). Work Consumerism and the New Poor. Maidenhead: Open University Press.
Hall, S and Winlow, S. (2015). Revitalizing Criminological Theory. Towards A New Ultra –Realism. London: Routledge.
Hall, S; Winlow, S and Ancrum, C. (2008). Criminal Identities and Consumer Culture: Crime, Exclusion and the New Culture of Narcissism. London: Routledge.
Hayward, K. (2004). City Limits: Crime, Consumer Culture and the Urban Experience. London: Glasshouse Press.
Hilton, B; Choi, C. J; Chen, S. (2004). ‘The ethics of counterfeiting in the fashion industry: quality, credence and profit issues’. Journal of Business Ethics. 55 p345-354.
Large, J. (2011). Criminality, Consumption and the Counterfeiting of Fashion Goods. PhD Thesis. Leeds University, UK.
Morgan, L . R and Birtwistle, G. (2009). ‘An investigation of young fashion consumers’ disposable habits’. International Journal of Consumer Studies. 33. Pp190-198.
Raymen, T and Smith, O. (2015). What’s Deviance Got To Do With It? Black Friday Sales, Violence and Hyper-Conformity British Journal of Criminology. 56. Pp389-405.
Veblen, T. (1998). The Theory of the Leisure Class. New York: Prometheus Books