When Chanel Reads “Channel” And Louis Is “Lewis”: Is It Morally Wrong To Own A Fake Designer Handbag?

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Is it morally wrong to own a fake Louis Vuitton handbag?

Better question: Is Charing Ball being trivial again? Perhaps.

But I have become more aware of how morality is really subjective and has less to do with religious indoctrination. Generally speaking, there are caveats to many things we find immorally wrong that many of us will observe – even if they are justified or not. Like murder. Most religions frown upon murder and generally speaking, the general public is not too keen on the idea of it either. Yet, in some instances we might be willing to excuse murder if it was done during self-defense, or as a result of an accident, or if classified as collateral damage. I’ve seen the same sort of reasoning when we justify some of the more inane moral questions in our lives, including our support of the black market trade.

I was also inspired by this video I was came across yesterday of this web series called Africa In The City, which featured a news report entitled the African Knock Off Hustle. In the nearly 12 minute long report, the host takes to the streets of Canal Street in Manhattan in search of fake Chanel handbags. Along the way she interviews pedestrians about their feelings on the counterfeit handbag trade and even speaks to some of the illegal bag traders themselves, who have made a serious business off of selling purses. In one of the scenes, the host is given a catalog – complete with glossy pictures and order numbers – of the selection of bags available, and in another scene, one bootlegger describes the hierarchy of counterfeits, with higher quality knock-offs running in excess of more than $400.  What was most interesting was the man-on the street interviews, which ranged from zero tolerance for knock-offs (one guy said, “There is no reason to buy a fake bag. Just buy the real one.”) to expressions that buying a knock-off was paramount to political expression. Towards the end of the report, a college-aged white guy says, “I would rather support a person making an honest living than corporations trying to rob you.”

Generally speaking, most people, who support the trade probably don’t see anything wrong with it – or at the very least they feel it is harmless. I have a friend, who wished to stay anonymous in this post, who said that much like the college-aged white guy, counterfeit products do not hurt anyone, “because all it is doing is providing a market for people like me who couldn’t afford to purchase this stuff, as well as the vendors, who probably would not be invited to be legitimate vendors of this product.” And there is some science which backs up the belief that generally speaking, people who support the counterfeit industry are less likely to purchase the real deal. Moreover, according to this article from CNN, a recent report puts the value of counterfeits around $250 billion dollars and is far larger than almost all of the underground economies, including the illegal weapons and human trafficking trades. By 2015, experts suggest that the value of counterfeit goods will exceed $1.7 trillion dollars globally and will gain traction over such industries as pharmaceuticals, consumer electronics, chemicals, commercial entertainment, and of course, fashion and apparel, which remains the lion share of the entire counterfeit market.

In spite of how lucrative knock-offs are for those selling them, the black market trade of selling handbags still carries severe legal implications, including possible arrest, huge fines, and even prison time. Likewise, there are economic implications too. In short, counterfeiting is theft. It is theft of the intellectual property, which affects the companies who spend lots of time and money to design, manufacture, trademark and market their designer handbags. And it is theft of countless dollars to local people through legal taxation, which would have been incurred through the sale of product through legal markets. Not to mention that counterfeit markets have been shown to support terrorism; are not always regulated to high standards; and can be produced in countries, where labor laws are lax, and human rights abuse happens all the time. Therefore, purchasing a knock-off is not exactly without its victims, much less its moral implications. Yet, some folks could probably make a pretty decent case for how the legal and trademarked industry, including apparel and fashion, partakes in some of the same exploitative practices, so why would the counterfeit trade be considered any less immoral, if not illegal?

“I see a moral issue in the sense of needing to project something that is really not the case. And needing to impress to the point of providing a false sense of security in a “name” that is valid but the quality (knock off) being invalid,” says Pastor Felix Morgan Jr., pastor of Temple of Empowerment Church in Philadelphia, who I asked about the moral implications of bootlegging.

Morgan was tied up in the duties of his ministries, so he didn’t have time to expound on his point or give the proper biblical annotations I would have loved to hear. However, I think his input speaks volumes: For manufacturers, what might constitute the biggest threat to their product is brand depreciation, which can occur when anyone can be associated with a fancy logo. However, for the consumers, who opted to spend lavishly on designer labels, they do not do it necessarily for the quality or even the design, rather, they do it for the emotional feeling, which comes from exclusivity. And having any logo on the body of any ole’ layperson doesn’t quite showcase one’s ability to be financially wealthier (or even the same) than others.

For example, my brother once told me about how in high school, a bunch of friends told him about a store down in North Philly where he could get a pair of brand new Jordans for $60 – except when my brother went to the store and inspected the sneakers, he noticed that “Jordan” was spelled wrong. “There was a ‘u’ in Jordans like Jorduns. Somebody spelled it phonetically,” he said. My brother also told me that after his discovery, he went back to his friends and told them that the shoes were fake. Surprisingly, not only did they already know, they still chose to pass them off as genuine anyway. “Nowadays, $60 is not going to buy you a lot of sneaker – not the kind that will keep you from getting clowned because your gear is corny. Plus, it’s not like anybody was going to get down on their knees and inspect them.”

In general, having luxury items is not inherently immoral, even as some of the luxury items are admittedly decadent. However, there is something wrong with folks buying into luxury and luxury-looking stuff for the appearance of wealth, especially if that appearance is not always accurate. I think that is where morality comes into play; when we put more value and stock into the accessories we add on – whether it be the real thing or not – instead of our character and who we truly are as a person.

So what are your thoughts? Is it morally acceptable to rock the fake Gucci?

Photo courtesy of Village Voice.

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