All too often considered “the price of fame,” “the flip side of the coin” or “a necessary evil,” counterfeiting has made itself at home in our lives. Some even bask in the glory of being copied, as though it were somehow proof of their success and therefore their genius. Fakes are everywhere: in luxury goods, in pharmaceuticals, in automotives and aeronautics, in alcohol, cosmetics, even food. And now the internet has put counterfeiting at our fingertips.
Trade in counterfeit goods is thought to represent 10% of global trade and total some US$ 500 billion annually. More than 40 million fake watches flood the market each year, compared with the 26 million genuine Swiss timepieces exported in 2010. Net profits from counterfeit watches are in excess of US$ 1 billion or 6% of the value of Swiss watch exports for 2010. These figures are estimates based on customs seizures: the real picture can only be worse.
A very real scenario
What can be done? Companies across the board have woken up to the fact that counterfeiting is no longer simply “the price of fame” but a gangrene that steals brand identity, hijacks intellectual property, freeloads investments in innovation and creativity, stifles employment, and undermines brand image. It is a covert but no less very real scourge, and no one can say what the full extent of its consequences are.
Who are the counterfeiters who shamelessly benefit from the work of others? The quality and quantity of fakes on the market indicate production on an industrial scale. Counterfeiters are professionals in what has become a very lucrative business: no R&D costs, no employer contributions or taxes, no promotion and advertising. Counterfeiting is a smokescreen for organised crime, money laundering, drugs, prostitution and child labour. And who for? For people such as you and I who, one day or another, wittingly or unwittingly, fall into counterfeiters’ grasp.
Wittingly or unwittingly: the distinction must be made. Counterfeiting is a moral issue. An individual who knowingly buys fakes must be made to understand the serious implications of their act; that they are endorsing an entire system built on exploitation and misappropriation. Of course this might seem like some B-movie film noir, and easy to push to the back of the mind when spotting a cheap Rolex on Patpong market in Bangkok, or falling for the latest Balenciaga bag being touted on an Italian beach. But this is a serious matter, and something we will go on repeating! We must appeal to buyers’ conscience and have them realise they are a partner to crime. We must engage their social and moral responsibility and, of course, explain the risks they incur which, in some countries, include criminal charges.
The key to communication
The inadvertent purchase of counterfeit goods is a different matter. The buyer has fallen into the trap of buying a watch, probably on an auction site, that looks genuine, claims to be genuine, is being offered at a knockdown price (up to 50% less than its retail price or its value on the collector’s market) but is actually a fake. In this case, brands’ legal departments do their job of tracking down and eradicating these activities, and develop security solutions to identify their products and give their customers a guarantee of authenticity.
Once again, we can only urge customers to always buy from brands’ own stores or from their authorised distributors, as this is the only guarantee of zero risk. This is all the more true when buying a prestige watch or a product of Haute Horlogerie, which implies professional guidance, service, often personalised assistance, and a long-term guarantee that only brands’ official networks can provide.
Communication, information and individual responsibility are the ways to put an end to an industry that keeps certain populations in misery.
If people didn’t buy counterfeits, there would be no counterfeits. Communication, information and individual responsibility are the ways to put an end to an industry that keeps certain populations in misery, and which we have too often indulged or whose implications we have simply failed to measure. “I think, therefore I am,” proposed René Descartes. Let us think and be able to live with our conscience.
This article was first published in LeTemps.ch on June 9th 2011