Trade in counterfeit products is a thriving business in areas with large informal economies for consumers are presented with products at substantially lower price points than the original products. The issue of aspirational satisfaction is another major reason why a good number of clients in informal economies opt to purchase counterfeit and pirated products. Also, most of the customers of these products in informal economies are usually faced with substantial budgetary constraints. Interestingly, the hazards that are associated with such products rarely feature on the minds of these customers. While looking at the issue of counterfeiting and piracy, clients that purchase these products either do so knowing that the products are counterfeit or are oblivious to the fact that the products are fake.
It is important to note that counterfeiting and piracy steals market share from legitimate businesses and undermine innovation, which usually negatively affects economic growth. Criminal networks and organised crime thrive via counterfeiting and piracy activities. It is not surprising that such groups target informal markets as a means to distribute their products, given that these offer them higher profit margins. Also, given the unregulated structure of such markets, they encounter a lower risk of detection. Another factor that makes these markets attractive is their large nature, which offers manufacturers of counterfeit products a huge market in which they can trade, given the intricate distribution networks that exist therein.
A report by the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) that delves into the economic impact of counterfeits and piracy raises some of the key concerns in terms of the effects that these products have and classifies these into different categories. I would like to concentrate on some of the socioeconomic effects, with a specific focus on criminal activities and employment.
In as far as criminal activities are concerned, the report makes the point that counterfeiting and piracy transfer economic rents to parties which are often engaged in a variety of illegal activities, including tax evasion and drug trafficking. It can be assumed that a portion of the rents is eventually used to sustain further criminal activity, in a corrupt and organised manner. While I tend to agree with this point of view, it is important to add that informal markets have for long been driven by a sense of micro entrepreneurship that has birthed innovative ideas and products due to the cut-throat environment under which they operate, with the view of trying to remain afloat. Seeing as most businesses in the sector operate in areas that are intricately intertwined with poverty, the quest to make a quick buck will push most of them to disregard intellectual property rights and opt to sell products that are in demand.
Counterfeiting and piracy affect employment by shifting jobs from rights holders to infringing parties, which is where a large part of the informal economy comes into play. The shift has implications for the welfare of employees as working conditions in the sectors where these activities occur are often far poorer than those prevailing in the recognised firms that usually offer their employees better terms of employment and adhere to health and safety standards. Although OECD raises a fair point in this sense, it is of vital to take into consideration the fact that unemployment is a scourge that is bedevilling developing nations. The shrinking availability of formal employment opportunities leaves even highly qualified graduates with little option but to venture into informal business that are a huge driver for pirated products due to their higher unit profitability.
While trying to unpack the issues that arise from counterfeiting and piracy, it is crucial to unpack these by looking at both sides of the equation. Understanding the drivers of counterfeiting from an informal sector perspective is key to finding viable solutions to this vice. For example, companies that manufacture cosmetic products can produce smaller package units that are targeted at informal markets. This would enable them to tap into the consumer demographic in such economies. This strategy has been successfully implemented by some multinational companies that manufacture household consumables. Seeing informal markets as part of the solution instead of the problem will immensely contribute to the strategy aimed at combating counterfeiting and piracy.
Informal Economy Analyst.