Living in China

Could buying a fake bag be an ethical decision?

When thinking of pirate and fake products two things come to my mind. It’s kind of wrong and it’s cheap.But things aren’t so black and white as I have learned while living here in Guangzhou. In the picture a traffic policeman is not arresting the guy for selling pirate products, he is buying a fake Nokia headset for himself. Right and wrong seems not to be so clear here in China.

Today I accompanied my friend who wanted to buy few bags for herself and as a present for her family members. We head to the Guangzhou Baiyun World Leather Trading Center that locates near the main railway station. That is a fake bag paradise! You can buy a Gucci or Dior bag for about 40 euros. Are these bag real? No, or almost.

There are three kind of bags. The truly fake ones, the truly real ones and then something between. Those are made in the very same factory as the real bags, but just sold in other place with an other price. That is the reason they may be identical with the real bags and the only difference is the price tag.

Lots of brand bags are made in Dongguan, very close to Guangzhou. In those factories the workers have long days and are really fortunate if have their Sundays off. Basic salary is about 100 euros per month. The factory offers accommodation but it means sharing a room with 20 other workers. If you want to know more about these migrant workers I really recommend a book Factory girls by Leslie T. Chang.

I started thinking could buying a fake bag actually be an ethical choice? If you buy it from a guy selling stuff on the street, the money is probably going to his pockets. If you buy 1000 euros bag from a Gucci store, then who is getting your money? If I would use so much money on something I would like to know how that product is made and who am I supporting with that purchase. Where is the Fair Trade for bags?

Today my choise was to buy a non-brand leather wallet. It can’t be fake because it doesn’t have any labels. I paid 40 yuan which was good for me and to the lady that sold it to me. I would call this a win-win situation, but with so many fake bags around me I couldn’t help thinking which would be the best choice. Fake or not?


  • Sarah

    Hi Sara, If you buy a bag on the side of the street, the man selling it gets all the money, If you buy the real thing in an exclusive gucci shop, the money is distributed between the designer, the company, the workers in the store (through their wages) and the factory workers… their may be others I am missing.

    Personnally I think it is wrong to buy fake “real bags” because firstly you don’t know how the street seller got them.. for instance Did he steal from the factory? Also buying fake versions may damage the share price of these luxury products. Which happened with Burberry in England when lots of uneducated and anti social people bought fake versions it let the brand down and nobody wanted to be seen wearing Burberry because the brand had been cheapened…

    I just think that if i paid like 1000 euro for a gucci bag and then i found out someone on the street bought it on the street for 40 euro I would feel gucci has lost its exclusivity.

    But on the other hand you could see it as fair because these luxury brands are charging too high a price for the average person..

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for commenting Sarah! I guess the whole brand bag and high fashion thing is supposed to be too expensive for average person. It wouldn’t be special if everyone would have a real Gucci bad. That I don’t know why people like certain brands and want to use thousands of euros for them. Me as a student of course can’t affor them and have been quite happy with cheaper and second hand clothes. That brings up a question is there any difference if someone buys a fake Gucci or a fake H&M?

  • Tom

    Well Sarah, you are opening a whole ‘nother can of worms.
    My question would be is it ever ethical to buy a 1,000 euro bag when there are millions of children going to bed hungry every night?
    That of course does not make buying fakes ethical, but I’m not convinced buying the real ones is black and white either.

    Sara Reply:

    You are right Tom that there are a lot of questions in this matter and it surely isn’t black and white. And is it right to buy clothes from cheaper clothing companies that maybe use child workers? And if these kids doesn’t work would their family still have enough money to eat? For one questions there is another 10 coming up and it goes boarder and boarder. And so few answers.

    Tom Reply:

    These questions keep me up at night.
    My hope is that by improving education, and creating more opportunities for educated people that child labor would become unappealing for families.
    At the moment college graduates in China and migrant workers have almost identical salaries…making education of only minimal value.

    Sara Reply:

    Tom, that sounds wrong that even you study hard in the university you still can’t get better salary. I’ve also recently watched closer some migrant workers and their life doesn’t seem too ideal either. Working such a long hours and still can’t get enough money to save. It seems really hard to have a bright future if you don’t have any education, not enough connections, can’t speak foreign languages and don’t read and write well in Chinese either. After meeting these people life in Finland suddenly looks quite easy.

  • Eileen

    I think it’s pointless to buy a fake. People buy the name brands for name brands sake. You want to show off. If you buy a fake, it totally beats the whole purpose! You may as well buy a pretty non brand item and have people complement the style. It’s all about social status to get a chanel bag.

    Sara Reply:

    You have a good point Eileen. I would prefer non brands too but if I really like a brand bag design (not the name it self) but can’t afford it?

    Eileen Reply:

    There are tons of beautiful nonbrand bags. You’ll probably find a very similar design that is nonbrand. If you really like the design so much to the point where you must have it (I never felt like that to any bag – or maybe it’s because I am a huge tomboy), you can always wait till it’s “so last season,” or buy them outlets. Or second hand. You can even rent them and when you are sick of the bag, you bring it back.

    Or you may get lucky like the woman in that so-called Bridal show. The designer realizes that one of the clients was in one the knock offs that completely stole her design for just a little bit less money, so she gave her a huge discount so she can be in the original design dress. The designer was so insulted, but good for the client!

    People are going to do what they’re going to do. I shouldn’t care. I’m off to celebrate my birthday for tomorrow. Cheers!

    Sara Reply:

    I have to say that I only have few bags my self and don’t really know anything about fashion. But really nice to hear your opinion on this topic so I wanted to ask you more. I think it’s a good idea to buy nonbrand bags and other products too if possible. Happy birthday Eileen! Hope you had a nice time.

  • Sean

    I think this is not a right or wrong question. If there is demand for the same bags at lower prices, there will always be sources to supply for such demand regardless. That’s why we have black markets. Except in China it’s more open.

    Sara Reply:

    There seems to be a lot of demand for these fake products. No matter shoes, bags or dvd’s. Guangzhou have it all and people are buying. Maybe this also comes to this common question that how much one person’s opinion and act matters?

  • Tea

    Never thought about it that way, glad you shared your experience. And thank you for the reading recommendation :)

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for commenting Tea! Actually I’m not even sure what I think about this question but it’s interesting to hear other opinions and ideas. Factory girls really is quite interesting book!

  • Jackie

    Hi,I am Chinese,I hate to buying fake stuff. I would rather get things which are suitable for myself. If I were rich,I would buy brand things. I trust their quality. Being not rich yet,I go for something nonbrand that marches my bugets. The quality is poor in fake products. Never trust those things and I ‘d feel insulted if I used something fake. There’s no point to show off with it. (The guy in uniform is not in the police force, he is an assitant for the traffic police, acting like traffic lights,only. Most of those assitants are not well-educated.)

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for joining the discussion Jackie. I think buying nonbrand clothes and bags is a very good choise. I still have to admit that I do have some fake Zara clothes, but I’m not sure are people so strongly against this because it isn’t a luxury brand or even close. So how you would call this kinds of “traffic light assistant” in Chinese? Is there a speacial term for them?

  • Jackie

    I don’t wear imitations personally. No to mention the poor quality, they can be humiliating, most people can tell the difference between the originals and the fakes. I understand that most people here consider ‘what you are’ more important than ‘who you are’ . this kind of mentality causes the demand of imitations. –What a shame. The Chinese government has been criticised by the world for this for years. At least, something factories manufacturing fake goods have been cracked down. Stay away from those fake electronic stuff, like fake cellphones,radiation which those phones produce is over standard level ,and endangers your heath. It’s still hard to stop the all the fakes. The local government turns a blind-eye on them most of time. I have only 2 cellphones these years,one is ‘haier’, for 5 years the other one is ‘coolpad’ which I got for free last month, when I recharged my prepaid card. Honestly,I could afford to buy an original i-phone, just don’t need so many functions on the phone. Since I could get a phone for free, it’s more than OK to me. I really don’t care what others think of my choice and their choice.
    Those people who are helping easing the traffic are called ‘ jiao tong xie guan‘. The main job they have to do is reminding people to stop and wait when the lights turn red. They can’t get you a fined-ticket,even if you do something against the traffic regulations and rules. But a traffic police can spoil your day,if you do something. Those ‘ jiao tong xie guan‘s are hired by the municipality ,they get less than ¥2000 a month,and it is not a permanent job. As unemployment rate of the residents in this city is getting high. having a job like this is consider being lucky for most of the locals.

    Sara Reply:

    In China it really seems that first you better get rich and second show it to everyone. I don’t really care what people think about me when I always buy the cheapest rice in the store or wear second hand clothes. In Finland we think that good people doesn’t show off. For example if someone wins millions in the lottery he or she won’t tell the press and brag about it. They want to keep it as a secret and don’t want other people to behave differently towards them because of the money.

    I can understand that the goverment doesn’t want to close the fake factories and markets in one night because then probably millions of workers would have to find a new job. As as you said, it’s not that easy and salaries aren’t good. For uneducated person 2000 yuan salary is quite good one I’ve heard.

  • Zacky

    Buying a fake branded bag is definitely not a big ethical issue in China, as plenty of my foreign friends also do that, and you won’t be sentenced to jail if you continuously do that again in China, this’s our government’s fault, it’s them who don’t preserve intellectual property right well. There’s always a demand and supply relationship out there for these negative production and consumption externalities in our society, realistically, a perfect competition does not exist in this world, also, as the vast majority of mainland Chinese people here have no ideas about those overpriced and heavily-tariffed luxurious products, again, it’s a universal face-issue as I believe, whether you support original or fake depending on yourself, FIY, those luxurious products are designated some target markets—specific demographic people, i.e. mostly are for some rich people’s and mistresses’ social status and ego boost. In my mind, if you are rich, just go for it, otherwise don’t waste your time shop them impulsively, coz many people buy them just for showing off but actually they are not that rich, plus talking about some of my past experience here, I’m always regretful when I’ve bought some stupid expensive stuff which I don’t need them at all, besides, I always feel bad about finding some decent substitutes of what I just bought afterwards.

  • Marie

    I don’t have issues with making bags that look similar in style to others and selling them as such. But when you copy a company’s logo and put it on there than it’s a completely different thing…and wrong. I would encourage these companies to use their labor and make good quality products with their own good design. That’s what made the big fashion houses what they are today and why so many people want to copy them. And besides, aren’t we all tired of seeing the same Louis vuitton logo bags all over the place anyway??

    Sara Reply:

    Thank you for sharing your opinion Marie. I would like to see Chinese factories to use their own logos instead of copying the other brands. But aren’t they copying them because people want to buy them? My personal opinion is that there are some many bag brands that I don’t quite understand why they are so popular and people think the bags look good.

    This week I went to the bag market again with my other friend and looked for a baf for myself too. I looked the quality and the design. Colour and the usability. I chose my bag after comparing it to other bags and was sure I wanted that one. It doesn’t matter for me what brand it is, I like it anyway. The only things I wanted to make sure, is that there isn’t logo or name all over the bag. That kind of design isn’t really for me.

  • C

    imitating other foreign brands could be a short term financial gain for business factory owners but they will NEVER to be able to compete with the top quality brands that comes with originality. they’ll have to realised this one day or sooner because there are always better and bigger things, the majority might only spend money on. I noticed a lot of rick chinese flocking to the burberry shop at the international airports to buy their luxurious handbag or items…

  • erica

    Hello! Do you know of any translaters available for travelers to Guangzhou? Also, where is the best place to shop for electronics?

    Jackie Reply:

    Hi,Erica. For free imformation and help ,please emai me on

    Sara Reply:

    There seem to be lots of places to shop for cheap electronics. One of my friends usually go to da sha tou 大沙头 for electronics and I also bought m second hand computer (which I’m using at the moment) from there.

    If you only need basic translation, then I’m also available, but if you need someone fluent in Chinese, then you can try the classifieds section of GZStuff.