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TikTok teens are fighting capitalism with shoplifting

They only target chain stores or controversial companies.

Some teenagers who dislike capitalism are protesting against their country’s economic system by shoplifting, posting their haul online, and encouraging others to do the same. Calling themselves “borrowers”, they say that they believe by shoplifting exclusively from large corporations they’re striking a blow against businesses which prioritise profit over people. They often also target companies that are associated with illiberal social stances, like being anti-trans or environmentally unfriendly.

It’s true that stealing affects a shop's bottom line. The National Association for Shoplifting Prevention reckons that in the US it adds up to about $50 billion (that’s £38 billion) worth of losses each year. That doesn’t mean their profits decrease by this much, though. Companies, especially profit-focused ones, can also respond to losses by putting up prices or making cuts elsewhere, including to staff numbers and wages. Another loser may be the government, who often gets a cut of every sale through taxes like VAT. That in turn affects anyone who benefits from the things their government spends money on - from education to the military to road repairs.

In theory, if all shoplifting happened at big businesses then smaller businesses might gain an advantage from it. They would be able to keep their prices lower, which would attract more customers, which would in turn allow them to hire more staff. But this seems unlikely to play out in practice. Big businesses, by definition, have access to a lot of resources. If they felt that shoplifting was a serious enough threat to their revenue stream they would presumably respond by investing in much stronger security systems. It’s also not clear that big businesses are disproportionately targeted by shoplifters overall: the majority of shoplifters do not list anti-capitalism as their main motivation.

It’s also debatable how much shoplifting actually aligns with these teens’ stated values. Although some borrowers occasionally engage in Robin-Hood-style shoplifting, where they donate their stolen goods to those in need, the majority of the stuff they palm consists of non-essential lifestyle goods like clothes, beauty products and jewelry. They’re therefore engaging in the same sort of constant consumerism that is often criticised as a particularly damaging feature of capitalist economies. They’ve also chosen to build up their borrowing community on TikTok, an app owned by the multi-billion dollar corporation Bytedance. Bytedance, incidentally, has been accused of providing some of the surveillance equipment which the Chinese government is using in its human rights abuses against its Uighur Muslim population.

Read our explainer on: consumption.

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