Carola Long: When must-have means must-steal

Shoplifting is up in an age when we are defined by our possessions

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When the recession struck, our collective taste for luxury was meant to come to an abrupt end. No more "It" bags, miracle £200 moisturisers and TVs with screens the size of garage doors. That kind of madness was over for those who could once afford it, and no longer something to aspire to for everyone else.

Or so we thought. It turns out that spoiling yourself is quite a hard addiction to shake, so challenging in fact that according to research commissioned by the retail security company Checkpoint Systems, there has been a rise in so-called middle-class shoplifters stealing luxury items.

People are trying to sustain their standard of living by pilfering designer clothes, luxury cheeses and meats, cosmetics, perfumes, face creams, alcohol and assorted gadgets. You only have to look at the security tags on items such as organic chickens to see that the light of finger have an epicurean streak.

"Want" and "need" became so confused during the boom years that they were always going to be difficult to disentangle, especially with shoppers wilfully buying into the blurring of the boundaries between them. Selfridges made an arch play on the distinction when they used anti-consumerist slogans by the artist Barbara Kruger, such as "Buy Me I'll Change Your Life" and "I Shop Therefore I Am" to advertise their Christmas sale two years ago. The pressure to have the right products didn't disappear with the desk toys at Lehman Brothers, and the thrift chic mantra embraced by the style press soon wore as thin as the elbows on an Oxfam jumper.

That's partly because we lovely shiny new stuff, and partly because the "because you're worth it" doctrine has evolved to suggest that what you buy, eat and wear is a political statement and a mark of self-respect. Hair dyeing, using anti-ageing skincare products, and wearing fashionable clothes now feel less like a fun, self-indulgent choice, and more like essential signs that you are committed to the ritual of grooming. Shopping "well" is also a sign of a social conscience. Anyone who buys cheap meat, cheap clothes and budget cosmetics might as well embrace their social-pariah status and print up name badges saying, "I'm a landfill-swelling, child labour-sponsoring animal hater".

Of course, there are plenty of strategies to cope with this kind of pressure that don't involve stealing, such as the rather radical don't buy meat or new clothes options. But when our identity is so defined by what we buy, perhaps it's not surprising that some people aren't willing to surrender not only an expensive moisturiser, but the image of themselves that the product imparts.

And not everyone views shoplifting as a serious crime. It's not seen as stealing, stealing; more stealing lite, and it's even been given a perverse glamour. Remember that scene in Breakfast At Tiffany's where Holly Golightly steals a cat mask from a shop? If the doe-eyed Audrey Hepburn had such a moment, it must be ok.

At school, outwardly respect-able girls would shoplift clothes and make-up as a badge of honour. When it comes to stealing from big brands, say Tesco or Marks & Spencer, perhaps there is a feeling that a different moral code applies, and with a large corporation no one gets hurt. After all, this is not just any shoplifting, it's middle-class shoplifting.

c.long@independent.co.uk

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