"Destroying certain clothes or footwear is more costly than removing their labels," said Andres Aavik, attorney at law at Heta Law Offices, who represents international brands such as Adidas, Reebok, Timberland, Gant, Moscino and Harley Davidson, which are supporting the initiative.
"I haven't heard of such a practice abroad. Estonia is a country with a lot of poor people. Why should these goods be thrown away if we can help social care institutions instead?"
Until last September, when amendments to the trademark law and the new law on prohibiting the export and import of pirated and counterfeited goods came into effect, clothes and footwear with fake labels seized on the border were destroyed along with other pirated and counterfeited goods.
A total of 1,552 clothing and footwear items have so far been sent to Harku women's prison to have their labels removed, of which 387 items will be destroyed because the labels cannot be removed, said customs service spokesman Aivar Pau.
Most of the goods bear a Reebok or Adidas trademark and have been seized since 1999. According to Pau 9,042 pirated items including track suits, sports shoes, jeans, hats and shoes are bound for 30 public social care institutions.
"Why burn or destroy them if they can be handed out to the needy?" said Mare Sadem, accountant at a retirement home in Kehtna due to receive one of the first consignments.
"We like the idea very much."
Like other retired people in Estonia residents at the home cannot save much from their monthly incomes to buy new clothes, she said.
Riina Sippol, head of the Keila Daily Welfare Center, which helps children from low income families and people with mental disabilities, was very pleased with the consignment of 34 pairs of track suits and sports shoes the center had received.
"The footwear is nice and smells fine," said Sippol.
"The clothes look like those sold at Kadaka marketplace and you can see some traces of the label removal - I hope we can apply a second time."
According to Aavik several European Union officials have praised Estonia's initiative on counterfeit clothes and have suggested the relevant parts of the accession chapter regulating intellectual property should not be harmonized with EU legislation.
"Estonia has very good legislation and proceedings against clothing counterfeiters are very simple. Customs authorities or the police seize the goods, asks for an expert opinion and sue the defendant. But in other countries including Latvia and Lithuania the customs or the police discover the counterfeited goods and the owner of the trademark has to turn to the court, so the proceedings lasts longer and are more complicated."
Traders caught with counterfeit goods have to pay a fine three times the value of the goods seized, while those caught by the police have to pay between 50,000 kroons ($ 2,778) and 100,000 kroons. Private persons found trading counterfeit goods can be fined up to 2,000 kroons.
In 1999 customs authorities seized 5,659 items bearing the Adidas label, in 2000 the figure was 8,793 but last year saw a down turn, with only 3,200 such items seized as of Dec. 1.
Importers of counterfeited goods have now resorted to using trademarks of companies which do not have representatives in Estonia such as Fubu and Fishbone, said Aavik.
Most counterfeited goods sold in Estonia are imported from Lithuania, he said.