Buying Designer Jeans from a Street Vendor

What are the ethical considerations when buying high-end designer jeans from a street vendor? Isn't it likely the clothing was stolen from a manufacturer or retailer? Well, yes and no.

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DEBBIE ELLIOTT, host:

This is ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Debbie Elliott. If you live in a big city, you've probably seen countless sidewalk vendors selling everything from hotdogs to handbags. This week, our question for New York Times Magazine ethicist Randy Cohen comes from a listener who's worried about where those items come from. We have Lauren Frasca(ph) on the line with us now from New York. Hello there, Lauren.

Ms. LAUREN FRASCA (Caller): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: And, Randy, hello to you.

Mr. RANDY COHEN (New York Times Magazine): Hi, Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Lauren, what did you buy, and what's the big deal here?

Ms. FRASCA: Well, I bought a pair of designer jeans off the sidewalk. A couple of weeks ago, I was walking down the street in the city, and I saw a pair of designer jeans that I would never be able to afford on a vendor table. And I did check, the vendor had a vending license, but he was selling a whole bunch of other sort of junk stuff, and I bought the jeans, and after I left, I started to feel a little guilty. I was wondering where they came from and what if they were stolen?

I guess my question is, as a buyer, is it my responsibility to know where the products that I'm purchasing come from, or is it the guy who is selling the stuff that was the one that was supposed to pay attention to where it was coming from?

ELLIOTT: Now, are you sure these new jeans aren't just a knockoff?

Ms. FRASCA: They're definitely not knockoffs. They're very detailed, and they have the brand name and all the little brass buttons, and, yeah, they're definitely real.

ELLIOTT: Now, do you buy things from vendors often?

Ms. FRASCA: Not that often. I mean, I would certainly never buy, you know, a DVD or a CD that I could tell was obviously stolen. You know, every once in awhile, I'll see a pair of earrings or something and pick 'em up.

ELLIOTT: But as far as high-end items like your designer jeans or something like that.

Ms. FRASCA: Yeah, as far as high-end items go, I wouldn't say I purchase those things very often, mostly because you don't see them a lot, and when you do, you generally know that they're knockoffs, and I usually stay away from that stuff.

ELLIOTT: So Randy, is this something that Lauren should really be worried about?

Mr. COHEN: Probably not. Well, we haven't actually seen the pants, and I'm assuming that they, you know, they fit great and look good on you, and so you should not worry. It's a fashion matter.

Ms. FRASCA: They look fantastic. I'm so glad you said that.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Mr. COHEN: Well, you know, if this weren't radio, well, you're beautiful on the radio, as am I. Working out who did wrong here, were you wrong or were the vendors wrong? Who's responsible for being honest here? The great thing about ethics is in most situations, it's possible for everybody to behave horribly, and that's true here. That even if the vendor behaved unethically in some way, by offering illicit goods of a kind, that doesn't get you off the hook. You know, even in law that doesn't get you off the hook 'cause there's the whole possession of illicit goods is a problem. So it's possible you were both wrong. Isn't it lovely?

Here's what your obligation is as a shopper. We all have the obligation not to be knuckleheads, so that if you see someone selling $2 Buick, I think you reasonably can be expected to be suspicious about the origins of the Buick. You know, despite what you're saying, Lauren, I'm skeptical that they're stolen.

The problem is more what you're saying on knockoffs, which are completely legitimate. If it's a pair of pants that look sort of like a pair of pants you like, nothing wrong with that. That's fashion. That's blues guitar playing. We can each do something sort of like someone else. Counterfeit is not okay. In law that's a trademark violation, and that's likelier to be the crime, and that you ought not buy. You ought not buy counterfeit clothes.

Ms. FRASCA: So then what if you don't know if it's -- I mean, like in this situation, I mean, they were expensive enough that it wasn't, you know, they were probably a little bit more than half the price that you'd pay for them in a department store. So in a case like this, I mean, I very much believe that they are real, but if you don't know 100 percent, is your obligation to not buy?

Mr. COHEN: I think the 100-percent rule is letting us off the hook as shoppers too easily. The what-you-think-is-probably-true rule is good. That's sort of the 50-percent rule. You look at those pants. You look at their price. If you think they're illicit pants, which sounds kind of exciting, if you think they're illicit pants you ought not buy them. If you think it's a legitimate product, then go ahead and buy them. You don't have an obligation to shop indoors.

Ms. FRASCA: Okay, well...

ELLIOTT: But how do you figure that out, Randy?

Mr. COHEN: That's often the case with many ethical questions. You can't be 100 percent certain, that ethics is full of ambiguity, and at a certain point, ethics is anthropology. It's that kind of exercise. You have to know your world. You have to examine a situation and say what do I think is most likely here? And then we decide how we will act in that situation, and often we must decide with a lot of uncertainty.

ELLIOTT: So what should Lauren do now? Does she have any sort of obligation to try to figure out the provenance of these jeans?

Mr. COHEN: Well, I think what Lauren should do now is cold-water wash. That's my advice. That if there's any spandex involved, it keeps much better. No, she's bought the pants. She might reasonably have concluded that they're legitimate. She's fine. She should wear those pants with pride.

Ms. FRASCA: I'm so glad. I'm actually wearing them right now.

ELLIOTT: Lauren, maybe in the future you should stick to department stores.

(Soundbite of laughter)

Ms. FRASCA: Maybe you're right.

Mr. COHEN: Oh, you're (unintelligible), Debbie.

ELLIOTT: Thanks for your call, Lauren.

Ms. FRASCA: Thank you, guys, for the advice.

ELLIOTT: If you've got a question or a sweet deal on an Armani suit for Randy Cohen, drop us a line. Go to our website, npr.org, click on Contact Us and select Weekend All Things Considered. Put the word ethics in the subject line and please include a phone number where we can reach you. Randy, thanks again.

Mr. COHEN: Thank you, Debbie.

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