The Ethics of Purchase Returns: What’s Not Okay

I was doing a little internet skimming and found something on the Moneyologist on MarketWatch that has me completely flabbergasted.

Is it wrong to buy and wear clothes that you plan to return?

Someone actually needs to ask this question? 

Purchase returns happen, for good reasons and bad. There’s a line that you can cross, though, from wise to rude to completely unacceptable. Good shoppers understand the difference.

Is this Actually an Ethical Dilemma?

The question was posed as follows:

I don’t like to be photographed in the same outfit twice, or even three times. In the old days, I just had to worry about running into the same people wearing the same dress I wore to several other parties. Today, I have to suffer the indignity of being photographed in the same outfit at different social occasions. That happened to me three times last year, and one friend made a pointed comment along the lines of, “I always love you in that dress.”

There may be a solution to this problem. I have a friend who buys outfits from stores that she can’t afford, wears them, keeps the receipt, and returns them a day or two later claiming that they didn’t fit her properly or she didn’t like the color. One time, she had a stain removed through dry cleaning. I have been thinking of doing the same for our big office party, but my boyfriend doesn’t like the idea. For once, I’d like to wear something that would really make heads turn. What do you think?
Paula, London

Ok, Paula in London. Obviously we live in some very different worlds, because I really don’t care about being seen in the same outfit more than once. I might be concerned that Little Bit has decided to wipe yogurt on my clothes, or that I’ve spilled coffee on them, but as long as my clothes are clean and don’t have holes where holes aren’t supposed to be, I figure I’m good.

So I’m no clothes horse, but I do understand that a great selection of clothes may be as important to you as my hair care sessions are to me: a conscious choice to use money for a luxury item that many would do without.

But why would you think that it would be okay to buy an outfit from an unsuspecting retailer with the expectation that you will wear it and return it?

Evidently someone does, or more accurately, a lot of someones. According to the same article, a 2012 study found that 1 in 8 respondents said they had bought clothing they could not afford to return them after one wear. Many of those admitted they did it just for the fun of getting away with something.

So it’s common, but that doesn’t make it right.

Ethical Returns

I spent seventeen years in retail, and so I’m a little sensitive on the issue of purchase returns.

I hated returns as a retail employee. We had a strict policy where only defective items could be returned, so it was not unusual to feel like someone was lying to return a movie they had already watched or a game they had already beaten, or feel like the person had deliberately damaged the item in order to get money back. Plus, we got paid on a store-wide commission, so each sale was seen as getting us closer to a bigger paycheck, and with each return meant we were further away.

The longer I worked, the more I felt like a more liberal return policy would serve us better. No lies about “This didn’t work” meant no wasted time testing items, a quicker return to the sales floor and better customer relations. It didn’t take too long to recognize who the people returning items far too often were, and that didn’t include most of the customers.

I just never wanted to be one of “those problems”, and that legacy means I’m return averse. I don’t do them often. I probably don’t return things as often as I should:  I wouldn’t even let Little Bit return a doll that broke within a few hours because she lost some of the accessories in the same time frame. My personal hang ups don’t mean that that I don’t recognize legitimate reasons for returning items, though.

Returns should be limited to things you buy that don’t meet expectations. Things that don’t work, or don’t work right. Clothes that don’t fit or don’t fit right. Items with flaws that you didn’t or couldn’t notice at the store. Items that failed to meet your needs despite their description, appearance, or promised results.

Buying clothes wisely can be hard. I used to have a closet full of items that didn’t quite work and that should have been returned. Instead, they got shoved to the back of the closet and forgotten until it was time for a purge and a donation to Goodwill.

That doesn’t even take into account the difficulty of buying clothes online, where you might not get the proper fit without the opportunity to try the clothes on or where the online image might not quite match the reality. As someone who is not an ideal shape, I know that it can be difficult to buy clothes online that fit as expected.

So if you get something home, put it on and realize that hey, it doesn’t fit or match that skirt you thought it did or the quality isn’t up to snuff, then by all means pull it off and send it back. If an item doesn’t work or works poorly, you shouldn’t feel under any obligation to keep it.

But that’s a long way from the mindset of “I’m just going to pretend to buy this, and take it back after it has served its purpose.”  Because if you follow that line of thought, you are causing harm to the business and possibly to its employees.


  1. Someone spent time on that item. Someone stocked it, someone waited on you, someone will have to restock it. That all costs money. If the sales staff is on commission, it’s literally taking money from their pockets because they could have spent that time on real sales for which they would have been compensated.
  2. Someone who actually wanted the item may not be able to buy it. You took that item out of circulation, and maybe someone else didn’t find it. Maybe the window for actually selling it went away while you held the item.
  3. You may damage the item in use. Maybe it doesn’t smell so hot after you’ve been to a party. Maybe you stain or tear it. So maybe the store doesn’t get the chance to sell the item for anything, or maybe they have to deeply discount it.

All of these factors are included in the cost of the item. But the more people “borrow” from their favorite stores, the more those stores have to charge for everything. That’s not good for anyone.

The article in question lists a more practical factors to think about as well: this is the age of big data. Stores know who return items, and how often they do it and what reasons they give. So if you borrow too often, you may find that the store refuses your returns. If it’s an item you can ill afford, then that can be a really nasty surprise.

Alternatives to Sketchy Purchase Returns

The Ethics of Purchase Returns: What's Not Okay

Image courtesy of radnatt at

So what’s our poor clothes horse, Paula from London, to do if she wants to avoid sketchy purchase returns?

Part of me wants to just say “Seriously? This is a problem? If you look great in a dress, you’re going to look great in it every time you wear it! Own that look!”

But I’m the person who finds a clothing item I like and immediately buys whatever in 3 or 4 colors so I don’t have to keep shopping. Paula and I have some different priorities, and she wants to look good and unique every time she is photographed.

Personal choices, right? Everyone’s different.

The article recommended using a clothing rental service. Men have been renting their formal wear for years, and there’s no reason women shouldn’t too. if you really want to have a new outfit for every event you attend, then renting makes a lot more sense than buying. There are no ethical qualms with renting, because everyone understands the transaction. You rent, you wear, you return. I looked at the website they mentioned, Rent the Runway, and most of the dresses were listed at 25%-10% of retail. Rentals were for 4 or 5 days. If you want designer duds for one night, it seems like a decent deal.

I imagine that in larger cities like London, you can probably go to a decently stocked women’s wear rental shop and have a selection that you can try on as well. That may be a better choice where possible. Fit makes a big difference, and if you want to look good, wearing clothes you’ve been able to try on is going to be a surer bet than getting items from online.

Consignment stores can also be a good option. Paula may not be the only person who wants to wear her outfits once, and she may be able to find some incredibly good deals by being willing to wear something someone else has worn before.

From what she said, there’s a good chance that she has been doing that at her favorite shops and paying full price for the privilege anyway. 

Under what circumstances do you return items? Am I being too judgmental? 

Top Image courtesy of stockimages at with changes

18 Responses to “The Ethics of Purchase Returns: What’s Not Okay”
    • Emily Jividen 06/07/2016
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