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What does the writer mean by saying "no worse than stealing?"

It is thought the scam, which stores say is no worse than stealing, is a product of our ‘fast-fashion culture’, where trends are popular for a short time then become outdated and therefore worthless. (Mail Online, 2014.11.4.)

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    It means exactly what it says. Compare to "no better than." – James McLeod Mar 4 '14 at 10:37
  • Can't comment without knowing more about the context. What is the scam? How does it relate to trends and in the analogy who is robbing? Who is getting robbed? – Leon Conrad Mar 4 '14 at 10:40
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The "scam" in question consists of buying fashionable clothes (which the article says have a very brief vogue during which a store can hope to sell them) with the intention of wearing them once and then returning them for a refund. Presumably the worst serial offenders wear an endless succession of new clothes at (effectively) no charge.

For a particular instance of "buy-wear-and-return" to qualify as a scam—that is (according to Merriam-Webster's Eleventh Collegiate Dictionary), "a fraudulent or deceptive act or operation"—the guilty party must intend all along to use the clothing without paying for it. Otherwise, the scam becomes indistinguishable from second-guessing or buyer's remorse.

The observation that stores consider the practice "no worse than stealing" is, I think, ludicrously self-evident—just as the observation that stores consider the practice "no worse than firebombing an upscale fashion outlet" or "no worse than murdering a clerk" would be. Of course it isn't worse, since at its most heinous the practice leaves the store with a slightly worn garment that is unsellable owing to the fickleness of fashionistas; in contrast, outright stealing leaves the store with a coat hanger.

My guess is that the reporter meant to say that the practice "is no better than stealing"—but she blew it. Initially I thought that "no worse than stealing" might be some sort of reversed-meaning idiom in the UK, but I was pleased to see that a commenter from Wiltshire responding to the story on the Daily Mail's Website succinctly wrote, "Stores say it's no WORSE than stealing? Surely you mean no BETTER?"—and drew 41 up votes from other readers (versus 3 crabby down votes).

The simple answer to your question is that "no worse than stealing" means exactly what you'd expect it to mean, but that the reporter in this case meant to say "no better than stealing."

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    +1. "No less than stealing" or "nothing short of stealing" would also have worked. – ruakh Mar 12 '14 at 23:23
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It means that it is on a par with, but is usually used in negative contexts.

It is thought the scam, which stores say is as bad as stealing, is a product of our ‘fast-fashion culture’, where trends are popular for a short time then become outdated and therefore worthless.

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You've stumbled upon one of English's many vagaries. For whatever reason, we often use an opposite meaning to what we actually mean when making negative comparisons.

In this case, they really mean it's no better than stealing.. Why? Well, because giving to charity is no worse than stealing. Visiting sick relatives and bringing them comfort is no worse. Clearly, many GOOD things are not worse than stealing. On the contrary, they're quite a bit better.

Compare this usage with: "I could care less." Well, logic would dictate that you care a sufficient amount about the subject that you could care less about it. But, in reality you mean "I couldn't care less."

I think this sort of phrase begins as a negative comparison and then gets jumbled by colloquial usage. In other words, it begins as "It's no better than" or "it's worse than" used equivalently. Then over time the two begin to converge, and people off-handedly say "it's no worse than."

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No is negative, right? Worse is negative, right? Stealing is negative, right? So something that is no worse than stealing must be really, really negative, right? Right?

Language Log calls this phenomenon overnegation: people sometimes pile negatives and negations together in such a way that they cancel each other out, without realizing they're doing it. Don't fail to miss this in-depth examination of the topic.

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