Do freegans commit theft?

Published: 1 March 2010 at 09:54

Anglia Ruskin University law expert explores whether taking abandoned goods without paying for them is a crime

In a fast changing world there are always new issues emerging for which the law has no direct precedent. Anglia Ruskin University’s Anglia Law School lecturer Dr Sean Thomas has just written the first legal analysis of freeganism in English law. Simply entitled, ‘Do freegans commit theft?’, it has just been published in the top-ranked law journal Legal Studies.

The environmental impact of mass consumerism is a growing concern, with a consequence being the production of significant levels of waste goods. Freeganism is an alternative consumption strategy that involves taking goods that appear abandoned without paying for them. 

Although ‘freegan’ has not yet made the Oxford English Dictionary, it is not a new idea as Dr Thomas explains:

“Freeganism is not a new phenomenon: there have always been people who scavenge. More recently it has been imbued with an alternative, radical philosophy, allied to environmentalism, ecology, dissent at materialism, and various cognate leftist political ideals.”

According to the website

“Freegans are people who employ alternative strategies for living based on limited participation in the conventional economy and minimal consumption of resources.  Freegans embrace community, generosity, social concern, freedom, cooperation, and sharing in opposition to a society based on materialism, moral apathy, competition, conformity, and greed.”

Dr Thomas first became interested in the subject after having read a feature article on freeganism in the Observer Food Monthly in August 2007 which pricked his legal imagination:

“The idea of freeganism seemed to me to raise many seemingly disparate issues of property and criminal law, and as such offered an interesting opportunity for exploring the extent of legal protection (or persecution) of radical ideologies of ownership.”

The paper discusses whether freeganism can be considered theft. The issue turns on whether the goods are legally abandoned, and also on the freegan’s state of mind.  Dr Thomas argues that even if the goods are not legally abandoned, freegans are not doing anything so dishonest to attract a criminal sanction.