Would you wear a swimsuit that can't withstand a heated swimming pool, rough surfaces or suntan lotions - and becomes transparent when wet? Are roof rails really 'roof rails' if they're only installed to look good because they can't be used to transport anything? And exactly how can you use see-through yoga pants?

Under Australian Consumer Law (ACL) these products could be deemed "not fit for purpose", which means they don't do what a reasonable person would expect.

Case studies

CHOICE asked our members to write in with examples of goods that may not have been fit for their purpose.

  • Talina told us about shoes she bought to fit her 18-month-old, which stated that they were "not suitable for children under three years".
  • Em purchased swimming goggles that weren't suitable for diving into pools.
  • Jessica bought a purse with slots that were too small to fit cards into.
  • Matt noticed a mountain bike sold at a department store that apparently was "not suitable for off-road use".
  • And in a league of its own was a newborn baby bib dobbed in by CHOICE member Tania: it was "dry-clean only".

Suss swimmers

Fancy a new swimsuit for summer? We found it pays to look closely when we went to Myer, David Jones, Surf Dive 'n' Ski and Kmart to check out their ranges. Regardless of price – whether a $20 Kmart basic or $270 designer number – the swimmers had some complex, and confusing, requirements.

A Kmart home brand one-piece had care instructions that seemed to go on and on. They warned against a host of activities: "Avoid excessive contact with suntan lotions, oils, rough surfaces, heated pools and spas treated with harsh chemicals. Some garments may be transparent when wet."

Billabong's $46 bikini top was equally fussy: "Never roll up when wet… avoid contact with suntan lotions, oils, rough surfaces, pools and spas treated with harsh chemicals." And that old chestnut: "Some colours may be transparent when wet." A Tigerlily swimsuit label stated that it shouldn't be worn in heated pools or spas at all.

To follow these instructions to the letter you'd have to skip swimming in pools and spas and never sit on the rough edge of a pool or on grainy sand. In some cases you'd have to stay out of the water full stop. CHOICE member Kerrie told us about a friend's swimmers that became discoloured after the first wear. "She was advised [afterwards] by the sales assistant that they were designed for wearing around the pool, not in it."

CHOICE staffer Karina Bray purchased a $55 Speedo Endurance cossie for her son's swimming lessons. But after just a few wears, the bottom started pilling and wearing out.

"Considering this was an expensive pair of swimmers for a kid, and the fact that it is called "Endurance", I don't think this is good enough. Kids in swim classes are always being told to sit on the side of the pool so that they can receive instructions from their coaches, so swimmers need to be able to withstand that."

Cosmetic roof rails?

Some items that aren't fit for their purpose are more than just a nuisance – they can be downright dangerous!

When we awarded the Chery J1 car a Shonky in 2011, it was because a sticker inconspicuously placed on the inside of the roof rails warned: "Roof rails are for cosmetic purpose only. Do not use." At the time, we worried about the future implication of these apparently decorative roof accessories. We wrote: "Whatever the "cosmetic purpose" for bearing this car equivalent of a toupee, we're concerned that if the car manages to outlast the sticker and someone buys it secondhand, they won't know not to use the rails."

Two years on, the Chery J1 and its cosmetic roof rails were pulled from the Australian market due to the car failing to meet new safety standards.

Sheer cheek: see-through yoga pants

In 2013, premium athletic clothing retailer Lululemon (which sells exercise pants in Australia for over $100 a pair) got into hot water over yoga pants that left little to the imagination, particularly when wearers bent over (which is quite likely if you were practising a downward dog yoga pose). In the company's words the problem was with quality control, which led to "a level of sheerness in some of our women's black Luon bottoms that falls short of our very high standards."

The company identified the problem as affecting 17% of their black pants and issued a recall. However, despite the recall, there were reports of some sales assistants being overzealous in their handling of the situation.

The Consumerist, part of CHOICE's US-based sister publication Consumer Reports, wrote: "Here's the problem with Lululemon's now-infamous see-through yoga pants: they look and feel pretty much the same as pants that aren't see-through".

"There's really only one way to tell whether they're truly see-through. You have to bend over and see whether anyone can see your business. Fans of the brand online report that some cashiers took this problem to its logical conclusion, and asked customers to bend over for butt inspections before they could return their pants."

And while Lululemon says it has fixed the problem, there are continuing reports of fabric in all colours being too sheer. This time, the company is reportedly blaming consumers for ordering pants that are too small for them, and suggest ordering a size up in order to avoid sheerness.

Can they do that?

A swimming costume that can't be worn in water, can't withstand exposure to sunlight or heated swimming pools, or has colour that bleeds could arguably be both of an unacceptable quality and unfit for its purpose. Similarly, a mountain bike that can't be taken off road isn't a mountain bike at all, and so could well be in breach of Australian Consumer Law (ACL).

What can you do?

Under the ACL, goods and services are subject to certain consumer guarantees, including that goods purchased must be of acceptable quality, meaning they must be safe, lasting, with no faults, look acceptable, and most importantly in this case, do all the things someone would normally expect them to do.

Products must also match descriptions made by the salesperson, on packaging and labels, and in promotions or advertising, and be fit for the purpose you were told they would be fit for. The ACL takes into account what would normally be expected for the type of product and cost, but also warnings and risks drawn to the consumer's attention (such as on labels).

But we think that if a shop tries to rely on a tiny care label to explain that a swimsuit can't be used in water, or a mountain bike can't be used off road, then this is unreasonable.

If a seller has not met any of the consumer guarantees, you're entitled to a refund, compensation, repair, or replacement of the goods (which one depends on the circumstances).

Our strategic policy adviser recommends "if a good you have purchased is not doing the job that you would typically expect under normal circumstances, don't hesitate in contacting the shop where you purchased it and asking for a repair, replacement or refund. If that fails, contact CHOICE and your local office of consumer affairs or fair trading."

Top tips

  1. Check care labels on clothing and swimwear before you buy to make sure you're not getting less than you bargained for.
  2. Don't make assumptions about products based on looks. Ask the sales assistant if the product you're purchasing is suitable for the use you have in mind. If they say it is, you're protected by the ACL's consumer guarantees, should it prove otherwise.
  3. Keep a record of your purchase (and beware of fading receipts) to make returning your goods easier.
  4. If something isn't fit for its purpose or is not of acceptable quality, take it back to the shop where you purchased it – even if you received it as a gift. If they don't honour their consumer guarantee, contact the department of fair trading or consumer affairs in your state.
  5. If you bought a product online, it's still covered by the Australian Consumer Law, so you should still be able to get a replacement or refund, though in practice it may be more difficult for an overseas retailer.
  6. If a retailer refuses to abide by the Australian Consumer Law, you can get consumer help or make a complaint with the ACCC.

Need more help? The CHOICE Help service is free for CHOICE members. Our consumer advice experts will help you understand your rights and can advocate for you.