I reached into my backpack to grab my Spanish notebook and felt a hole. Upon further inspection, the mesh separating my outside water bottle pouch and the interior of my bag had ripped open. For many consumers, a product flaw as shown above results in the purchase of another backpack. However, this was no normal backpack. Two years ago, my dad and I had journeyed north to the L.L. Bean headquarters in Freeport, Maine, to buy “the best hiking boots money can buy,” along with a sturdy backpack for my next few years at school. We shelled out a large sum of money for the two goods. Our reason for driving over an hour and paying high prices? L.L. Bean provided a lifetime guarantee on their products. Your hiking boots don’t last as long as you think they should? Bring them back, no receipt, no questions asked. So a few weeks ago, when I discovered the tear in my bag, I planned to bring it back over spring break. However, a news alert from CNN spoiled my plans.
“L.L. Bean tightens return policy…”
A quick tap revealed the devastating news. In an open letter to customers, L.L. Bean stated its intentions to cancel the “no questions asked” return policy. The origin of the policy dates back to 1912, when the founder of the company, Leon Leonwood Bean, created 100 “bean boots.” Due to a defect in the design, he was forced to refund 90 of the 100, leading to the generous return policy previously advertised at the company. In the past century, the company dotted headlines for its unique bootmobile, a 24-hour-a-day open-door policy, and its signature Bean Boot, which, seemingly at random, became trendy amongst Northeast kids.
The reason for the change in policy? Too many people abused the generosity of the business. In his letter to customers, CEO Steve Smith stated the return of destroyed items scavenged from yard sales, thrift stores, or trash bins out-valued revenue from the flagship product, the Bean Boot. Horror stories include a family clearing out a grandparent’s attic, returning their findings, and receiving a $350 gift card. The company places estimated lost value around $250 million over five years. As a result of this lost revenue, L.L. Bean has also been pushed to workforce reduction. While expressing my disgust over some thieves ruining things for the rest of us, some of my friends were unable to relate, emphasizing their enjoyment seeing a “big bad corporation” eat the dust. If the financial losses of Nike or Adidas were on the table, you wouldn’t see any tears from me. The CEO of Nike made $47 million in 2016, and the CEO of Adidas boasts a net worth around $1.66 billion. Additionally, many big name clothing and footwear brands manufacture overseas, often utilizing child labor to decrease business costs.
The financial difficulties of an outdoor company in Freeport, Maine, don’t seem like a huge deal. But it represents the challenges businesses face in attempting to keep manufacturing in the United States. In 2015, The Atlantic revealed the long process of producing one L.L. Bean Boot. After a machine makes the bottom part of the boot, 200 people, split amongst three shifts, craft the boot by hand over a period of 85 minutes. The result of this intricacy was a 60,000 person wait list for the boots. The company refuses to export its operations to China, a nation which makes roughly 90 percent of all shoes worldwide. A shrinking skilled labor force makes the struggle of producing American-made products even more challenging. Due to the shortage of this labor, L.L. provides a six-month training program to show employees how to construct boots. An easy fix to this issue is simply manufacturing in China, which would increase profits by increasing the quantity of boots available. In light of this, the company’s dedication to American-made products is admirable.
As is often the case, the 2016 election managed to sneak its way into L.L. Bean’s operations as well. Linda Bean, an heiress to the L.L. Bean company, went on Fox & Friends to defend her $25,000 donation to a pro-Trump PAC. Although she clarified the donations were her personal beliefs, not representative of the company’s, the 75-year-old earned herself a thankful tweet from President Trump. Angry anti-Trumpers called for boycotts of L.L. Bean products, and the fallout caused a PR nightmare. While it’s difficult to predict any one source for lesser sales, calls for boycotts from liberals did not help. Somehow, a donation by a single board member negated L.L. Bean’s longtime commitment to environmental protection, including LEED-certified buildings and donations to forest protection agencies.
While I am bothered by the loss of my backpack, it’s not the only casualty of this decision. For those who despise big businesses lining their pockets, trampling the environment, employing child labor, and underpaying their workers, the decline of an organization that does it right should be alarming.
Jack Leger is a member of the Class of 2021. Jack can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.