Consumer Responsibility and Patagonia's IronClad Return Policy

10/12/2015: It's been about two years since this post was written and it has ended up accounting for over half of all of the traffic to this website.  Wow!  In rereading it, it's long and somewhat (ok, very) rant-y and most folks probably won't stick it out to the end.  I'm adding this short summary at the beginning since there's the *slightest* chance it may make a difference in someone's life.  I also just want to reiterate that I in no way represent Patagonia, or am affiliated with them, other than a five year veteran of working in a local gear store, and a 15 year consumer of many many outdoor products, including lots of Patagonia.  I still own and use products that I bought 15 years ago from them along with many others purchased more recently.

The gist of this whole post is this: 

Patagonia makes great products and has yet to show anything but solid corporate ethics, something we don't have much of these days.  Sure there are duds every once in a while, but they will stand by a product no matter what (it really is Ironclad), which is a great solace as a consumer. If you buy Patagonia, you know they will stick with you until you get something that you want and are happy with.  

Over the years, I have seen many people abuse this policy to replace gear that, frankly, they just wore out, got tired of, or even were given by friends (don't believe me? read the original post).  These same people will then turn around and complain about how corrupt corporate leaders are these days and how greedy everyone is without even blinking an eye at their own actions.  All I'm asking is that people self-examine a little bit.  I completely support returning a product that died before it should have, or you were genuinely not satisfied with, but it drives me crazy when people act like Patagonia's in the business of renting them products for a one-time fee.

If you want to see more good corporate ethics, if you want to support a company doing the right thing, then really look at why you're returning the product.  Consider learning to repair it (did you know Patagonia partnered with ifixit.com to teach people how to repair their gear? You'll fix your product and learn a new skill in the process!).  Consider shelling out some money to buy a new one.  You vote with your dollars.  Vote for good companies and good products.

And here's the original post in full (which I highly encourage you to read if the above didn't convince you, there's math and everything! -John):

I don’t often like brands because of the brand itself and what it represents.  I try to buy things based on what I feel works the best and comes the closest to perfectly realizing its purpose for existence.  Often companies will be great in one area, but suffer in another, and if ever their quality were to decline, I would choose to no longer buy from them.  One of the only brands I can express my excitement about and love of as a company is Patagonia.

This post is not intended as an advertisement, and I have something very specific that I want to talk about, so I won’t go into all of the reasons why I support Patagonia.  Suffice it to say that they are a socially responsible company, who put a lot of effort into designing a lot of great, functional, aesthetically-pleasing, and reliable products, and then stand behind those products once they are out on the market.  As far as I can tell they are not looking to take advantage of people and are trying their hardest to do the most with what they can, and not just for themselves or their CEO.  Their recent partnering with iFixit.com to help teach people how to fix things instead of just replace them sealed the deal for me as a brand for which I have utmost respect.

Patagonia’s ability to stand behind their products, called the IronClad guarantee, is incredible.  I’ve seen people bring back jackets that they’ve beaten the hell out of and/or not taken care of, send them back to Patagonia and Patagonia replaces it free of charge.  Just yesterday a guy bragged to me about how he sent back his three-year-old rain paints that were delaminating, dirty, ripped and torn that he admittedly had just worn out, as well as a few other articles of clothing from them and Patagonia had given him a $400 gift certificate to replace them.  Furthermore if you go online and read reviews on Patagonia’s website for the “Men’s Simple Synchilla Jacket” here’s an excerpt from a review:

"A Little Story.

A friend gave me a Patagonia parka that he must have had for at least 20 years. The stuffing started coming out of it, so I took it to the Patagonia store here in Chicago. The salesperson replaced it with a comparable coat. No questions asked. A year later, I decided on something a little more robust. They took the coat back and gave me a gift card for its retail value. That was when I saved up and bought the Tres 3-in1 Parka. I'm a disabled person living on limited means, so for me to pay premium price for a parka is a big deal. That was back in August 2013. In September, I bought this jacket. My thinking is that buying Patagonia is an investment in my future, knowing full well that they really believe in the quality of their product and back up that belief with one of the best guarantees I've seen anywhere. In a throwaway culture where cheapness is endured in the name of consuming more, well, I Love This Company!"

That same reviewer also has this in his/her review:

“I'm torn between trading it in for a jacket with a tougher exterior or keeping it until the fabric is worn through, then returning it for another one.”

Sounds pretty awesome, doesn’t it?  It’s certainly not unnatural to think that.  As someone who doesn’t have a lot of money to spend, Patagonia is a premium brand that charges more than most other reputable outdoor brands and much more than most brands across the spectrum.  Any purchases I have made from them were not without thought and knowing that if I’m not satisfied with a product it will be replaced without a hassle is a great solace as a consumer and another reason that I choose to buy from Patagonia.

(I hope that anyone reading this will see where I’m headed next.  I hope that you can see that niggling little asterisk after everything I’ve said so far.  If you don’t then please please please keep reading, because odds are you’re thinking “great! I’ll totally buy Patagonia!  I’ll never have to buy a new jacket again after the first.”  And that would be exactly my issue with it.)

As a consumer, one has a responsibility to support the brands that you value.  If one values the work Patagonia does, the ideologies they support, then it supports them to make purchases from them.  You can post all day long on Facebook how great they are, talk to all of your friends about their crazy return policy, but at the end of the day it’s your dollars that keep them doing what they’re doing.  

The crazy stories that you hear from the likes of that reviewer or the rain-pants-guy are incredible advertising for Patagonia, I’m sure, but there’s a fundamental moral issue for me that just makes me cringe whenever some fucker comes in bragging about the twenty-year-old jacket that Patagonia just replaced: by returning your worn out jacket to Patagonia that kept you dry and warm for many years, and lasted longer and outperformed any other on the market, and then expecting a new one, you’re devaluing the products and services that Patagonia is supplying the world.

I’ll do two of the examples that I listed previously.  Let’s start with rain pants.  Patagonia offers their TorrentShell pants for $99.  A comparable, high-quality pair of pants is the Marmot Precip pants for $95.  Walmart offers an entire Rain Suit for $34 of unknown quality (it’s their most positively reviewed one, though all of the reviews have been from people who have only owned them for 2-7 weeks).  We know that the guy’s Pata rain pants lasted for three years of heavy use and he loved them; I have a Marmot Precip jacket that I’ve had for about four years of light to moderate use that’s been due for replacement for about a year or two and I’ve never really been all that impressed with.  I think it’s probably fair to assume that Walmart’s Rain Suit would last for a year, but we’ll say two for the sake of argument.  Right off the bat, per year, we have Patagonia at $33 per year of solid quality, Marmot at ~$32 per year of ok quality, and Walmart at $17 of completely unknown quality and definitely not built for outdoor activities like Pata or Marmot.  Ok.  No major consumer monetary outlay differences yet.  Now consider that our friend just sent his rain pants back and got a brand new pair.  Assuming quality stayed the same, he’s got another three years at, you guessed it, $16.50 per year; cheaper than Walmart.  Marmot does not offer the same guarantee although if you complained loudly enough you might get them to replace your pants, and I feel pretty comfortable asserting that Walmart won’t be replacing any two year old $34 rain suits.  Assuming our friend is going to keep returning those pants for a new pair whenever the old ones wear out, the price will keep getting halved every time.

Here lies the problem: Patagonia is socially responsible, works hard to make sure their products come from factories, suppliers and materials that are as sustainable as possible and they donate at least 1% of their profits every year to environmentally focused non-profits.  They make high-quality goods, and stand behind them, and their goods are among the highest performing on the market.  The same cannot be said for Walmart.  Marmot, while not bad, does not devote the same effort as Patagonia.  Patagonia is paying higher production cost to deliver a product with all of these qualities, it’s only natural that some of those costs get passed on to the consumer. When you return your goods that are simply worn-out for replacements, you’re effectively telling Patagonia that you don’t value all of that stuff that they stand for… at least not enough to give your money to it.  But you will give theirs and then brag to people about it.  

The guy who returned his friend’s jacket is even worse.  He returns something he never paid for in the first place that no longer has value to anyone; he has never paid a premium for the products he hopes to use and then goes on to, quite hypocritically, complain about the “cheapness” he has “endured in the name of consuming more.”  He’s managed to a brand new jacket for free.  Right off the bat, he’s COSTING Patagonia money as a consumer.  I love that he calls Patagonia an “investment” when he has literally invested nothing.  Then, a year later, decides that it’s not really working out and he would like a new coat. (Asshole).  So he returns the now unsellable worn out one year old FREE jacket for “something more robust.”  Now, with the Synchilla jacket, he is “torn between trading it in for a jacket with a tougher exterior or keeping it until the fabric is worn through, then returning it for another one.”  The “economic” argument for this one isn’t even worth going into, because it’s hardly subtle.  What actually pisses me off is that this asshole wants all of the benefits of Patagonia, and yet won’t pay anything for it.  He’s gotten a free coat and then is going to end up paying less for a Patagonia fleece than he would for a poorly-built number from Target and then he has the nerve to complain about “cheapness” of our consumer culture.  AND he’s using Patagonia as his own personal closet.  Patagonia is having to endure his cheapness now.  

For me, both of these examples are moral issues above economic ones.  When we buy high quality clothes, are we now somehow expecting that they will last forever?  I’ve had people return stuff because it just doesn’t look as good as it did when they bought it.  No shit Sherlock! You’ve been wearing it for three years!  Nothing’s going to look as good as when you bought it. You wouldn’t return your ten-year-old car because it didn’t run as well as the day you drove it off the lot, would you?!  Of course we shouldn’t expect our gear to last forever.  Your backpack shoulder straps are wearing through your jacket?  It’s called FRICTION and unless it’s doing so significantly worse than any other product on the market, it’s not Patagonia’s fault.

Patagonia isn’t in the business of leasing gear to us for a one-time payment and yet more and more I hear people effectively demanding through their actions that they do so.  People need to be asking themselves if they’re returning something because they feel that the product was not satisfactory, or if they just don’t feel like shelling out the money for a new one.  Frankly, it’s taking advantage of a company that’s really trying hard to do the right thing and I resent that from the deepest core of my being.  

The other moral issue I have with it is one of exploitation.  People are so ready to exploit a loophole that they have found for their own benefit, whether it’s right or not.  Ultimately it’s dishonest and morally impure.  That may sound extreme but it truly is.  All of these assholes preach how they want reliability, environmental consciousness, honest corporations, corporations that put the consumer first.  Well here it is guys, but you have to give them the slightest economic incentive to continue offering what they do.  Maybe one of the reason people get to the point where they no longer care, and consequentially run heartless and soul-sucking corporations, is because they’re sick of getting taken advantage of the cheap assholes that permeate our society!  If you take advantage of Patagonia in this way, then you’re part of what keeps sweatshops, cheap goods, and bad customer service going, just in a slightly more indirect way.

More and more, we vote with our dollars.  In fact, it has always been that way, but we need to wake up to that fact more now than ever.  If you like a band, you need to make a donation to help keep them doing what they’re doing.  If you like an artist, you’ll pay for their work and not just demand it for free.  If you value having local businesses, you’ll give them your business even if you could save ten bucks online.  Similarly, if you value a company like Patagonia, you won’t abuse their guarantee to get free stuff.

And if you do, don’t bother coming in to the local business where I work to tell me about it.  

<3,

John

P.S. I just want to close out with the fact that I completely support returning a product whose quality isn’t what you would expect from Patagonia.  Stitching pulling out after a year?  Return it. Zipper breaking or coming apart for no reason?  Return it.  But don’t return your two-year-old $120 rain-jacket because it’s delaminating at the neck (one of the trickiest spots for ALL rain jackets; it’s where a ton of oils from hair and skin build up and just wreak havoc on the material; most companies now put in a patch of cloth to protect the material).  If you got two solid years out of it, thank it for it’s service and spend $120 for a new one.  I hope the difference between these two types of situations is clear.