A boot from L.L. Bean in a store return bin in Freeport, Maine. (Robert F. Bukaty/AP)
Editorial Writer

The only thing more worn than L.L. Bean customers’ 15-year-old boots is our social fabric.

No longer can campers come limping back to L.L. Bean with the soles of their shoes peeling off after decades of use and expect a full refund, the company announced Friday. Instead, L.L. Bean will only accept returns for items that have been purchased within one year that have a manufacturing flaw. If the item is more than four years old, the company will ask for a receipt.

The Portland Press Herald reported that L.L. Bean blames the death of its lifetime guarantee on fraud: Not only did customers return items with no discernible defects once they’d been overused or outgrown — they even bought merchandise at yard sales before running straight to the manufacturer for a refund.

Some disgruntled patrons have grumbled about L.L. Bean breaking a promise so it can boost revenue, even as it outsources production to cheaper countries. Others say the corporation had no choice.

The tale is an immorality play. When Leon Leonwood Bean sold his first 100 pairs of boots in 1912, the bottoms separated from the tops, and 90 dissatisfied hunters sent them back. Bean, who had pledged that the boots would “give perfect satisfaction in every way,” almost went out of business providing refunds. But provide them he did, because he was an honest Mainer.

Bean’s customers trusted him, and he trusted them not to take advantage. That trust held true over decades as his store got bigger and bigger and eventually went worldwide. The problem is that our trust is now breaking down.

Some people have probably been scamming L.L. Bean for decades. But the company says the abuse has doubled in just a few years and that “social media” has helped fuel the rise. There’s something else, too: Nowadays Americans don’t trust anything as much as they used to. And they especially don’t trust big business. Forty-two percent of us find brands and companies less truthful today than they were 20 years ago. Maybe some in that 42 percent are thinking that if they can’t trust big business, big business shouldn’t be able to trust them either. So they might as well get a free sleeping bag out of it.

It is no shock that the citizenry feels dissociated from the corporate conglomerates whose influence over quotidian life seems to expand daily. Why think the faceless entity that regulates your access to online society or sells you whatever you feel like buying every week is looking out for the little guy in general or you in particular? These aren’t yesterday’s mom-and-pop shops. When it feels as if every day some corporation is getting one over on us, maybe it makes sense that every now and then we revel in getting one over on a corporation. Yet just because it makes sense doesn’t mean it’s right.

Our dubiousness of all-controlling corporations is part of a broader trend. More and more, we don’t trust the government, we don’t trust the media, we don’t trust churches or banks or schools or unions — and we don’t trust one another. In every case, we probably have our reasons. That only turns the story sadder.

L.L. Bean has more than 5,000 employees; it’s far from the one-room operation it was when Leon Leonwood first started stitching. Yet it’s also a company that tried, when it could, to do right by its customers. And now, thanks to some bad actors, good ones are getting hurt. Even people who carried their backpacks up mountain after mountain before buying new ones have to hop through an additional hoop if something does break before its time.

Whatever warmth and fuzziness there was between L.L. Bean boosters and the purveyor is no longer so warm nor so fuzzy. One longtime shopper, speaking to the New York Times, bemoaned the new “one size fits all, super-stringent policy that is going to alienate consumers.” Responding to distrust with untrustworthiness only begets more of both.

The L.L. Bean saga may seem small, and it may seem silly. But it’s also a sign. Something more precious than even the finest flannel is fraying here, and there’s no one to accept the return — even with a receipt.