On July 1st, Patagonia issued a recall for all of their UPF sun protective clothing. They have all the details on their website, but there are a few truths that are stated in ways that protect the brand’s image over the customer, and I think they’re important to discuss, because some of it’s a little fucked and falls short of what I would expect for a company that goes in hard on ethics, values, and high quality that justifies high prices.
This voluntary recall sounds really benevolent of them. It’s not. First, a mandatory recall is issued when a company is unwilling to cooperate with the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission. Under a mandatory recall, the company is at a higher risk of being sued for corporate negligence since they’re clearly signaling that they’re unwilling to help consumers fix their problems even after an entire government agency has deemed them unsafe or defective. On the other hand, a “voluntary” recall is one where the company agrees to cooperate when items sold are dangerous, defective, or sold with deceptive marketing tactics. It signals in legal settings that the brand did not catch the flaw in the design, testing, or marketing phases of the product lifecycle. They signal that they’re taking responsibility as soon as they recognized a issue and cooperating fully with government regulators. Brands love to tack in that it’s a voluntary recall because customers read it and interpret it as “there’s a minor flaw with our design that won’t make a huge impact on your experience with the product. As a reminder, even the Pieps recall was “voluntary” even though the design flaw could lead to fatalities.
But they still offer UV protection. The tested range for these items ranged from 17-45, depending on the weight and color of the fabric. Pro tip from an apparel industry vet: These pieces are polyester. Polyester tends to provide UPF ratings between 15 and 45 with no fabric treatment. Most brands achieve thin, light colored garments with strong UPF ratings by adding titanium dioxide (TiO2) to the yarn during the milling process. Titanium dioxide is reef safe, safe for humans, and doesn’t easily wash or wear out of the yarns over time. Patagonia claims to use TiO2. Polyester tech tees start at $7-9 at Walmart. Did you pay more than that for your Patagonia sun shirt? Probably, since their MSRP is $55 to $70. Did you pay that much thinking you’d get more protection than the average activewear top? Then go get that money back in your pocket.
The other part that grinds my gears is that they know all the different UPFs that came out during testing and spelled out the range of 17-45, with an average of 34. But they don’t disclose to the customers which styles scored highly and which ones don’t. It’s possible that their highest volume styles and colors ranked the worst (which would make sense, since anecdotally, lighter colors sell better for sun apparel). Without transparently sharing that data, they may be leading customers to believe they’re still getting decent sun protection, reducing the likelihood of returns, and minimizing the financial hit that they’re taking for what’s ultimately deceptive advertising. Edit: The testing was done on un-dyed samples. Patagonia still has room to be more transparent and helpful to customers by differentiating scores for Capilene Cool vs Tropic Comfort. They admit to having a range and suggest customers should keep their garment even though the customer has no clue how protective their sun shirt really is.
But they said UPF 17 filters out 92% of sunlight. This is still a little shady. The US requires sun apparel to reach UPF 15 for the rating to be included in marketing. However, they made the same statement on the European versions of their website, and the European Commission requires items to test at UPF 40+. So even their attempt to rectify illegal marketing is still using deceptive marketing tactics in the EU. In addition, the Skin Cancer Foundation requires items be UPF 30+ in order to receive their endorsement. And as a reminder, not all skin damage manifests in a sun burn. So just because you’re not a lobster after your adventures doesn’t mean that you’re getting adequate protection.
The choices are all or nothing. I don’t think that Patagonia chose the most customer friendly method to remedy their error. Customers can either return the garment for a full refund, or they get nothing. $70 is way above market value for a polyester shirt that doesn’t offer at least UPF 40+ protection. If it were my brand, I think customers who chose to keep their garments should get a $20-30 partial refund to help cover a few tubes of extra sunscreen. Hell, make it store credit. Almost nothing at Patagonia is that cheap and most would be incentivized to spend above and beyond the gift card amount with the brand. Suddenly your folly is a profit driver. But the entire press kit reads about like “hey we fucked up, but we want to make it seem like no big deal and that you shouldn’t do anything about it so we don’t have to do anything for you” which really bugs me. Brands don’t want to cast themselves in a bad light, but when you deceive customers, either intentionally or not, show that it’s urgent to you to amend the situation.
What does this mean for their testing standards and processes? I only worked in apparel at Amazon on their private label team. Amazon is scrutinized insanely closely by the FTC. So for me, product testing and compliance was an extremely rigid and careful process. Every batch of production went through fabric and garment testing, even if it was a style that we carried for years and ordered 100 times before. Items had to pass all of the compliance tests in order for the shipment to be “ungated” and scheduled for a vessel for import. Once it got to the US, any garment with UPF claims were pre-suppressed by the website until I provided documentation of the item’s lab results. I worked in swimwear. It was a time intensive and annoying process. But it was worth it because it was right for customers (and we’d already been sued by the FTC for other issues. Deceptive marketing is expensive).
Working other places, I’m always appalled how little connection there is between marketing, testing, and legal / compliance teams. Like what other not-quite-true marketing messages make it to product launch without proper substantiation if your process let these through? Especially after I learned that the recall included garments from multiple seasons ago.
They don’t share any timeline. I reached out to Patagonia customer service because the timeline wasn’t clear. Was it only this season’s garments? The “How Did This Happen” portion of the recall cites that the fabrics tested above standards in 2019. If I have a Tropic Comfort from 2018, is it affected and included in the recall program? The rep confirmed that any item that matches style numbers were included in the recall, and that it did extend back into multiple prior seasons. Generally, it’s best practice for brands to be clear about the date range to help customers determine whether or not they’re impacted. For example, Pieps clarifies in their recall that the impacted beacons were sold from 2013-2020. Or a recent food recall calls out that a product was “in Circle K stores from 6/1/21 – 7/5/21.” It’s not a legal requirement, but it helps customers know for sure if they need to act. Confused customers have additional friction in the recall process surrounding clarification, meaning they’re less likely to request a refund and Patagonia saves more money.
They do deserve credit because they’ve clarified what happens to the garments after they’re returned. Items will be recycled or resold with appropriate marketing on Worn Wear. The reverse logistics during recalls is complicated and expensive. While Patagonia has a lot of waste reduction pipelines in place already through their Ironclad Guarantee and Worn Wear, they still deserve credit for salvaging worn garments when most brands throw out worn recalled goods. This is especially important since many of their customers are environmentally conscious and excluding that piece would likely make a difference in their return rates. They’ve also been explicitly clear about the legal requirement that recalls have no expiration date, and that customers could pursue a return after another trip, another season, or even when the garment is on its last legs.
Want to learn more about sun protective UPF clothing? See last summer’s Sun Hoodie 101.