From the other side of the care label
Drycleaners have long been frustrated by care labels over the years, having encountered everything from the inaccurate to the inexplicable. However, during a GreenEarth affiliate meeting at Fabricare 2012 in Long Beach, attendees were offered some insight as to why the process often proves inconsistent.
Speaker Barbara Geens, who works with the JUST Group that manages clothing brands in Australia, offered a perspective from the other side of the care label.
She did not reveal a secret reverse side of the tag that nobody knows about, but she did outline issues faced by garment designers, manufacturers and technicians who face a maze of conflicting issues when navigating the care label process.
It usually takes anywhere from two to six months for a garment to make it from a design concept to the retail store.
From the designer’s viewpoint, it’s less about practicality and durability and more about pleasing the aesthetic sensibilities of the customer.
“This is why you get such a variety of brands and such a variety of product,” she said. “They research the most fashionable colors, what silhouettes are in trend this season. They use trend agencies and internal discussions to come up with their concept for their range.”
After scouting trends, the next step involves a garment technologist assisting the brand team to make sure the garment is manufacturable, wearable and cleanable.
“We assist in the visual and feel approval of the fabrics, on physical performance,” Geens explained. “We make sure that the product complies with market regulations and, most importantly, our job includes fitting, make and the care labeling.”
One reason care labels end up being inconsistent is that all garment technologists are not created equal. According to Geens, there is no one perfect course to teach all the garment technologists in the world; instead, most of their knowledge is based on their unique individual background.
“When we are assessing the components, a large part of that is based on our personal training and experience, and experience is probably the biggest part,” she pointed out.
When garment technologists and manufacturers try to come to a mutual understanding, many factors are considered such as: can the base fabric be washed or drycleaned, how can its components be cleaned, and how will the piece hold up to color fastness and potential shrinkage?
Because every technician’s experience is different, some may be less familiar with alternative cleaning methods that have not been around the drycleaning industry as long as perchloroethylene, which often results in a technician’s bias towards the longer-accepted process.
Even when garment technologists use third-party testing, however, the same problem might arise. Not all third-party test sites employ the same cleaning technologies and methods. Many may be simply unfamiliar with more recent advancements in cleaning technology and processes.
Another difficulty technicians face when performing an analysis is the absence of a universal set of garment standards. Stipulations often vary from region to region and country to country so the care labeling concept gets lost in translation, so to speak.
“The legal and standards requirements between regions and countries are quite different,” she emphasized. “I think the Americans are the ones who promote testing more strongly as a requirement. Different countries have different approaches. In Australia, we are not legally bound to test.”
Adding even more chaos and confusion to the mix, compliance standards may change depending on the preferences of the fashion brand.
“A high-end brand might set their own level of standard much higher than what the local original regulations require,” Geens noted.
On the other hand, a brand interested in staying on the forefront of quickly-changing public tastes might have a lower set of cleaning standards for more practical reasons.
“A fast-fashion brand might say their market might only wear their brand for a short time anyway, so why should we worry about the aftercare too much? That can also give you a clue as to why some labels are not very well thought out,” she said.
With so much pressure to have a garment ready before the current fashion trend expires, there is often not enough time to investigate a new product thoroughly.
With so many overlapping factors, it is easy to see why the current care label process is capable of frustrating everybody involved, from designers and manufacturers to retailers and consumers.
Perhaps cleaners can take small comfort in the fact that their frustrations with the cleaning instructions have been shared by the same garment technicians who help create them.
“We don’t always get it right,” Geens said. “It’s experience. It’s the tools we have access to. It’s the national and international regulations that we have to work with.”
Now that the care label rule is under revisionary review by the Federal Trade Commission, there exists the possibility that some relief may eventually come, though it could take years.
In the meantime, Geens offered a little encouragement to the audience of GreenEarth affiliates that multiple successful cleaning methods might one day be found more consistently on the labels of garments.
“The more companies we can teach to get it right and to be honest about the care that a garment can get, the easier it will be, not only for you guys but for every drycleaner to say, ‘Now I can trust the label.’”