LIFE & CULTURE
JULY 28, 2011
The New Dirt on Dry Cleaners
Why Vinaigrette Is Tricky, Buttons Fall Off and Other Mysteries Behind
You drop your most cherished clothes at the dry cleaner, and they're
ticketed, thrown into a massive pile of garments and whisked away.
To most consumers, what takes place behind the counter, where imposing
machines rumble and steam hisses, is a mystery. What exactly goes on
back there? Other common questions: Why do women's shirts often cost
more to clean than men's, and why do only some stains come out?
Adding to the confusion is a transition that is already shaking up the
dry-cleaning industry. Many dry cleaners will be required to find new
solvents to replace a widely used cleaning agent called
perchloroethylene, or perc, by 2020. As a result, businesses are using a
growing array of new methods to clean garments. Procter & Gamble Co.
recently launched Tide Dry Cleaners, a chain of stores that use an
alternative product, based on silicone and called GreenEarth.
The result, for many people, is uncertainty. "I find myself looking at
tags more to see if I can wash it," says Alli Webb, the West Hollywood,
Calif., co-founder of Drybar, a chain of blowout hair salons. She says
she is nervous about chemicals and sometimes will drive farther to a
cleaner that promotes itself as eco-friendly.
The shakeup is coming to an industry that has changed little for
decades. While the Frenchman credited with inventing dry cleaning
started with turpentine, perc has been used since the 1930s to clean
clothes, and about 80% of cleaners still rely on it. Like turpentine—and
benzene, kerosene and gasoline, which were also tried in the early
years—perc is good at dissolving oil-based stains. It is pumped into a
supersized washing machine to flush dirt from the clothes.
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P&G's Tide Dry Cleaners store in Mason, Ohio, keeps the machines visible
behind the counter.
Stubborn stains from difficult-to-remove substances, such as ink, wine
and mustard, are attacked by hand with chemicals that target particular
substances. Bruce Barish, owner of New York City's Ernest Winzer
Cleaners, cites balsamic vinaigrette as "very hard to get out." It's a
mix of both water-based and oily stains with a dark dye that is hard to
remove—especially since most customers accidentally rub it in.
The quality and service vary, in part because most dry cleaners are
independently owned. There are 24,124 dry-cleaning and non-coin-operated
laundry establishments in the U.S., according to the Census Bureau.
But certain things hold true across the industry. In a 2009 study that
examined 50 randomly selected dry cleaners, New York-based Floyd
Advisory LLC found that women paid an average of 73% more than men for
laundered shirts. Dry cleaners surveyed say women's shirts don't fit in
their industrial presses as well as men's and must be ironed by hand.
Last year, market-research firm Mintel International found that 75% of
women who had gone clothes-shopping in the past 12 months said they
avoided buying clothes that required dry cleaning.
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Indeed, it is customers' low opinion of dry cleaning, in part, that
sparked P&G's new venture, the company says. P&G research found that a
large percentage of consumers were generally dissatisfied with their dry
cleaning, says Ross H. Holthouse, a spokesman for the consumer-product
maker's FutureWorks division. "They felt the stores were dark and that
they walked into a black box and didn't know what was happening," he says.
Tide Dry Cleaners stores, which use the branding of Tide laundry
detergent, have valets that carry clothes to and from customers' cars,
lockers with customized passwords where consumers can drop off or pick
up clothes after hours, and bar codes that keep track of customers'
data, including preferences. The company made sure the stores were
bright and open, with the machines visible, Mr. Holthouse says. After
starting with three test stores in Kansas City, Kan., the company opened
the first Tide Dry Cleaner in Mason, Ohio, last fall, and two more Ohio
stores opened in July. The company says it could have several hundred
locations in a couple of years.
P&G is also one of a growing number of businesses to use a cleaning
substance other than perc. It uses P&G products such as Tide as well as
perc alternative GreenEarth.
Judge a Dry Cleaner Before Handing Over Clothing
Does it have a certificate or decal? The National Cleaners
Association, Drycleaning Laundry Institute and America's Best Cleaners
all have qualifications a dry cleaner must meet to receive a
certificate, such as passing tests in cleaning, stain removal and
Is it orderly? 'If it's clean and well run, chances are they are
doing a better job with your clothes than some place that has stuff
laying around,' says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs for the
Consumer Federation of America.
Is the cleaning actually done there? Use an establishment with dry
cleaning on the premises. "That will reduce the chances of something
being lost" says Mr. Gillis. You can tell if the cleaning is done on
site if there is equipment visible, or just ask if they send the clothes
out to a separate facility.
After you've chosen a cleaner and had your clothes cleaned, inspect
the garments immediately when you pick them up, right there in the
store. 'A lot of us just grab it and go,' Mr. Gillis says. Make sure
your garments have been cleaned properly and pressed, and check for
damages or for any lost items.
The Environmental Protection Agency has classified perc as a toxic air
pollutant and potential human carcinogen. While the EPA mandated that
cleaning businesses located in residential buildings phase out perc by
the end of 2020, some states, including California, Illinois and New
Jersey, have sought to end its use sooner and more broadly.
As a result, alternative solvents have come on the market, claiming to
clean just as well but with less harm to humans and the environment.
Among the most popular are hydrocarbon, GreenEarth and a
water-and-detergent method known as wet cleaning. The EPA hasn't issued
policy rulings on these substances, and dry cleaners aren't required to
say what they use.
Some in the industry say the environmental concerns over perc have been
overblown. Alan Spielvogel, director of technical services at the
National Cleaners Association, a trade group, says the industry has
taken steps over the years to reduce perc pollution, primarily by
installing advanced machines. What's more, he's not convinced that the
alternatives clean as well.
About 60 dry cleaners in the U.S. use SystemK4, a new dry-cleaning
solution made by Kreussler Inc. Alex Shvartshteyn, owner of London
Cleaners in Cleveland, switched from GreenEarth to SystemK4 earlier this
year and prefers the latter.
Kreussler wouldn't disclose the chemical makeup of SystemK4, but it says
the product leaves clothes softer and fresher-smelling than perc. "It
won't beat up the clothes as much as perc," says Richard Fitzpatrick,
vice president at Kreussler.
But Mr. Spielvogel and others fear switching to alternatives will be
costly. In many cases, dry cleaners will have to buy new machines, which
can cost $45,000 to $100,000 or more. Converting to alternatives could
increase the average dry-cleaning bill as owners pass on the costs of
investing in new machines to customers. Increasing prices "is certainly
an option" says Mary Scalco, acting chief executive officer of the
Drycleaning and Laundry Institute, a trade association. "Most of the
dry-cleaning industry is comprised of small mom and pop businesses."
When trying to decide what merits dry cleaning, consumers should start
with the label. While some "dry clean only" items can be carefully
washed at home, says Jack Gillis, director of public affairs at the
Consumer Federation of America, "you'd be taking a risk if, like most of
us, you didn't know how the fabric would react to soap and water." Some
fibers and fabrics, such as viscose rayon, require waterless cleaning
because they have "low wet strength," while others such as wool might
shrink, says Kay Obendorf, a professor of fiber science at Cornell
University. In addition, some delicate materials, linings, finishings or
trims won't withstand the wash.
Nadene Sabghir, of Coral Springs, Fla., says one of her daughter's party
dresses came back from the dry cleaners with melted sequins. Now, she
doesn't bring anything with "embellishment, sequins or something I
really love" to the cleaners. "If I can hand-wash it or delicate-wash
it, I will."
Write to Ray A. Smith