No more ‘dry clean only’ labels?

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Environmental groups are pushing the Federal Trade Commission to do away with dry clean only labels.

Dry cleaners, the groups say, often use cleaning chemicals that are harmful to the environment and can pose health risks to workers and consumers.

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They say labeling rules should be changed so that consumers are told their garments can also be cleaned by more green-friendly “wet cleaning.”

Professional wet cleaners, the green groups say, can safely wash most garments that would ordinarily be sent to a dry cleaners — such as cottons, wools, silks, leathers and suedes — without emitting the same levels of air pollution or contaminating the water.

“This suggests that the vast majority of garments currently labeled 'dry clean' or 'dry clean only' could be labeled with a wet cleaning instruction,” the Coalition for Clean Air wrote in comments it filed with the FTC.

The FTC is considering changes to the Care Labeling Rule that would allow clothing manufacturers to recommend professional wet cleaning as an alternative to dry cleaning. Environmental groups want to require labels to say clothing can be wet cleaned.

The FTC, which first proposed the rule in July 2011, will hold a public roundtable on March 28 to discuss the potential new standards with stakeholders.

But the FTC wants to make sure that consumers have access to professional wet cleaning shops before it recommends such a rule. The service is relatively new and still growing in certain parts of the country.

“We want to know the extent to which professional wet cleaning is available to consumers,” FTC attorney Robert Frisby said.

Professional wet cleaners and even many dry cleaners are on board with the rule, because they say it will give them more options to wash clothes.

More and more dry cleaners offer both traditional dry cleaning and professional wet cleaning services, but they say consumers tend to prefer dry cleaning, because that is the method that is recommended on the labels of their clothes.

“In our members experience, a dry clean label is interpreted to mean 'do not wash' by many, if not all, consumers,” the Drycleaning and Laundry Institute wrote to the FTC.

“There is a subset of consumers that will not buy anything with a dry clean label. If all methods of care are required to be on the label, this consumer might be willing to purchase the item” the group said.

Dry cleaners have also been confused over what can be dry cleaned and what can be wet cleaned given the labels. They have worried they could be liable for damages if they wash something that is labeled “dry clean only,” the Toxics Use Reduction Institute wrote to the FTC.

That group argues the rules as currently written are “deceptive” to consumers and dry cleaners because it leads them to believe they cannot use professional wet cleaning services.

Clothing manufacturers also favor the rule, because it would facilitate international trade.

The United States Association of lmporters of Textiles & Apparel (USA-ITA) told the FTC that the rule would allow clothing manufacturers to streamline their U.S. labels with ones that are more popular in Europe to save money.

“It will eliminate one of the differences between domestic and international requirements,” the USA-ITA wrote.

The public roundtable will discuss the cost of requiring wet cleaning instruction labels, what content should be provided on those labels, the availability of wet cleaning services and consumer awareness of wet cleaning.