The UK care-label system is based on an internationally accepted standard. It indicates the domestic and professional treatments that can be used to clean a garment without damaging it. Used and understood correctly it should provide drycleaners with valuable information.

But in practice, the way the system is applied can cause concerns. John Barber has strong views on the subject. In his new role as the chairman of the Textile Services Association retail committee and from long personal experience within the industry, he sets out the issues.

“Possibly half the garment ranges on sale in the average high street have been labelled, if not by guess-work, then certainly following inadequate testing. As a result the labels themselves are substandard (because they fail to follow the British Standards symbols and use vague words instead) and even where the right symbols are used, the garment frequently fails in cleaning when processed with the instructions implied by the symbols.

“The biggest problem is poor understanding of labels by retailers, garment makers and some drycleaners, especially those who do not have the support of the TSA.membership” He believes independent drycleaners are particularly vulnerable as they lack the resources of the big groups and stresses that they should not see the TSA as “Just for the big boys.”

He would like the committee to tackle particular themes including care labelling. It already provides a drycleaning information bureau and operates a red alert scheme to warn members if a particular garment or manufacturer appears to be causing problems and recommends appropriate strategies.

“You have to bear in mind” says TSA chief executive Murray Simpson, “that the retail and manufacturing industries are not particularly focussed on drycleaning.”

A garment manufacturer recently reported that less than half a percent of the problems reported with garments related to drycleaning.

However there is evidence that the care-labelling system itself needs to be improved by working at international level. Long term, changes are on the way, in particular a revision of the international standard and the inclusion of symbols covering wetcleaning and hydrocarbon processing. Here, TSA technical director Mike Palin is involved.

He says that in 1990 the International Standards Organisation published a care labelling code, the first after 20 years and representing a considerable step forward. Most countries signed up and it became an international standard, supplemented by additional national requirements (annexes). The system is voluntary, but anyone using a care label must meet all its requirements.

Five processes

The standard itself relates purely to the symbols for various processes and covers those used in both domestic and professional cleaning. There are five: washing, bleaching, ironing, professional drycleaning and tumble drying.

Symbols cannot be used selectively, at least four symbols must appear (crossed out if not suitable). Only the tumble dryer is optional. Symbols must appear on one line, in the order given.

Work on revising the standard started in 1995. The main thrust now says Mike Palin, is to simplify the standard describing the symbols and their use. There will be more emphasis on the annexes and more information on the test methods that can be used to assess suitability for particular processes.

A separate, part EU-funded project, AQUACARB initiated by Mr Palin, has sought to establish test methods for assessing how articles behave in hydrocarbon and wetcleaning. The project finished at the end of last year, and if accepted the information will be included in the care label standard.

The revised standard will have more testing information, but Mr Palin points out that it is the method, rather than the amount of testing, that is laid down. In practice the level of testing for professional drycleaning in the UK is very low and mainly on interior fabrics, not garments.

The second likely revision to the standard will be the inclusion of a symbol to indicate wetcleaning, a circle with a W inside. The matter is complicated by copyright problems. Copyright with the actual label and its design lies with GINETEX, the self-styled international care labelling organisation. The result may well be that the wetcleaning symbol would have to appear on a separate line, below the main five. As for hydrocarbon, Mike Palin believes the eventual conclusion will be to retain the F label.

Drycleaners need to know about the new standards and symbols and the retailers need to inform themselves about the new test methods being incorporated into the standards.

The proposed changes will undoubtedly improve the situation but still leave some questions unanswered.

The first is enforcement. John Barber says care labelling needs to become mandatory for all garments and household textiles retailed in the UK.

While he welcomes the prospect of a symbol for wetcleaning, he says that the high-street drycleaners real need is for current labelling and testing methods to be mandatory requirements.

He believes that manufacturers should be required to prove their labels have been properly verified and that retailers should take legal liability for ensuring a label exists and that it uses British standard symbols. They should also have written assurance that the manufacturer has checked the label is correct.

He would also like to see a performance standard for a garment in drycleaning, with maximum tolerances for such factors as shrinkage, colour change and interlining delaminations.

Mike Palin believes a mandatory system is unlikely. Most international standards are voluntary, and EU member states view this as preferable. He also says that a mandatory system would not avoid inaccurate labelling, or underlabelling.

Adam Mansell is secretary to the Home Laundering Consultative Council (HLCC), the UK care-labelling body, largely responsible for the development of the system in the UK. He believes the system, as it stands, achieves its aims, giving information in a concise form. The information may not be complete, but it is adequate.

To encourage the garment industry to label clothes, the label must be easy to use and reproduce. Having one label that applies both in the UK and in Europe makes the logistics practical for exporters and cuts the cost.

Detergent makers

He doesn’t see any particular problems, but there are pressures from other industries to have additional symbols, for example from detergent makers.

Extra symbols would cause problems, because of the testing needed. The drycleaning industry wants the information within the circle symbol expanded, and HLCC wouldn’t have too much of a problem with that, although Mr Mansell, too, raises the copyright question.

HLCC actively promotes care labelling as a package that includes both the label and appropriate testing.

“It’s in the interests of both HLCC and BCIA members that information is correct, but the precise content of the label is down to the retailer and his manufacturer suppliers. It’s the retailer who is responsible, and the big names spend vast sums ensuring garments are correctly labelled” he explains.

He also points out that with a mandatory system, such as Austria has, every change, means a legislative change with all the associated difficulties. A mandatory label might be a trade barrier and wouldn’t solve the problem of underlabelling. People would just put a label on without testing.

Mark Gamble, a chartered textile technologist at Satra, confirms the importance of accurate testing of the whole garment, including structural details such as button-trims, linings and sewing thread. “The weakest link determines the cleanability of the garment” he says. Satra encourages manufacturers to observe the test protocols given in methods such as BS EN ISO 3175.

“For drycleaning, we recommend at least three cycles, to ensure that any weaknesses are revealed” he says. In respect of the labelling, he stresses that any additional wording should be clear and concise and here again, the British Standard is helpful.

Satra also encourages dialogue between the various sectors of the garment and textile care industries, holding regular retailer panels that have included discussion of the problems encountered by cleaners and launderers.

Care labels need to be correct, but do occasionally contain incomplete information, and drycleaners need to understand this. For instance, an iron symbol might not necessarily mean iron with steam.

“We get waterproof garments labelled for drycleaning. Some coated fabrics used in these will not survive drycleaning” says Gamble.

To help drycleaners avoid costly mistakes, owing to misinterpretation of care labels, Satra has produced a quick reference guide clearly listing the meaning of the five symbols and their variables.