With concerns about fuel prices, global warming and other issues, more consumers are demanding “environmentally friendly” or “organic” options. But as the “green” message has become an increasingly salient selling point, it has lost some of its meaning.
Companies are falling over themselves to be the “greenest,” whether or not they can back the claim up — knowing how important it can be to customers. And about one-third of consumers say they don’t know how to tell whether “green” claims are true, according the 2009 National Green Buying Survey.
Having been on the sharp end of the environmental stick for years, drycleaners are familiar with the power of a “green” marketing message. And their claims can be just as confusing to consumers, according to a recent New York Times article.
Calling a process “organic,” for example, might lead consumers to believe that a process is somehow more wholesome — like the organic produce they buy at the local farmer’s market. All “organic” indicates in chemistry is that the compound contains a carbon atom — like CO2. Or a high-flash hydrocarbon. Or perchloroethylene.
In the decades since perc has been regulated heavily, many drycleaners have assumed that making an operation “green” is a matter of switching solvents. And while alternative processes including wetcleaning play an important role in reducing the industry’s ecological footprint, operators say there’s more to the story.
Asked “What qualifies an operation as ‘green?’” readers responding to the most recent Wire survey named “Recycling hangers, poly and other wastes” as the top strategy, with 93.2%. “Using a solvent other than perc,” “Using equipment that conserves energy” and “Offering reusable/biodegradable packaging” tied for second, with 79.5%.
With consumers eager to take action to reduce, reuse and recycle raw materials, the “green” equation for a drycleaning plant is often a sum of many parts. Choosing a solvent, handling it properly and disposing of hazardous wastes responsibly is just the beginning; depending on the area, it may be the legal minimum.
“The EPA sets minimum management practices — not best practices,” says Chris Edwards, president of A Cleaner World in High Point, N.C., a perc operation and one of the first in the country to position itself as ecoconscious starting in the 1970s. “It’s imperative for drycleaners to achieve levels higher than that.”
Certification is a step in that direction. The Drycleaning & Laundry Institute’s (DLI) Certified Environmental Drycleaner (CED) ensures thorough knowledge of chemical-handling safety and compliance, and state and local initiatives such as Illinois’ Five-Star and the King County (Wash.) EnviroStars programs help operators achieve compliance, then encourage them to lead community conservation efforts.
Now, the Green Cleaners Council (GCC) is set to validate many drycleaners’ “green” claims. “We felt it was time to highlight all areas of environmental sustainability and give consumers a way to judge how genuine a cleaner’s commitment to a ‘greener’ world is,” says Ann Hargrove, director of special projects for the National Cleaners Association (NCA).
“This program not only gives a cleaner’s ‘green’ claims authenticity, but gives them something to strive for and allows them to step into the ‘green’ market with a much-needed third-party endorsement of what they are doing,” she says. “We believe this will help bring transparency to the many environmental issues surrounding our industry and [allow] cleaners who are undertaking ‘green’ initiatives to promote their services.”
SAVE THE EARTH, SAVE MONEY
Columbus, Ohio-based Swan Cleaners is the first operation to receive the top designation (four leaves) from the GCC. The plant uses multiple processes — perc, hydrocarbon and wetcleaning; it also offers a hanger-recycling program, recently switched from large diesel trucks to more efficient Dodge Sprinter vans, “right-sized” boiler capacities, and replaces all burned-out incandescent bulbs with compact fluorescent lightbulbs (CFLs).
“There are a lot of little things that go into being ‘green,’” says Tony Dudzik, vice president of Swan Cleaners. “It goes beyond what type of solvent you use. There’s nothing wrong with saving money and being truly ‘green’ — you get ‘green’ on both ends.”
Bridge Cleaners in Brooklyn, N.Y. — a Merit Award winner in American Drycleaner’s Plant Design Awards and a GCC three-leaf operator — uses perc alongside an iPura hydrocarbon machine and Imesa wetcleaning system. But it does everything possible to reduce energy consumption and cut waste, from offering customers paperless invoices and hanger recycling to offering its staffers washable dinnerware, towels and napkins in the new plant’s common areas.
“I’m doing everything I know can be done to be environmentally sound,” says operator Victoria Aviles. “We recycle the hangers; we recycle the poly; we recycle the cardboard. We reduce paper and plastic use in the kitchen. Toilets are low-flow and low-volume. We recycle water; we use biodegradable plastics. We have energy-efficient equipment and appliances.”
“For 25 years, I have preached recycling,” she says. “I am conscientious about giving back to the people, and giving back to the environment. I want my children and my children’s children to have a perfect world.”
Edwards launched A Cleaner World’s hanger recycling program in the 1980s. Donating a penny for every hanger dropped off, the firm has helped plant 65,000 trees. The company has since moved on to using recycled plastic bags, collecting them for recycling post-use. “We’re trying to minimize our footprint and leave the world better than we received it,” he says.
Reusable bags — already a staple in supermarkets — are now invading the industry as another answer to wasteful packaging. Convertible totes like the Green Garmento, Dry Greening and Reuseniks bags are gaining popularity as a way to cut packaging, present a “green” image and build loyalty.
Reusables can also save up to 40% on packaging costs, suppliers say. “It gives you an opportunity to be ‘green’ and to save ‘green,’” says Rick Siegel, marketer of the Green Garmento. “A drycleaner is being ecofriendly, but he’s also being friendly to his bottom line.”
MANAGING THE MESSAGE
Many operators at the forefront of environmentally friendly drycleaning practices prefer to keep their “green” messages subtle. While saving money and offering customers ways to do the “right” thing, they say that convenience and quality will always win out over an empty “green” message. “Customers want clean clothes, pressed well, ready to wear at a reasonable price,” Edwards says.
But that doesn’t mean being “green” can’t help. When an EnviroStars member achieves five-star status, the company gets free mentions in the local “Green Pages” and radio spots. “You can’t pay for that kind of advertising,” says Dick Turner, operator of Seattle-based Madison Carnolia Cleaners.
By going beyond what’s necessary, drycleaners can save money, improve the environment and impress customers. And being “green” gets addictive, says Laurel Tomchick, program manager for EnviroStars. “Once you get the ‘green’ bug, you can’t shake it,” a routeman at a member plant once told her. “He put a motion detector in the restroom. He [coasts] down hills to save fuel. The crux of the program is to get businesses to look at the ways they do things, and then do things in a new way.”
“Sometimes it’s obvious, like changing the light bulbs,” Dudzik says. “Fluorescent bulbs cost a little more, but they last longer. It takes a lot of little things to have a really good impact — start picking up rocks and looking underneath them.”