Drycleaning dramas

CHOICE finds out the truth behind your drycleaning disasters and your rights when things go wrong.
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drycleaning label
Finding a good drycleaner can be a hit and miss affair. Even if you use one with a reliable track record, accidents can happen. CHOICE believes the problem could rest with misleading care labels. While there is an Australian Standard that stipulates what should be on a care label, manufacturers don't always follow it, instead using the catch-all "dry clean only". But it can be difficult to establish exactly who is to blame when your favourite jacket comes back from the drycleaners with shrunken sleeves and tarnished buttons. CHOICE outlines the problems and what you can do when disaster strikes.

Labelling laws - the toothless tiger

There are mandatory standards for care labelling (Australian Standard AS 1957:1998), enforcable by the Australian Consumer and Competition Commission (ACCC). In theory, fines of up to $1.1million apply for companies that fail to comply; the reality is that the ACCC has never recorded a single conviction. So the laws provide little comfort for those who believe their drycleaning disaster comes down to a poorly worded care label. Under the laws, all clothing suppliers - manufacturers, importers, wholesalers, distributors and retailers - must ensure their care labelling is:

  • legible
  • accurate
  • permanently attached to the garment
  • written in English
  • appropriate and adequate for the care of the garment so that when followed the article is not damaged
  • accesssible at the point of sale

Labelling problems

Drycleaning Institute of Australia (DIA) CEO Philip Johns believes manufacturers often use "overly cautious" instructions such as "dry-clean only" on a garment that may be safely washed. "Most manufacturers do not test their products before attaching the care labels. It's more convenient and cheaper to attach a generic label containing "Dry clean only" or "Dry cleanable" instructions,"  he says. Without specific care instructions on what is allowed and what should not be done to the garment, the risk of damage is high, especially for fabrics that contain elastane or plasticisers (typically used in garments to provide stretch and recovery characteristics).

Accredited textile technologist Steve Pyott, founder of Dry Cleaning Complaints Arbitration Services (DCCAS), examines, tests and analyses textiles to determine fault when garments are damaged during drycleaning. His website lists the problem, as well as photos of the damaged garment and his findings. He also blames inaccurate care labelling. CHOICE approached a few local designers and manufacturers, such as Lisa Ho and CUE, to find out if clothing manufacturers test their garments to determine the specific care (washing, drying, maintenance) instructions before attaching the care labels, but they did not respond.

Drycleaning labels may wrongly specify that a particular chemical should be used to clean the garment: 

  • P means the garment can be drycleaned with the solvent perchloroethylene (perc), hydrocarbon solvents and white spirit.
  • F means drycleaning should only be carried out with hydrocarbon solvents and white spirit (no perc).

Drycleaning the wrong garment with perc can cause dyes to run and beads to melt, says Johns.

Your rights when things go wrong

When a garment is destroyed, consumers usually blame the drycleaner, who may choose to compensate or deny fault. If the compensation claim is more than several hundred dollars, you can take it further by sending the damaged garment/s to the Drycleaning Institute of Australia or Dry Cleaning Complaints Arbitration Services (DCCAS) for testing to determine fault.

For consumers, unless the garment was very expensive and/or had sentimental value (such as a wedding dress or suit), the protracted process of proving fault and claiming compensation through the local courts is unappealing. If an independent party such as the DIA or DCCAS determines that the manufacturer (not the drycleaner) is to blame for attaching an inaccurate care label, consumers are unlikely to take action against the manufacturer.

However, according to the ACCC, if you have a damaged item of clothing after following the care instructions, you can take the item back to the retailer you bought it from and ask for a refund under statutory rights. If this does not work, you can write a letter of demand to the seller or lodge a complaint with a consumer protection agency. If you purchased the item overseas, this is obviously not an option. See our Q&A for more tips.

Our spot test

Consumers often ask our laundry lab about stain removal and fabric care – what will come out in the wash and what needs drycleaning? So we conducted a pilot stain test by setting red wine, blue ballpoint pen and curry stains on a business shirt. The care label stated it was both wet and dry cleanable. The result: only the red wine was removable with a normal machine wash. We sent another shirt with the same stains to a local drycleaner to see if they could do better; sure enough, all the stains were removed.



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