Greener Cleaners The Dry Cleaning Industry's Quiet Revolution

For years, “environmentally friendly” was a phrase unlikely to be connected with the dry cleaning industry. Perchloroethylene (PERC), the solvent used by dry cleaners, is a volatile toxin—responsible for both air and water pollution, as well as human health problems. The National Institute of Environmental Health Sciences assessment of PERC reads like a description of chemical warfare.

“Short-term exposure to PERC can cause adverse health effects on the nervous system that range from dizziness, fatigue, headaches and sweating, to incoordination and unconsciousness,” says the Institute. “Contact with PERC in its liquid or vapor form can irritate the skin, eyes, nose and throat. Long-term exposure to PERC can cause liver and kidney damage. Workers repeatedly exposed to large amounts of PERC in the air have experienced memory loss and confusion.”

Add to that a heap of solid waste in the form of clothes hangers, plastic garment wrap and cardboard, and you have an environmental nightmare. But you’ve also got a shining opportunity for creative entrepreneurs who can satisfy the demand for toxic-free cleaning. Last year, the Waste Prevention Coalition sought to encourage this trend and honor its pioneers by initiating the Model Cleaners Project—a quest to identify the nation’s 15 cleanest cleaners.

“We wanted to focus on the positive,” says National Waste Prevention Coalition Coordinator Tom Watson. “We selected the dry cleaning industry for this program because it has issues of both toxic and solid wastes. Plus, every community has dry cleaners, and most are mom-and-pop stores that can easily initiate innovation.”

Innovation is exactly what the project uncovered. Across the United States, small business owners were finding unique solutions to dry cleaning pollution. And many of them were discovering ways to transform that problem into profit.

“You really have to think outside the box,” says Roger King, proprietor of Comet Cleaners, a “model cleaner” from Colorado. In addition to replacing PERC with the more benign petroleum solvent Exxon D-2000, King has used creative tactics like initiating a “Happy Bag” club that offers customers incentives to reuse garment bags and providing patrons with boxes to promote hanger reuse. The $100 per week King saves from these programs helps him stay competitive while minimizing his waste stream.

“I’d be lying if I told you I had such concern for the environment that I was willing to lose money,” he says. “For an environmental solution to work, it has to be both money-saving and environmentally effective. You have to make your environmental innovations good for business.”

Noam Frankel was a businessman seeking green technology when he founded the Greener Cleaner in 1995. “I had been looking for a way to invest in environmental technology,” he says. “I saw that there was clearly a need for innovation in this industry when I learned that dry cleaners are the second-largest user of toxic chlorinated solvents in the world. And they’re usually located in residential neighborhoods or heavily populated urban areas.”

Frankel was only the second cleaner in the nation to employ “wet cleaning,” a non-toxic, non-polluting alternative to PERC. Using just biodegradable soap, water and computer technology, Frankel is able to safely and effectively clean 99.9 percent of the garments that read “dry clean only.” Ties are the only articles that he sends out to be conventionally dry cleaned, and those only with the customer’s permission.

By offering his Chicago-area customers toxic-free cleaning, a service not previously available, Frankel has been able to attract a share of the market much wider than that of a typical dry cleaner. “In a city like Chicago, most dry cleaners draw from a range of about six blocks,” he says. “We draw from all over the city and suburbs. We have customers that come to us from Michigan. Some even send clothes from Connecticut.”

During the Greener Cleaner’s first year in business, the Center for Neighborhood Technology used an Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) grant to study the business as a national wet cleaning demonstration site. In the five years since, there has been a quiet revolution in the dry cleaning industry. Today, over 200 cleaners across the U.S. offer wet cleaning. And many take their environmental concerns a step further.

Model cleaner Deborah Davis instituted her own original conservation initiatives when she opened two Cleaner by Nature stores in Southern California. In addition to wet cleaning 99 percent of her garments, Davis has been able to reduce particulate emissions by using natural gas in her delivery trucks. And she saves $150 to $200 per month by reusing and recycling supplies.

As soon as Davis opened her doors in 1996, it was clear that her eco-friendly cleaning service would satisfy a sizable market demand. “The business was really successful from the start,” she says. “Lots of people know that dry cleaners are toxic. If you offer a service that’s just as good, just as fast, just as convenient and just as cheap—but is environmentally friendly—people will switch. It’s a no-brainer.”

Not all environmentally conscious cleaners started out that way. Marilyn Fleming leads an ever-growing pack of traditional dry cleaners that have invested effort and money into greening up their businesses. Fleming began to recycle solid waste and replace dry cleaning with wet cleaning at her three Milwaukee stores in 1996.

Fleming explains how environmental benevolence can give an edge over competitors, despite the initial cost increase. “Convenience is still the most important reason a customer chooses a cleaner,” she says. “Competition is tough. There are many cleaners that are convenient. The choice is, then, which cleaner sets itself apart from the others, and in what way? Most of our customers trust us to offer something the other cleaners do not. They don’t want to totally understand. But they do want to protect the environment.”