What’s wrong with the way we clean clothes now?

How many innovative models in the fashion industry can you think of?  Amazon Fashion, Rent the Runway, Moda Operandi and Gilt are all models that have changed, improved, the way we consume fashion.  There are so many brilliant minds thinking of better ways to sell clothes.

What happens to all those clothes after the tags come off?  They have to be cleaned.  All of them.  Many times.  Despite the fact that we only buy clothes once but clean them many many times, there has been much more innovation in the selling than in the cleaning stage.

Maybe the cleaning stage gets less attention because there is no need to innovate; clothes get cleaned now, right?  So why bother?

We should bother because there is a tremendous amount of wasted human capital in the way we clean clothes now.

On one hand, dry cleaning facilities, by and large, are not places you would want to work in.  Most are usually poorly lit and ventilated, cramped, and disorganized.  A few would make sweatshops in China look like executive offices.  Most tasks at dry cleaning facilities are repetitive, boring, and physically demanding.  On the other hand, dry clean shop owners are being squeezed by landlords and suppliers pushing prices up, and from consumers, who are unwilling to pay higher prices for the same “lowest common denominator” service.  If you spend five minutes inside a dry cleaning store or production facility you will realize that many of the jobs there are dead-end jobs.

We are doing ourselves a collective disservice by continuing to feed this incredibly wasteful cleaning machine.  The biggest asset we have is our human capital and we are squandering it off with every minute a person has to apply a tag with a staple to a shirt.

We had very similar conditions in the clothing manufacturing stage a few years ago and instead of innovating there as we did in the selling stage, we shipped that problem overseas.  We can’t ship our clothes overseas every time we need to clean them.

(making | selling | cleaning picture)

Stephanie Clifford published a fascinating article in the New York Times a few months ago about the renaissance of U.S. textile companies.  She writes: “Where Mr. Winthrop relies on labor — the cutting and sewing of the sweatshirts, which he does in five factories in California and North Carolina — is where the costs jump up. That costs his company around $17 for a given sweatshirt; overseas, he says, it would cost $5.50.  But truth be told, labor is not a big ingredient in the manufacturing uptick in the United States, textiles or otherwise. Indeed, the absence of high-paid American workers in the new factories has made the revival possible.  “Most of our costs are power-related,” said Dan Nation, a senior Parkdale executive.”

What’s enabling the future of manufacturing in the US is automation; machines doing things that humans used to do.

So we are applying automation in production and innovation in customer service, merchandising and distribution.

If we are applying these two game-changers to the manufacturing and selling of clothes, why are we not applying it to  the longest and least likely to be outsourced stage?

Technology has come a long way since dry cleaning became an “industry”.  There are many stages of the cleaning process that have been “automated”, however, we are still a long way from cleaning clothes the same way we produce Tesla cars.

I’ve dedicated over eight years of my life thinking about this problem.  I started a clothes cleaning service in 2005 picking up clothes in my bicycle.  I build a 4,000 square foot dry cleaning facility in the middle of the West VIllage of Manhattan and put together a team of incredibly skilled people to run it and clean thousands of high-fashion garments every month (Rent the Runway operated out of our facility for their first two years).  I partnered with FedEx to offer a nationwide pickup and delivery service.

Build a fully-automated dry cleaning facility that services customers through home pick up and delivery.

I’ve raised over $100,000 of the $350,000 required to build this new dry cleaning facility.  Getting the grant from Chase would enable us to build our model of the way clothes should be cleaned.

I’m a member of The Partnership for a New American Economy, a coalition of business owners and politicians advocating for immigration reform.  I am a Board member at Qualitas of Life Foundation, a not-for-profit organization that provides 100% free financial education to Hispanic immigrants and their families in New Yokr in order to foster their financial security and standard of life.

This new dry cleaning facility and distribution model is a step in the right direction but there is still a lot more innovation possible, REQUIRED, in this industry.  How different will the world  be when we start applying the previously-wasted human capital into really productive, exciting enterprises?

That’s the problem with the way we clean clothes now.