Sustainability and futureproofing

Janice Raycroft looks at the opportunities where sustainability can play a key role in changing industry businesses for the long term.

These are tough times for all businesses, and while much of the media focus has been on the devastating effect on sectors such as hospitality, for our industry serving others in jeopardy it’s very much a ‘mixed bag’, unfortunately most of which is extremely unwelcome.

While some larger laundries where the customer portfolio is mainly comprised of hotels and restaurants have been forced to temporarily close, with staff furloughed or made redundant, those serving healthcare and essential services are naturally busier but coping with the complexit ies of increased disinfection and shift peaks and troughs.

Often overlooked in all this are the ‘High Street’ drycleaners and launderettes, in many cases family businesses battling on, working their way through possible central and local government support schemes while officially allowed to stay open as essential services.

However, with the public instructed only to go out when necessary, a trip to the expert cleaner is not going to be high on the ‘must do’ list alongside queuing for the weekly food shop or a chemist to supply vital prescriptions.

On top of that, many regular customers who usually make the most of shirts and suits deals, will be missing – simply because they are working from home. Indeed, this is an area where drycleaners and unit shops may need to plan for adjustments long term. There will be previously office-based businesses, having discovered that mostly working from home can be achieved, which could well decide to function for a longer period with at least partial home working as they re-grow their own operations. Some might choose to simply leave behind office work as a cost-saver with environmental benefits when leases come to an end, having adjusted how they operate. Be prepared for this happening if much of your regular work ‘vanished’ alongside office workers no longer commuting during the lock down period.

Just what is the small operator to do while waiting for the hairdressers and restaurants down the parade to re-open? For ‘window shoppers’ to reappear? How can they get other people back in the habit of regularly bringing in clothing and bedding, let alone consider it a necessary expense after a period of lower household income?

It’s going to be a tough sell, but industry experts are confident that it can be done, and they recommend tapping into a changed national psyche post-coronavirus by rapidly expanding on a theme which dominated last year: environmental concerns and, in particular, sustainability.

“Firstly, don’t waste the downtime,” says Jason Alexander, managing director of Renzacci UK. “Focus only on misery and it will get worse. After the initial shock of working from home and recognising that the professional lives of many of the people in our own client base were going to dramatically change, the first thing we did as a business was an honest appraisal of our operation. I’m amazed at the number of projects that had been sitting on the back burner which suddenly developed because there was the time to really think about them. “Drycleaners should do the same and think about ‘What would I really like to do? What have we thought about changing, but not done because of the day job?’”

For Alexander the proposed route is to go for a full pelt transformation into a fresh and healthy local champion. He recommends tapping into the fact that people will want to maintain much of the lock down focus on cleanliness. Clean bedding, including a delayed change from winter to summer duvets, sorting that wardrobe and having garments professionally cleaned. And, most importantly, not damaging the environment and embracing sustainability as a way of life. We’ve rediscovered how to be resourceful and noticed how clean the air is without so much pollution.

“Frankly, I do think some businesses will go under. But they will be the diehard ones which don’t recognise the cultural change and instead think the job is simply ‘to get back to normal’. They will be left behind as this accelerates, while ‘the ones to watch’ will be part of a significant change.” Renzacci UK has done this itself in recent years, moving swiftly to become a champion of wetcleaning, stressing the sustainability factors of a method which causes less environmental damage and relies on fewer chemicals. “It’s safer and can be used on a wide range of garments and leather items,” he says. “That’s for the cleaner to stress to customers as they consider ’How do I make a marketing impact?’ but at a time when they really need to be making money there’s the advantage that wetcleaning is quicker and can really cut labour costs.”

He recommends that drycleaners rebuilding their client base also concentrate on collection and delivery services, pointing out how this boosts sustainability while relieving customers of ‘worries’, something we could all do with. “I know it is hard to be positive right now, and that this is a tough time. But it is possible to make a sea change and come out the other side in a better position. We know this at Renzacci UK as an early adopter of wetcleaning. Since then we’ve handled over 100 installations and it’s our 50th anniversary next year – something we’re determined will be a celebration.”

Renzacci UK’s MD, Jason Alexander, suggests not to waste the downtime during COVID-19, and to use it as an opportunity to look at ways to improve sustainable approaches for your business post-coronavirus.

Renzacci UK champion wetcleaning and regularly run demonstrations at their showroom in Feltham, Middlesex.

At Polybags Ltd, the manufacturers of polythene products, next year will also be significant as they mark 60 years in business. With the huge drive towards recycling and sustainability across the planet they’ve also had to be remarkably adept to stay ahead of the game. What many may not realise is that they started promoting recycling way back in the 1960s and have been supplying biodegradable and starch-based compostable packaging since the 1990s.

Polybags key account manager Karen Isaacs says: “Drycleaners already faced environmental challenges, and now this. It’s a difficult time and we would say that as things improve they can expect their customers to be seeking not only sustainable services and products but reassuring honesty.

“We make compostable packaging, but our own honesty starts with the fact that it’s probably not going to do well in the atmosphere of a drycleaners, particularly when it might be on a shelf for a couple of years. So the sustainable solution is biodegradable polythene. A knowledgeable cleaner can explain this to their own customers who are themselves discovering more and more about sustainability.”

Their bio polyrolls for drycleaners are available in standard sizes or a continuous roll and made from regular polythene with an additive which acts as a catalyst to swiftly degrade and then biodegrade the plastic into an environmentally-benign form within months or years rather than decades or centuries. It carries a small green logo and is printable for drycleaners wishing to demonstrate a ‘bespoke’ image to their customers.

That ‘honesty and clarity’ message is also very high on the agenda of people like Phillip Kalli of Ideal, another of the industry voices ahead of the curve and at the forefront of the push towards sustainable, ethical products in recent times. Ideal won the Green Impact Award at the LADAs 2019 – the Laundry and Drycleaning Awards.

“For us this has come as a hammer blow after a year when we smashed all targets,” he admits. “We’ve gone from working on cutting edge projects with others taking on the environmental challenge to having to stop production for a while because so many of the Ideal team needed to self-isolate.

Ideal, based in Finedon, Northamptonshire, has built a reputation as an independent British expert in professional laundry and cleaning chemical manufacture. They also won the Green Impact Award at the LADAs 2019.

Caraselle aim to support drycleaners with sustainable counter sales items which can make them a one-stop local specialist shop.

Before the temporary closure we prioritised manufacturing and dispatch for customers serving the NHS, and then shut down because it was the right thing to do.” A keen studier of the national psyche and its impact on our markets, he believes that the most ethical businesses, whether on the high street or operating as consumables suppliers behind the scenes, must be willing to stand up and be counted, locally, nationally and within their industry. “There’s a need for honesty about the dilemmas we face – people actually find that reassuring – but also, and very importantly, that we are willing to challenge the unethical. For instance, I’m angry at seeing claims that the addition of some essential oils somehow makes a product ‘anti-viral’. It’s irresponsible and dangerous and needs to be given short shrift.”

As things get back to a new ‘normal’ he’ll be looking to grow projects with the likes of FILL where they are supplying ‘cool’ hotels, businesses and B&Bs around the UK with a plastic-free bulk eco-responsible range. Then there’s work with Planet Minimal formed to help address the plastic pollution crisis and using electric vehicles to deliver environmentally friendly products to zero waste shops and the hospitality industry across London.

For drycleaners looking to not only demonstrate sustainability in their practices but to sustain and grow a customer base, Kalli believes drycleaners must seek out similar partners turning sustainability aspirations into reality, locally and nationally. He also points to how much a ‘treasure’ the internet had become in recent times and how many more people can now use the likes of Facetime, WhatsApp and Skype and are actually comfortable with it. “Expect customers who have recently spent a lot of time talking to relatives and friends this way to want to use this to talk to local businesses they trust, quite informally. Be part of that circle, sustain relationships. Be nice to each other!”

For John Carmody and the team at Clean Supply this has also been a period of adjustment. “We’ve been furloughed with just two staff left in the warehouse to pick and pack emergency deliveries,” he reveals. They, too, are therefore keenly aware of how the crisis will impact on drycleaners and other small businesses and expect sustainability to be a big factor in those which ‘bounce back’ or even find new customers.

For Clean Supply this is likely to follow on from being appointed sole distributor for the Green Garmento sustainable garment/laundry bags. The mission here is to replace as much plastic as possible with reusable bags that last for years. In tough times, the initial investment for drycleaners is minimal, compared to ongoing poly costs.

Clean Supply can help drycleaners create programmes to sell the bags to cover costs and create a customer loyalty initiatives so the reusable bags are seen as sustainability ‘badge of honour’. They are also keeping a keen eye on work going on at Kreussler in the US on both products and how drycleaners should create a sustainability plan if it’s not already in place. This includes educating yourself on the proper terminology, avoiding vague terms like ‘green’ and then sharing this knowledge with appreciative customers.

Being the friendly ‘teacher’ as well as the supplier also appeals to Graham Warren of Caraselle: “Only recently I read a BBC News article about new regulations to reduce the ‘throwaway’ culture of one-use products. Here at Caraselle we take this on board entirely. “Drycleaners have a huge opportunity to benefit from this by educating customers on how to be more sustainable and how they themselves are being sustainable in their business – Caraselle products play a big part in that. From our pet hair rollers, spray bottles, Peva range, loyalty bags and even our moth range, not only do our products help drycleaners wear the ‘sustainability badge’ but with repeat business they will also improve the bottom line just when they really need it.”

Warren believes in the ‘little, local helper’ approach which can be driven by ‘Buy Local’ initiatives which will become even more prevalent post-coronavirus as residents look to support businesses which helped see them through the crisis. And knowing the sustainability background and provenance of both counter sales items and consumables used behind the scenes will become all the more relevant. For instance, their recyclable pet hair rollers are made in Europe and built to last with a removable handle so that an easy-fit paper refill can be placed on the roller (bringing back customers for more!).

Caraselle’s spray bottles are manufactured in the UK and 100 per cent recyclable. Their loyalty scheme bags should do good service for two to three years even if going constantly between customers and the shop. These are the sort of things which could easily be built into ‘Buy Local’ or ‘Buy British’ campaigns and something to shout – ever so nicely and knowledgably – about.

At Hoesh International they are expecting more drycleaners to replace single-use polythene and with their cost-effective, reusable and branded suit bags, duvet bag and laundry bags. After all, those who’ve already made the switch are reaping the benefits. For example at Westward Dry Cleaners in Ballincollig, Cork, they opted for a range of branded products in a multi-colour print alongside an easy marketing campaign which began with the hashtag #byebyeplastic. Initially they gave them out free of charge to delighted regular customers and business clients and were soon contacted by the likes of hotels wanting them for guests and staff. While it’s still very much a marketing campaign, Westward also sell them as a re-usable cover, laundry bag or duvet bag. Local gyms and sports teams are using the laundry bags which are disinfected each time before repacking. Westward aim to eventually eliminate the use of single-use poly, but if a client specifically requests this they will treat it the same as a shopping bag levy and add a fee of perhaps €0.50 per cover, hoping to further educate and change the mindset. There’s no doubt that the rest of this year and probably beyond will be a learning curve for small cleaning businesses and drycleaners.

So, learn those lessons quickly, map out a route to a new way of operating if necessary – and prepare to be the welcomed teacher when it comes to sustainability.

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