A revolution in laundry labeling NAFTA puts new spin on fabric-care tags

If you cringe at laundry instructions like "machine wash cold, gentle cycle, non-chlorine bleach only, dry flat," brace yourself.

Doing laundry is on the verge of becoming even more complicated thanks to a tiny provision of the North American Free Trade Agreement (NAFTA) and an obscure group called the Trilateral Labeling Committee.


Under a plan to help smooth trade with Canada and Mexico, written fabric-care instructions would be replaced with symbols -- more than 30 combinations of squares, circles, triangles, dots, dashes and slashes that presumably will make sense to users regardless of what language they speak. After four years of discussion, the Federal Trade Commission is expected to give final approval this fall; the tags would probably be in use sometime next year.

Some of the symbols are straightforward, such as a hand submerged in a tub, meaning "hand wash."


Others are sure to require a cheat sheet. Three vertical lines inside a square designate "drip dry," for instance. A triangle containing two diagonal slashes indicates that only nonchlorine bleach should be used. And a circle inside a square with a dot in the middle means "tumble dry on low heat."

New language

"A lot of these are not intuitive -- you do have to spend a little effort," said Constance Vecellio, a lawyer with the Federal Trade Commission. "It is a new language that people have to learn."

Some predict the symbols will be about as popular in the United States as metric conversion.

Emily Richardson, 25, squinted at a chart of proposed symbols while doing her wash at the Fleet Street Laundromat in Fells Point. Only two seemed understandable at first glance, she said.

"I particularly don't get this," she said, pointing to the section displaying a dozen icons for methods of drying clothes. "I don't really read the tags anyway, so I guess it's just as well," she said finally.

Walter Kolola, 80, who came to the United States from Poland in 1951 and speaks four languages, reviewed the same chart and said he would ignore the symbols and do the laundry at his own risk.

"I'm too old for that," he said, as his shirts and towels churned nearby.


Clean break

Others said it will just take a little getting used to.

"Let's put it this way, we'll have to learn it," said Mary Johnson, 76, of Elkridge, as she waited for her clothes to dry at the Knight Laundromat in Ellicott City. "It sort of makes sense."

The symbols are based on five icons -- triangle, square, circle, tub and iron -- representing bleaching, drying, dry cleaning, washing and ironing.

After that, it gets a little more involved. A circle inside the square means "tumble dry." (Adding the circle makes the icon look roughly like the windowed front of an industrial dryer.) One, two or three dots inside the circle tell you to dry on low, medium or hot.

And there's more. If there's one line under the square, it means "durable press cycle"; two lines mean "gentle cycle." There also are squares without circles. Inside these are a variety of slashes and dashes for drying clothes the old-fashioned way -- flat, drip dry, on a line or in the shade.


In the fold

The Trilateral Labeling Committee, a group created under NAFTA to iron out details of the plan, has yet to try out the symbols on consumers, said chairman Carl Priestland.

After posting the information in the Federal Register, the Federal Trade Commission received only a few negative comments, he said.

"A few people said they thought they were too confusing," Priestland said. "We just don't believe that in general. What they're saying is the consumers aren't bright enough to learn."

Even if there is some initial confusion, the system ultimately will be simpler and more efficient, he said.

"We're talking smaller labels, fewer labels, all the information the consumer needs, and doing it in a way that doesn't require written information," Priestland said.


Under NAFTA, the United States is required to "harmonize" fabric-care labels with those in Canada and Mexico.

Using one set of symbols, manufacturers will be able to ship identical products to Canada, Mexico or the United States instead of maintaining separate inventories with labels in English, French and Spanish, or providing multiple instructions in different languages.

Manufacturers may still supply written instructions if they want. It's doubtful, however, that many will do that.

"I don't think anybody's got a dollar amount, but it's definitely going to be cost-effective for the consumer and the manufacturer," said Nancy Young, director of corporate affairs for Sara Lee Corp., which last year did $7.4 billion in net sales of apparel worldwide. "Our position is it gets the U.S. more in line with the rest of the world."

The list of symbols was drawn from simpler pictograms already used in Europe, Asia and elsewhere.

Eventually, the symbols could set a standard worldwide to ease trade between other countries too, much as traffic signals are now standardized, said Priestland.


Meanwhile, the trilateral committee's next step is likely to be determining how to teach the new system.

A few ideas are on the table.

For six months or a year, clothing will probably come with clip-off tags that decipher the symbols.

Soap-makers and appliance manufacturers have been approached about including the chart on packages and machines, but some seem reluctant.

"I don't know where you're going to put that thing," said Jane Meyer, director of consumer information for the Soap and Detergent Association, when asked about the chart.

"The packages are not very big -- if you put something on, you have to take something off. It's going to be an individual company decision," Meyer added.


For consumers, the biggest immediate advantage might be a smaller tag that is less likely to scratch the neck, said Priestland.

"And eventually, you won't have to look at a [Spanish] garment tag from Mexico and ask, 'What's this?' " he said.

Pub Date: 8/18/96