Clean Lines

January 29, 2016

Still from a Hindi film ‘Chashme Badoor’ (1981) featuring Deepti Naval who plays role of a Chamko detergent salesgirl. 

Edited by Border & Fall

The human hand, technology and sustainability are key to garment design – as are the moods and moments associated with textiles. Shift elicits anecdotes from across India, speaking to how – and why – clothing will always remain more than what meets the eye. In the following interview, Designer Nimish Shah gets down to the brass tacks of garment care, speaking to Gurpreet Kohli and Neelam Solanki from the Unilever Technical Insights team. They take a closer look at the responsibilities between textile developers and detergent design; reveal the shift in consumer behaviour towards garment care and low environmental impact, and discuss possible digital interventions to decipher the undervalued and misunderstood ‘care label’:

Nimish: With all the options on the market, garment care can get complicated quite easily. For starters, can you tell us if there is a difference between liquid and powder detergent?

Gurpreet: Powder products are designed for stronger cleaning performance while liquid products are designed to give a good balance between cleaning and care. Powders are more alkaline in nature so they give better cleaning. Liquid detergents have a more neutral pH so they are a little less harsh. With liquids, consumers can also pre-treat a difficult stain. This convenience can help consumers avoid various complex stain removal regimes.

Nimish: ‘Pre-treat’?

Gurpreet: Before consumers wash their clothes, they can apply a little bit of the liquid directly onto the stain. They can then do a regular wash. This helps loosen the stain significantly before the washing begins and reduces the effort the consumer or the machine has to put in. Hence, the consumer gets convenience and better results. A lot of the difference between powder detergents and liquid detergents are also due to how people use the products.

Nimish: People are buying more expensive items and they want longevity in them. Where do you think dry cleaning comes into this?

Neelam: Consumers prefer to dry clean silk fabrics as they are sensitive to water. That’s why it’s the obvious choice for dry cleaning. Over time the delicacy that comes with silk as a fabric and the alternative care options that are available for it people start extending that to other garments as well. Many garment care labels recommend a dry clean, especially for premium garments like linen. People also prefer to dry clean when washing with water can lead to issues like colour damage or shrinkage.

Nimish: What does dry cleaning actually entail?

Gurpreet: It used to be just a bucket with kerosene but now of course it’s more sophisticated. They generally use something as a solvent – to extract out a material, in this case, the soil on a fabric.

Nimish: As a market leader, you are obviously looking at market trends and anticipating how things are going to change say 10 years from now.

Neelam: We do. Say for example in Europe, washing temperatures used to be really high. Over the years they have slowly started going down – people are more cautious now about saving energy – so obviously washing machines are also changing which influences how we design our products. These days, more than fabric damage the big concern is colour damage. The moment you realise something has lost its vibrancy you discard it. It might have nothing to do with the detergent; it might just depend on whether the design is still in vogue. You are fine with flimsy products now because you know you aren’t going to wear it for long. It appears that garment manufacturers also factor in this element into the life of their clothes.

Gurpreet: People assume an average fabric will last 4 to 5 years. That’s given the process we use of hand washing and then drying in the sun.

Nimish: A lot of people are buying dryers.

Neelam: But there are a lot of traditional benefits that people associate with drying in the sun. You feel it disinfects, there is an aroma, a crispness that you feel on the fabric. And it’s not just a grandmother’s tale. The fact is that when you dry something in the sun there’s less possibility of bacteria growing.

Nimish: Maybe that’s also because we have the luxury of house help in India. You know you can get your things hand washed and dried.

Gurpreet: Sometimes people also feel that hand wash gives the best wash. You can calibrate each step, how much water, rinse, powder, it’s all in your control.
But people do use washing machines for convenience. If there is a choice between great results and convenience, people will usually go for the latter as long as there isn’t a big compromise on performance.

Nimish: So what is the future of laundry?

Gurpreet: It’s definitely more in the space of garment care. There has always been a need for a balance between cleaning and care and it’s shifting more towards care. For example, people are increasingly using fabric conditioners. Sitting in air-conditioned spaces, we probably don’t sweat as much so you want something that will refresh more than cleanse.

Nimish: What about something like dry cleaning kits for the home?

Gurpreet: I think the world is moving away from harsh chemicals.

Nimish: Which is great in terms of the environment…

Gurpeet: Yes, so that’s what we are also trying to do. The direction is to make our products simpler with less chemicals and so on. I think the consumer is also expecting the same thing. They want convenient, but effective solutions which are less harmful to the environment.

Neelam: We have the technology and the products, we’re just waiting for the consumer to be ready.

Gurpreet: That’s where garment manufacturers come in. They must design garments which are simpler to take care of and they must also help educate the consumer on how they can do it best.

Nimish: It seems like there is a big gap in the communication of care.

Gurpreet: That’s the problem with this whole chain. It’s so fragmented. A synergised approach between garment manufacturers and the detergent industry would give the best results to our consumers. Since the garment industry is very fragmented however, scale is difficult to achieve in the current context.

Neelam: For example, look at the personal care category. The consumer struggles to understand the regime. You have a face wash, a moisturiser, a hydration cream, a toner and so much more. How do they use them and how do they choose when the market is so flooded with choices. The same applies for hair care. Someone will buy a conditioner and a mask and use them both and find that their hair has gone limp. You have to offer them the regime and tell them when to use it. The question is more how do we educate people.
How we design the communication has to work in sync with that education.

Nimish: Do people understand care labels? They can be so intimidating with all the different logos.

Gurpreet: If you took a poll most people would not be able to tell you what the symbols mean. In fact most people only look at the label after the wash has damaged their garment.

Neelam: And the instructions can be quite technical. I mean how does an average consumer know if the water is at 40 degrees or 30 degrees?

Gurpreet: Or you and I might because we know the risks of using fabric conditioner on a synthetic but that’s it.

Nimish: It’s almost a private conversation, the audience is left out.

Gurpreet: And some of these instructions are very technical. Unless the consumer understands the reasons behind them, they are unlikely to follow these instructions.

Nimish: In your portfolio, do you communicate which detergent works better in different water conditions like hard water or soft water?

Gurpreet: We were actually communicating that earlier. Surf Excel Quickwash is designed for hard water and we advertised our product accordingly.

Nimish: So the amount of detergent I would use in Mumbai would be different from the amount someone in Ahmadabad would need to use?

Gurpreet: Yes, but the question is how much of this information is really being absorbed by consumers. Most housewives would say that they know how much detergent to use based on their experience. Infact, our data does show that consumers add different levels of detergent in hard and soft water conditions. Equally, detergent dosage changes based on fabric types, level of soiling and load size.

Neelam: But how do we communicate this information to the user. As a country, most consumers don’t fully read and understand our pack instructions. If you look at China, they are very conscious about that, they will read each and every word you give them. So we have done studies to try and understand what kind of space we can use to talk to the consumer.

Nimish: Is there an attempt to design that communication in an easier way?

Gurpreet:. As consumers get more informed, they will demand even more details. For example, everyone has a smartphone now. Why not make it such that you can scan a picture on a care label and it will tell you what it means. Or have some sort of code on the fabric that tells you how you’re supposed to treat it?