Do we really need to regulate garment care labelling?

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The Australian Competition and Consumer Commission has asked whether to keep, modify or revoke the mandatory standard for care labelling of apparel and household textiles. I support revocation, as I believe having a regulation for garment and other textile care labelling is (arguably) unnecessary. If the mandatory standard is revoked, the majority of the market will likely self-regulate and continue to provide meaningful user care instructions.

Revoking the mandatory standard would provide significant savings to both government and product suppliers.

However, if revocation is not acceptable, I think a fourth option could be viable: Mandate in a non-prescriptive way that care information be provided. This blog article reflects my submission to the ACCC’s review.

Current costs

Proactive compliance

While there is minimal cost to provide and sew in a label, a range of other costs attached to compliance AS/NZS 1957 Textiles – Care labelling is a bureaucratic standard, as is the legislative instrument that mandates it. Determining how to apply the standard to individual garments, and other textile products require attention to the specifications in these documents. Getting care instructions right may also involve technical assessment including by testing.

The time required to interpret the standard documents, then assess and determine correct garment care labelling per product style represents a cost. Testing also involves a cost to business and in some instances may only be commissioned so as to provide a report to trade customers to demonstrate regulatory compliance.

Notably, in the fashion industry in particular, the sheer number of ‘product styles’ (apparel, homewares, etc) requiring individually determined care instructions is enormous. This would be the sector most affected by any Australian Consumer Law (ACL) product standard. Compared to, say, car jacks for which a manufacturer might have just three of the same models for several years, fashion suppliers each have dozens of different designs for each season of the year. This means the work across the nation associated with regulatory compliance is significant and ongoing.

Reactive compliance

Some costs are also incurred where non-compliance is detected down the supply chain –  post-production and shipping. Garments, homewares or even upholstered furniture found to have technical non-compliance such as wrong font size, or a label in the wrong place, may be rejected by a diligent importer or retailer (especially if they apply a strict compliance policy, perhaps due to past ACL non-compliance). Such rejections represent significant financial, opportunity and environmental costs (re-labelling costs are always prohibitive, so items may be dumped in landfill or elsewhere on the market).

Some costs with a mandatory standard also go to government administration, including handling enquiries and reviewing standards.

Impact on product safety

In both the market and government, care labelling compliance competes with product safety.

Businesses that supply apparel and other hardgoods need to divert resources from product safety to non-safety related care labelling compliance. Of note too, the legacy NSW fibre-content labelling regulation (unique in Australia and still yet to be justified) similarly takes resources from product safety. (POST SCRIPT: The NSW fibre-content standard has now been repealed, effective 1 September 2019).

I think this is a significant factor in the argument to revoke the standard, or at least to consider a fourth option of a non-prescriptive mandatory standard.

As I have argued in my white paper, Consumer product safety in Australia: Challenges for practitioners and business managers, many competing priorities impact product safety and any opportunity to reduce pressures should be taken.

Fallback option

If revocation is not acceptable, a fourth option of a non-prescriptive mandatory standard should be considered. Such a regulation could be framed to ensure care information is provided, without imposing strict compliance with a published standard. Terms could be that information must be in legible English, and suitable for the effective care of the item. The dry cleaning specifications and/or symbols could remain mandatory. Written instructions that meet international standards would also be accommodated in this option.

This option would allow continued support for consumers and domestic suppliers via a regulated approach to the fashion, homewares and dry cleaning industries. But it would afford savings of time and dollars by allowing a more flexible approach to compliance.

Ongoing consumer protection

With either a non-prescriptive mandatory standard or a revoked standard, consumer protection is still available under the ACL. Misleading and deceptive provisions and the consumer guarantees provide incentive for suppliers to ensure care instructions are fit for purpose and give consumers recourse in the event of failure.

This is one aspect of consumer protection where I think market forces would drive business to meet consumer needs.