IS STAIN RELEASE NECESSARY FOR WR APPAREL, AND WILL SHOPPERS PAY A PREMIUM FOR IT?
Byline: MATT NANNERY
NEW YORK — Companies hawking stain-release and stain-repellent treatments say those chemicals are a must for wrinkle-resistant cotton apparel, but mills and apparel manufacturers aren’t so sure.
3M Co. and DuPont Corp. say it’s much tougher to get stains out of resinated WR cotton garments than unresinated cotton garments. Although most apparel makers concede the point at least in theory, they question whether consumers will be willing to pay a premium for stain release on top of the considerable premium they are already paying for WR apparel.
“The resinated fibers accept stains easier than the cotton fibers alone, but the resinated fabric isn’t going to hold stains anywhere near the way polyester does,” said Ritchie Russell, a senior product manager at Lee Co.
Cost remains Lee’s major concern, according to Russell, as that company and others debate passing the cost of stain-release treatments down to consumers.
“All manufacturers are struggling with the question of added costs,” he said. “Wrinkle-resistant pants are retailing from $36 to $42 now, but as far as we’re concerned, $40 is about the top end of what the consumer is going to pay for a pair of pants.
“Stain release will add about $1 to the cost of a product at retail. Is the consumer willing to pay?”
The lack of an answer to that question is keeping apparel manufacturers from committing to stain-release treatments for WR apparel for the time being.
“Right now everyone is looking at Scotchgard and Teflon treatments with caution,” Russell explained. “It’s a matter of who’s going to make the first move.”
Paul Poandl, businesss manager at Milliken, echoed the ambivalent views apparel manufacturers have expressed on the question.
“There is a benefit to stain-repellent finishes,” he said. “But the jury is out on whether consumers will pay for the added value. I have some significant business with people who’ve decided not to put stain release on their products.”
Poandl, however, said he believes the treatments will be specified by some makers of WR cotton apparel. Whether those products succeed in the marketplace, he added, will depend on how aggressively manufacturers market them.
“I think this is going to happen,” Poandl said.
Cathy Carter, a Teflon account representative at DuPont, agreed with Poandl that consumer demand for the stain treatments will depend on how they are presented to the consumer.
“A lot will depend on how well we can market to the consumer,” she said. It’s a crapshoot. You can never really be sure how the consumer will react.”
DuPont is focusing on stain-repellent rather than stain-release treatments because the company feels the former would be an easier sell to consumers.
“We’ve already had some success with Teflon soil repellent in the slacks market with blends,” Carter said, adding that the company hopes to carry that success over into wrinkle-resistant all-cotton pants.
“If you can prevent the stain from setting in to the fabric in the first place, you’re going to be a lot better off,” she said. “That’s the message we want to send to consumers.” But Bob McCormack, vice-president of sales at Galey & Lord, said the bulk of the apparel manufacturers his mills supply are not currently asking for WR cotton fabric treated with either stain-releasing or stain-repelling “fluorochemicals.”
Again, he said cost is the reason. “We’ll put the treatments on if they want them, but stain release adds about 4 to 5 percent to the price of the fabric,” McCormack said. “For now, interest in soil-release garments is rather lukewarm.”
A handful of apparel manufacturers are already using stain-release treatments on WR cotton clothing. But the use is spotty, and vendors have not committed to extending the treatments to all of their WR offerings.
Russell said Lee is treating all-cotton WR youthwear with stain release. Youthwear is a market, he said, where mothers are willing to pay extra for stain release.
“We are using Scotchgard on boys’ casuals,” Russell said. “Stain release is a necessity for youthwear — all those peanut butter and jelly sandwiches.”
However, Russell said Farah is seriously considering limited use of stain-release treatments on men’s wear. He said, “Farah is looking at Teflon” and “considering Scotchgarding only one item.”
Farah officials had not returned phone calls by presstime.
Russell said Lee has put off any such decision until chemical companies assure Lee that the stain-release treatments will last for the life of the garment. Treatment life is not an issue in youthwear, he said, because boys outgrow clothing before either the clothes or the treatment wears out.
“In men’s wear we are concerned about the longevity of Scotchgard finishes,” he said. “Our wrinkle-resistant treatment lasts for the life of the garment. We are working with Scotchgard to develop a longer-lasting stain-release finish, and a better treatment is imminent.”
DuPont’s Carter said comparing youthwear to men’s wear is like comparing apples and oranges. She said men’s pants are not laundered as frequently as youthwear, and as such, the treatments should last longer.
“What makes a fluorochemical fade is laundering,” she said. “Adults’ garments are laundered a lot less than kids’ garments. Men can get two wearings out of a pair of pants, especially if they are treated with a stain repellent. Kids’ clothes go right into the washer.”
Like 3M, DuPont is working to improve the stain repellents it uses on 100 percent cotton. Carter said the company is looking at repellents that don’t have to be heated to be activated.
“We are developing products that don’t require a heat cure,” she said.
Such products would protect the garment from soil without activating all the WR resins. Were all the resins activated at the mill, pants makers could not “cure in” a final crease in the pant leg.
“Right now, we are doing development work with several mills,” Carter said. “It’s our number-one priority to get the formula for wrinkle-resistant cotton down pat. We have set some development deadlines with Levi’s for this month.” Vince Trotta, vice-president of marketing at Dan River, said Van Heusen is already shipping a WR cotton shirt treated with stain release.
Trotta said stain-release treatments will add value to products, but unlike other industry officials, he believes the process would not be prohibitively costly.
“It would not significantly increase costs,” he said. “The cost depends a lot on how you apply it.”
Dan River, which uses stain release mostly on blended fabric for uniforms, is prodding chemical companies to come up with better treatments it can use on blended and all-cotton WR fabrics destined for the crisp, neat uniforms purchased by companies like Federal Express and the United Parcel Service.
“The problem we are having with WR is not one of cost,” he said. “It’s that with WR, we can’t control the shading on the whites. We can’t consistently predict if white fabric is going to go gray or go red when we apply the treatment. We’re working with 3M to solve this, and could have the kind of treatment we want available by the end of the summer.”
In the consumer market, Trotta feels that WR cotton garments treated with stain release will sell best to consumers who soil their clothes easily. Treated shirts and pants may sell better to the men who come into offices to repair copiers than to the office workers who use those copiers, he said.
“A white-collar worker may spill a cup of coffee once in a while, but there is a big difference between this type of consumer and a heavy-soil person like a delivery man or the guy who comes in to fix you fax machine,” Trotta added.
Stain-releasing fluorochemicals can be applied to resinated WR fabric without further stressing material that has already been weakened by the WR process. The fluorochemicals can even be applied in the same bath as the WR resins, experts said.
“If properly applied, stain-release treatments can even increase the strength of cotton fabric,” Lee’s Russell said.
He added that though fluorochemicals and WR resins “compete for reactive sites on cotton,” there are generally enough sites for both treatments to bond with the fabric.
“The treatments are compatible,” added Galey & Lord’s McCormack. “One doesn’t inhibit the other.”
3M spokeswoman Mary Lou Rooney agreed with Lee’s Russell that even treated WR cotton does not present as severe a staining problem as polyester and poly/cotton blends. She added, however, that the treatment would add significant value to WR apparel.
“The resins attract and hold oily stains,” she said. “By adding the Scotchgard treatment, the stain will come out in the wash. This is a new feature for wrinkle-free and the cost is pennies a garment.”
Though Milliken’s Poandl said the consumer will have the ultimate say in whether WR all-cotton garments are treated with stain release, he said it’s the chemical companies who are most aggressively advocating its application.
“The 3Ms and the DuPonts of the world are promoting the hell out of this stuff,” Poandl said. “The drive is definitely from those guys.”