The next time you look at the care label in your new dress or sports coat, you may get a lesson in symbolism.
Starting tomorrow, apparel sold in the United States will carry symbols to indicate how to care for garments.
The system of symbols was developed by the American Society for Testing and Materials (ASTM) in conjunction with the Federal Trade Commission (FTC) and industry groups.
The idea is to standardize care-label instructions among NAFTA countries and to make it easy for consumers to understand the labels, especially as society becomes increasingly multi-lingual.
Under the FTC's Care Labeling Rule, manufacturers are required by law to label their clothing with at least one safe-cleaning method.
With the new system, which is being adopted voluntarily, manufacturers will provide written care instructions along with the symbols, then drop the written part after 18 months. After Jan. 1, 1999, the symbols only (no written instructions) may be used.
"Look for the symbols, keep them in your laundry room, and learn them," suggests Bonnie Jansen, spokesperson for the FTC. "The overall goal is to make them recognizable"
Industry officials and the FTC realize that consumers need to adapt to the system. So, the FTC's Office of Consumer and Business Education is launching Project CLEAN (Care Labeling Education & Awareness Network), a national education program with cooperating industry and consumer groups.
Working to get the word out will be the appliance, detergent, and textile and apparel industries. A detergent company, for example, may print the guide or key to the symbols on the side of its boxes or bottles. Information may also appear in the form of stickers on washing machines, hangtags on new clothing, and on the paper-wrapped hangers from dry cleaners.
"Care symbols have been used in Europe for decades," notes Karen Blechmann, vice president of Pittsfield Weaving, a labeling company headquartered in Pittsfield, Mass. In fact, the US symbols are similar to those used by the International Standards Organization. (The ISO symbols are trademarked, and royalty issues prevented the US from adopting them.)
Less wording - cutting down on the use of multilingual tags - will reduce the size of labels, the logic goes. "It will be more cost efficient for manufacturers, and savings will be passed down to the consumer," Ms. Blechmann predicts.
Blechmann and others see the current symbol system as a step toward a globalization of labels; which is to say, some day all care labels in the world will be standardized.
But not everyone sees the new system as an easy spin cycle. William Seitz, executive director of the Neighborhood Dry Cleaning Association-International, says he thinks some of the second-level symbols - with the dots and lines - are confusing. "Are consumers going to know that the wash symbol with three dots means that the water temperature should be 120 degrees Fahrenheit or 50 degrees Celsius?" He suggests that written instructions accompany symbols.
Still, the system is a step forward, Mr. Seitz says. "If you tried to communicate to every person living in this country in their language, your label would be as big as a jacket!" he says. "Symbols bridge that gap."