CHICAGO — There are many factors that laundry and linen services must take into account when looking at their business strategies.
Textiles are at the top of the list. More specifically, what will impact the cost of textiles and how they are processed?
American Laundry News contacted several experts to get their insight into what will impact textiles in 2019.
“[The year] 2019 will prove to be an interesting, yet challenging, year for the textile industry, including laundry/linen service providers,” says Steve Kallenbach, director of market solutions for Los Angeles-based textile provider ADI American Dawn.
The current trend of higher duties toward China-based imports will be at the forefront of textiles, depending on which textiles are impacted, Kallenbach says—especially as duties are projected to continue and increase.
He says that U.S.-based mills/distributors are already working on contingency plans to move imports from China to other, more tariff-friendly nations. That process will likely take more than a year to reposition in other countries. At that point, it will take a number of months for the supply chain to catch up.
“Be prepared for some interruption of core goods for 2019 business year,” he says.
One of the biggest market impacts will likely be in healthcare, according to Kallenbach, as a lot of U.S. gowns and scrubs are currently made in China.
“We do expect the biggest growth to be in the healthcare markets, as more OPLs and co-ops move toward outsourcing to our industry,” he says. “This U.S. economy continues to be bright, and healthcare continues to expand, especially in the non-acute and sub-acute segments.”
Additionally, he sees more growth in microfiber cleaning products, as healthcare organizations continue to try to ward off hospital-acquired infections (HAI), and the responsibility (per government mandate) to pay for that medical fix, if it happens.
Kallenbach says uniforms and image apparel are always a good bet, as they have expanded for decades. In non-image uniforms, the hazard analysis and critical control points (HACCP) market (food safety) is growing by leaps and bounds. All cover apparel (lab coats, frocks, wraps) are continuing to grow in the uniform market.
Finally, he says that there will always be new fabrics introduced, which have to be proven to industrially launderable (IL).
“At present, our industry is focused on 100% spun polyester—especially in cover garments,” Kallenbach says. “We see many new primary garment fabrics and colors being used in the market, but ADI doesn’t make many primary garments, and can’t speak to that specific garment area.”
Lenore Law, owner of California Textiles, a source of linens, towels, sheets and more, also sees textile changes coming as a result of the tariffs levied by the administration this year.
“I’m seeing companies are very open to pay a bit more now for USA-manufactured product when the company offers a better quality,” she says.
Law goes on to say that companies care about the countries who trade with textile suppliers, and so a blend of import and domestic works very well in today’s market.
“Some of the products that were made in China are now being finished in Vietnam on the napery and apron market, and a few other markets, which eliminates the tariffs on those products,” she shares. “Cotton prices per pound are stabilizing, which is a good sign for stabilized pricing as well.”
According to Law, one of the best markets the industry had was from 1997-2001, when the industry bought both domestic and import product for a blended and competitive product, both in quality and price.
“I feel we can all look forward to a growing economy with quality choices for 2019,” she adds.
Sami Kahen of Royal Blue International, an importer and domestic manufacturer of institutional linen items in Los Angeles, says that one of the largest forces on textiles is cotton and whether there is a good cotton crop from year to year which drives the price of textiles up or down significantly.
“Of course, the tariffs that are being imposed by the trade war with China may also indirectly affect textiles, but luckily thus far there has not been a direct affect because the tariffs are on rolled goods and not on finished goods such as bed sheets or pillow cases,” says Kahen. “But no one knows what the future will hold.”
Hal Kanefsky, president and CEO of Monarch Brands, a wholesaler and manufacturer of microfiber, commercial linen, institutional towels, and wiper rags based in Philadelphia, doesn’t see much change in the textile industry in 2019 for the mills and customers he works with.
However, he does see some trends in microfiber, such as microfiber resort towels that dry quickly, don’t trap sand and dirt like terry towels, and that are light and thin, so more towels fit on trucks and in hampers. He adds that high-definition custom printing helps prevent linen loss and provides branded personality.
“[Custom printing] will not fade at the same rate as cotton but must be dried at low temperatures to preserve the best qualities of the towels,” Kanefsky points out.
Timothy Voit, chief marketing officer for Thomaston Mills, says his company sees a move toward cotton and cotton-rich products in sheets and towels. While synthetic fibers such as microfiber promise lower energy bills, issues such as micro-plastic pollution are becoming much more public.
“Hotels and laundries would be wise not to get caught on the wrong end of an increasing legislative and P.R. push to address the water and food chain pollution caused by these products,” he says. “Additionally, many of these sheets, including modal (rayon) cause great difficulties for laundries, such as pilling and high shrinkage due to low heat settings.”
Voit says that Thomaston also believes the tariff situation with China will not be resolved in the near term. While linens and uniforms have not been hit by tariffs yet, it is likely they will be hit with tariffs in 2019, as chemicals and machinery have been this year. These will prompt changes in many supply chains in the industry, as well as cost pressures.
“In hospitality, while there has been a movement in recent years toward more upscale products that are designed to replicate the home experience, we are seeing an added focus toward products that are designed to withstand the rigors of commercial processing, which is an area we are focusing on in order to provide our customers a stronger value proposition and lower cost-in-use,” says Rob Zaslow, president of Thomaston.
Mark Kelleher, director of marketing for Venus Group, a global textiles manufacturer and distributor headquartered in Foothill Ranch, Calif., adds that the trends in hospitality textiles focus more on color and texture.
“The need for color is being driven by the fashion industry, and guests like to decorate or be surrounded by the type of decorations they observe around them,” he says. “Texture is achieved by weaving techniques, which invite the guest to touch and experience the product.”
More complex designs are coming into picture, Kelleher adds.
“Earlier, it used to be solids, stripes and checks,” he points out. “Now we started seeing more complex designs and textures incorporated.”
Each market has its own requirements and expectations in terms of bedding and textiles, explains Kelleher. Design concepts, as well as product expectations, differ based on regions, climates and property tiers.
“For example, you may see more use of bright coloring in a Florida property, while colors will be more muted in a D.C. property,” he says. “Trendy brands tend to use bold colors, while luxury brands typically utilize a softer approach.”
Kelleher says that Venus has also seen that more hotel brands are steering toward products that increase guest comfort, are inexpensive, last longer, are easy to launder, require less chemicals and energy, and undergo sustainable manufacturing.
He says that the industry as a whole is working to incorporate technologies derived from wicking and cooling technologies, but the costs are still prohibitive and surface finishes are not durable to the institutional process.
On the healthcare side of textiles, Joe Przepiorka, vice president of marketing for Encompass Group, a manufacturer and marketer of reusable textiles, professional apparel, and disposable and single-use medical products headquartered in McDonough, Ga., says that as healthcare systems up their efforts to raise patient satisfaction levels—to earn better reimbursement rates, in part—they see opportunities to use textiles and apparel to help them.
“One need not search much further than Eric Frederick’s recent first-person account of his hospitalization [October 2018, page 4] to see that yesterday’s fabrics, designs and linen service can no longer be the norm,” he points out. “Just as cotton-fleece sweats no longer cut it as high-performing athletic apparel, healthcare bedding and apparel is becoming more performance-based on a daily basis.”
One of the measures of patient satisfaction on the government’s Hospital Consumer Assessment of Healthcare Providers and Systems (HCAHPS) survey is communication levels and understanding between facility staff and the patient and their family.
“If a patient has a difficult time telling who is a nurse vs. an aide vs. a lab tech because they are all wearing the same outfit, how are they going to respond to the survey questions around clear communication?” asks Przepiorka. “Our research has shown that at least two-thirds of all hospitals have employed a color-coded uniform program for their patient-facing staff in an effort to help patients and family clearly identify who is the nurse and who is the doctor.”
Now that more and more employees are wearing uniforms, in many cases with the facility logo, they, too, are demanding more from their clothes, he points out. Synthetic-rich, home-wash performance fabrics are fast becoming the norm in retail scrubs, replacing the old 65/35 and 50/50 stalwart blends of the past.
Przepiorka believes it is only a matter of time before operating room scrubs, still purchased and processed mostly by healthcare laundries, move to more performance-based fabrics and designs as well. Initial 100% polyester efforts have fallen short, but improvements are coming.
“Institutional laundries may need to alter their processing methods to adapt to the new fabrics to meet their customer’s requirements,” he says. “With their treated fabrics and delicate stretch components, these new scrubs will pose a laundering challenge, but offer opportunities for enriched customer relationships if they get it right.”
The focus on patient satisfaction has raised the expectations of the simple patient gown to offer more comfort, dignity and performance than ever before, shares Przepiorka. Synthetic blends, softer fabrics, brighter and more stain- and fade-resistant prints and designs, and better coverage (while still allowing for fast and easy clinical access) will be the new normal in patient apparel.
“This should add up to easier processing and less energy use for laundries,” he says.
Just as uniform programs and better patient gowns are intended to increase patient satisfaction, the design and ambience of the patient rooms and the overall hospital environment is moving toward a hospitality and home-like feel, Przepiorka shares.
“Research has shown that healing and recovery are faster and better in a more comfortable environment,” he says. “Performance-based fabrics are coming to the patient environment as well. Cotton will fade away for polyester that is designed to feel like cotton but enhance the microclimate around the patient’s skin. For all the high-tech medical devices and supplies used in healthcare, only fabrics are touching and surrounding the patient 100% of the time they are in care.”
Sheets, incontinence products, blankets as well as gowns are now being designed to remove pressure and moisture away from the patient’s skin, and to work in conjunction with the new wave of pressure-reducing therapeutic beds and mattresses to help prevent skin breakdown, Przepiorka says.
“The good news for laundries is that these are in many cases easier-to-care-for fabrics and articles that are more stain-resistant and faster-drying,” he shares. “The flip side is that the acquisition cost will increase, but the overall cost per use should be lower due to much longer life cycles if care for properly.”
Another wave coming with the preponderance of synthetic knits is the no-fold linen system, Przepiorka says. Knitted bottom and top sheets, pillowcases and patient gowns can be delivered in bags unfolded and unwrinkled, speeding up post-processing and redelivery times.
“Granted, old habits die hard in both the nursing unit and the laundry, and change is not for everyone,” he admits. “But for those have embraced the no-fold systems, especially in-house laundries, the benefits have far outweighed the cost of change.”
There are many threads the laundry and linen service industry needs to keep track of when it comes to textiles. Some are challenging; some are positive. But all are sure to make an impact in the coming year.
“All in all, other than the China tariff impact, we expect a good year in 2019,” Kallenbach concludes.