It’s not uncommon for CPG brands to run into product safety issues. The U.S. saw an average of five to six recalls issued each week this calendar year, according to Consumer Product Safety Commission data. But it is rare to see a company recall nearly all of its products from the shelves — and that’s what The Laundress had to do after a potential bacteria exposure risk in its detergent and cleaning supplies.
The Laundress, founded in 2004 and bought by Unilever in 2019, on Nov. 17 urged its customers to stop using all its products due to a yet-unnamed bacteria risk. Since then, the company issued a voluntary recall with CPSC as well as Canadian regulators. It’s specified what kinds of bacteria the products potentially contain, the potential health risks, and how customers can re-treat their clothes and products.
The company is also facing a proposed class action lawsuit in federal court, and an outpouring of criticism from concerned customers online.
The recall brings to light the difficulties that brands can face when something goes wrong in its manufacturing process. And while experts say The Laundress is likely doing what it can to ensure the issue doesn’t happen again, the brand has yet to identify exactly how and where what led to such a wide-scale recall. Meanwhile customers continue to hammer the company for information on its social media accounts.
Attorney Henry Noye, a partner with Obermayer who focuses on commercial litigation and product liability, said the first priority for companies facing product safety issues is to be transparent. And that seems to be what The Laundress has done, Noye said, citing its initial social media posts, emails to consumers and its work with regulators on the voluntary recall.
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“Nobody starts a business to lose money,” said Noye, who is not involved with the case or the affected brands. “If there’s some breakdown in their process that’s going to affect their bottom line, no business is motivated to ignore that, or not be responsive.”
The brand response
The Laundress developed a reputation as a high-end, plant-based detergent brand that could be used as an alternative to dry cleaning. A gallon of its signature detergent sells for $94, while a 33 ounce bottle goes for $24. Compare that to about $31 for a 1.2-gallon of Tide sold at Walmart.
Marketed as having “sophisticated fragrances” and powerful stain removal properties without the mystery chemicals of dry cleaning, the brand catered to a wealthy demographic. In addition to its own website, The Laundress’ products could be purchased at high-end retailers like Bloomingdale’s, Saks Fifth Avenue and Jenni Kayne.
It also wooed customers with luxury collaborations; one popular line was scented with Le Labo’s Rose 31and Santal 33 scents. In the fall of 2021, the brand launched a collaboration with John Mayer called “Way out West” with a rich and woodsy signature scent.
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But even high-end brands can run into unexpected issues.
An initial notice on Nov. 17 posted across social media and issued to retailers who sell the product urged customers to immediately stop using its products due to a bacteria risk. The Laundress issued FAQs providing more detail, and then it set up a separate website for customers to place requests for a refund.
In the days to come, the brand provided a complete list of potentially affected products spanning over 150 individual items plus about 100 gift sets and kits. By Dec. 1, it had issued an official voluntary recall and the full number of products affected: eight million units, produced between January 2021 and September 2022.
Noye from Obermayer said the public response and voluntary indicates that the brand was looking out for its customers, and its business.
Still, there’s a tension between what a brand can say and what customers might want to hear. An investigation may still be ongoing, preventing any new updates from being disclosed, even as customers take to social media to raise concerns.
“There wasn’t TikTok 20 years ago,” Noye said. “This makes the response more difficult.”
But companies can get into trouble if it is found out that they hid information from customers, Noye said. “When you get to the point where you’re in the need to recall, this is not the time to worry about egos or reputation. You need to be forward thinking,” he said. “It’s in their best interest to remain accountable, to remain forthright and to remain transparent, because they’re trying to recover the brand.”
It can also be helpful to bring in third-party investigators or firms to help address what went on, Noye said.
“When you have a real verified defect that is that is out the in the public, you want to show that it’s not you alone (responding),” he said. “What you want to show from a company perspective is, ‘Listen, we understand we need help, and that’s why we brought in ABC Company, and they have tremendous credentials in this area.'”
The potential for exposure
Still, the brand has yet to directly address exactly how and where the bacteria risk occurred. A request for comment from Modern Retail was unreturned. But the company issued a media statement on Dec. 1 confirming the recall applied to “products manufactured by a third-party contract manufacturer in the United States due to a risk of exposure to bacteria.”
Those bacteria could include the naturally-occurring environmental organisms of Burkholderia cepacia complex, Klebsiella aerogenes and varieties of Pseudomonas, the brand said.
While healthy people are usually not affected by the bacteria, the recall states that “People with weakened immune systems, external medical devices, and underlying lung conditions who are exposed to the bacteria face a risk of serious infection that may require medical treatment.” Symptoms could include “mild skin symptoms to more serious signs of infection.”
Dr.Nancy Falk, a cleaning products formulation scientist and consultant who previously worked at Unilever and Clorox, is not familiar with the specifics of The Laundress’ supply chain or situation. But in general, she said, cleaning manufacturers have several main strategies in place to prevent bacteria exposure in the formulation process.
The first strategy comes down to the design of the formula. That can include a low water content, as bacteria need water to live. Adjusting the pH so it’s too acidic for bacteria growth is another option, she said, or adding preservatives.
Another strategy is ensuring that batches of raw materials put into the product are safe, and can be processed before getting spoiled. Brands will work with suppliers to ensure there are quality control requirements to keep raw materials from getting contaminated, Falk said.
“If you’re cooking, you wouldn’t bring a spoiled ingredient into your dish,” she said. “You wouldn’t bring in an ingredient, including the water in the formula, with a high bacterial count.”
It’s also critical to make sure that machines at detergent manufacturing facilities aren’t contaminated, Falk said. That can be done with regular, effective clean-outs of pumps, piping and equipment.
“If you had some bacteria growing in a particular place, you could get a pretty high dosage of bacteria coming off the pipes into the product, and it could overwhelm the product’s ability to preserve itself,” Falk said, “and therefore you could wind up, potentially, with soiled product.”
Falk said each of those areas — the product formula, the raw materials and the manufacturing facility — is likely being investigated to determine where the exposure occurred, and how to prevent it from happening again.
“Companies really want to do right by the consumer,” she said. “The brands, and the manufacturers really try to do a very good job of preventing these things from happening.”
The customer response
Since the safety notice came out, customers have flooded The Laundress’ social media with comments and concerns. Some spell out health situations they’ve experienced. Others complain about the length or process of how to get a refund. Many express disappointment in the brand.
“Sickening to think we wrapped ourselves in blankets and slept on pillows in beds with sheets that were washed in Laundress detergents on this recall list,” one customer commented.
On Thanksgiving, a proposed class action against Unilever was filed in federal court. It alleges violations of consumer protection statutes, and also claims that plaintiff Margaret Murphy and her household had respiratory problems and skin infections after using the products.
Ryan Gustafson, plaintiff attorney with law firm Good Gustafson Aumais, told Modern Retail the legal team plans to vigorously try the case to assist customers who believe they have been harmed.
“It is unbelievable that a company charging a significant premium for its products, while touting those products as ‘non-toxic’ and ‘better for you’ could fail consumers in such a manner,” Gustafson said.
Court records show Unilever has retained defense counsel from Winston & Strawn. The company was granted an extension to Jan. 19 to issue a response to the complaint.
Affected products on The Laundress website are listed as out of stock. But it is still selling a handful of physical goods unaffected by the recall, like a sweater comb and laundry storage bags. And a header with a link to the recall site remains fixed on the page.
“We are undertaking decisive steps with our suppliers to ensure production processes meet our safety and quality standards,” the brand said in its media statement.