Why Super-Cleaning Microfiber Has Never Caught On In The U.S.

Barbara Flanagan of I.D. Magazine has a fascinating article about microfiber, a cleaning cloth introduced in Europe a decade ago that’s never caught on in the U.S., despite its ability to clean all sorts of things without the use of cleaning chemicals—”the product cleans surfaces mechanically, not chemically, by scraping them with microscopic precision.”

When Flanagan tested microfiber products herself, she found that they worked as promised but made people feel that something was off—and illustrated how deeply packaging and brand expectations control our cleaning purchases:

Robbed of the sensory excitement of cleaning solutions—bright colors, heady fumes, sudsing, foaming, and definitive rinsing—everyone felt ineffective and disarmed. The rituals didn’t feel right. But unquestionably, the stuff worked. Windows disappeared, floors gleamed, the Subaru sparkled.

She went on to ask the big cleaning companies what they thought of microfiber, and was met with a generalized “meh”:

Several lines of questioning, repeated over the course of two months, via approximately 100 phone calls and countless emails, uncovered several facts. First, large makers of household chemicals are very, very hard to reach and are unwilling to reveal their ingredients for fear of piracy. Second, they’re hell-bent on convincing customers to disinfect their premises using the strongest chemicals possible to annihilate bacteria and viruses, evidenced not just by the kind of products they sell and the scare tactics by which they’re marketed, but also by the corporate refrain I heard over and over: Okay, maybe microfiber can remove germs, but it does not kill them.

(To disinfect or sanitize, technically one must kill 99.999 percent of microorganisms in 30 seconds.)

Never mind that removing germs is likely to be enough for the average homeowner, assuming he or she takes the time to wash the microfiber cloth properly afterward. Never mind that new university research finds that “safe” household chemicals are proving unhealthy now that so many of them are building up and mixing together inside our hyper-sealed homes, then draining outdoors. Never mind that more scientists are predicting the rise of superbugs as over-disinfecting threatens to create invincible strains of bacteria and viruses.

But of course corporate self-interest is only half the story, because U.s. companies are responding to the desires of their market, and the U.S. market remains a place where chemicals and no-work convenience win out over a re-usable cloth.

The observation that all company spokespeople confirmed, whether makers of disinfectant toilet-bowl cleaner or makers of microfiber, was quite a revelation: America loves its cleaning chemicals, and lots of them. We have a distinct cleaning culture. And as much as that culture makes us look stubborn, superstitious, underinformed, and overly aggressive, it’s who we are.

“The Strange Case of the Missing Microfiber” [I.D. Magazine]