More dirt will likely come to light in the case of The Laundress, an influencer-favorite “non-toxic” detergent maker that warned customers this month of its products’ potential contamination by harmful bacteria.
A new class-action lawsuit against The Laundress’ parent company, Unilever, quietly filed over the Thanksgiving holiday, alleges serious harm to customers who used the luxury brand’s various fabric soaps and cleansers, according to documents obtained by Rolling Stone. The plaintiff, Margaret Murphy, filed on behalf of herself and “more than 100 class members” in the U.S. District Court for the Northern District of California. Neither Unilever nor The Laundress immediately returned Rolling Stone‘s requests for comment.
The 38-page suit compiles horror stories shared on Instagram and Reddit by people who now attribute illnesses ranging from skin rashes to life-threatening septic shock to bacteria in The Laundress’ line of soaps, which are sold at a premium as biodegradable, plant-based, and free of harsh chemical agents. As the document notes, one gallon of their “Signature Detergent” costs approximately $94.
Customers have raged at The Laundress since it first issued a safety notice on Nov. 17 that instructed them to “immediately stop” using any products from the brand due to possibly “elevated levels of bacteria.” Throughout several statements on the situation, the company has taken heat across social media for vague messaging and failing to specify a list of affected items or relevant dates of manufacture. (Currently, The Laundress’ online store lists almost every product as “out of stock,” though many are still available through other sellers, including Amazon.)
In the company’s most recent update, on Nov. 21, The Laundress indicated that customers could be reimbursed for anything purchased between January 2021 and this month. They also promised to share “our most current list of impacted products,” though consumers claimed they were instead directed to fill out a form stating which products they had used, and then await response from a member of the team.
In an FAQ section appended to the original warning, The Laundress mentioned one bacterium, Pseudomonas, which presents a risk of infection if present at higher levels — though it did not confirm that their detergents contained dangerous amounts of the pathogen. Citing a University of Oxford study, the class action suit describes the microorganism as “a superbug that is antibiotic resistant” and may “multiply within a household.” It can also “frequently cause serious infections” and “severe tissue damage,” according to a peer-reviewed medical journal quoted in the complaint.
“With the sale of every Product, Defendant delivered a biological weapon into the home of every Class Member,” the suit alleges in its most strongly worded charge against Unilever, which bought The Laundress for $100 million in 2019. The brand was founded in 2004 by fashion executives Gwen Whiting and Lindsey Boyd, who, per their website, “set out to revolutionize laundry” with products “that extend the lifespan of clothing and eliminate the chemicals and cost of dry cleaning.” They found success in pitching their wares to wealthy lifestyle influencers seeking an eco-friendly alternative for clothes care.
This marketing also figures prominently in the complaint: such claims of safer cleaning products, it argues, were “false, misleading, deceptive and unfair” given the alleged bacterial contamination. The plaintiff further states that members of her household suffered “respiratory infections, skin infections, rashes, and hives” resulting from said bacteria.
Plaintiff’s counsel — from the firms Good Gustafson Aumais LLP in Los Angeles, Shenaq PC in Atlanta, and the Keeton Firm LLC in Pittsburgh — issued a statement on Monday night. “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,” they wrote. “The fact that The Laundress asked customers to stop using all their products speaks volumes about the facts alleged by our client on behalf of the class action claims filed in the Northern District of California. Our team intends to vigorously pursue this case to assist all of those who believe they have been harmed.”
If the replies on The Laundress’ latest Instagram posts are any indication, bringing additional class members on board shouldn’t be difficult. “I can’t imagine anyone buying your products after this,” wrote one customer in the most-liked response to their latest communiqué. “Nobody has responded to my email in a week,” another said. “My account has been wiped from your website.”
Parents who regularly washed their children’s clothes, towels, and bedsheets with The Laundress’ soaps have been especially outraged by the unfolding scandal. “At the price points we pay for these ‘luxury’ products,” wrote the mother of a 15-month-old, “this is absolutely something we should never, EVER have to worry about.”
If a trial goes ahead, compensatory, statutory and punitive damages would be determined in those proceedings. But Unilever, a $126 billion global conglomerate, could settle out of court to potentially avoid an ugly stain.
This story has been updated with a statement from plaintiff’s counsel.