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Earth-friendly hangers coming to a dry cleaner near you

HangerNetwork combines two hot concepts with venture capitalists--clean tech and kooky ad campaigns--to rid closets around the nation of pesky wire hangers. Photos: No more wire hangers

Earth-friendly hangers coming to a dry cleaner near you HangerNetwork is probably one of the few companies that can trace its roots to a carpet stain.

The idea for the company--which makes a dry cleaner hanger made entirely from recycled paper--came after founder and Chief Operating Officer J.D. Schulman's mother asked him to throw away a bunch of old wire hangers. He put them in the garbage, the hangers poked a hole in the bag, and gravy dripped on her white carpet when Schulman took the garbage out, says HangerNetwork CEO Bob Kantor.

The result was the EcoHanger, a sturdy replacement for wire hangers that can be folded and tossed into the ordinary household recycling bin. Because they biodegrade relatively quickly, the hanger conceivably could displace significant amounts of difficult-to-dispose-of garbage every year.

"3.5 billion wire hangers go into U.S. landfills every year, and they sit in there for over a hundred years," Kantor said.

Perhaps just as important, the company says it can bring these hangers to market in an economical way that makes it attractive for dry cleaners to switch. HangerNetwork doesn't sell its hangers. It gives them free to dry cleaners, who ordinarily have to pay about 8 cents per wire hanger.

So who foots the bill? National advertisers pay HangerNetwork to put ads on the hangers, which then stare consumers in the face when they get dressed in the morning.

"We have Van Heusen shirts, L'Oreal, Dunkin' Donuts, Mitchum antiperspirant," Kantor said. "On average, (the hanger) stays in your closet six to eight weeks."

The company is already pulling in "multimillions" in ad revenue, he said. Ad campaigns can be targeted at men or women and will be available nationwide or aimed at specific markets. The ad campaigns start at 250,000 hangers.

The company this week announced it has landed $8 million in venture dollars from Kodiak Venture Partners and Sigma Partners, and Kantor said the company will use the money on introducing itself to thousands of independent dry cleaners nationwide. So far, the company has mostly sold its hangers in the New York metropolitan area, but now it is expanding nationwide. In about two weeks, the hangers will start popping up in dry cleaners in San Francisco and a few other major metropolitan markets, Kantor said.

Cleaners Supply, the largest distributor of dry cleaning products in the U.S., offers the free hangers from the front page of its Web site. The supply outfit serves approximately 35,000 dry cleaners.

The company reflects how many clean-tech companies are marketing themselves, touting their green attributes but giving equal weight to the idea that they can compete with products made of standard materials. Cereplast of Santa Monica, Calif., for instance, has come up with a way to make forks, knives and other disposable products out of cornstarch, rather than petroleum byproducts. The forks can be safely put into a landfill, and the cornstarch blend is comparable to traditional materials.

Technically speaking, the EcoHanger is made from 34-point paperboard (a relatively thick paper) that is folded onto itself. The hanger is then glued and laminated for extra strength. In the end, the hanger is strong enough to hold clothes, but remains flexible. The company has sought patents on the device.

The benefits the EcoHanger has over wire hangers pave the way for it to become an ad vehicle, asserted Kantor. After all, it gets rid of a device--wire hangers--that many people don't like or don't know how to get rid of. Even many dry cleaners now refuse to take back wire hangers. Thus, any potential resistance to a new form of advertising coming into the home gets outweighed by environmental benefits and easier disposal, he said. To use advertising industry buzzwords, the ads are "invited" into the home.

Advertisers also benefit because the ads can last longer than other forms of collateral advertisements. Those insulating cardboard coffee rings now ubiquitous in coffee shops are kept only until people are done with their coffee. The EcoHanger can be (and often is) reused by the customer, Kantor said. Thus, a given customer will see the siren song for Dunkin' Donuts a few times a month. (Interestingly, the doughnut chain was also one of the first advertisers to sign up with Massive, which inserts ads into video games. Massive subsequently got bought by Microsoft.) The company says its cost per impression comes to around 4.5 cents.

The ads, Kantor added, are also tough to miss.

Has the company thought about adopting the famous wire hanger line from the movie Mommie Dearest as a motto or jingle? Yes, Kantor admitted, but he said there are issues with royalties.