A company that advertises as "100 per cent Kiwi-based, eco-friendly and vegan" has gone quiet after Fair Go challenged all those claims.
Customers Joanna Ritchie and Helen Harris first spotted Car Wash Elephant’s products on Facebook, where it promotes its foam cleaner and handheld vacuums.
They wanted to support Kiwi businesses and Car Wash Elephant states it is “100 per cent owned and based in New Zealand”.
But many customers were left waiting weeks, sometimes up to four months, for their products to arrive.
Harris told Fair Go when she contacted the company about the delays, she didn’t get a response.
She says when she mentioned involving Fair Go, she was subsequently blocked from the Car Wash Elephant Facebook page and her comments were removed.
Finally, Harris says after contacting Afterpay, the product arrived the next day. But she wasn’t expecting to get a “completely different” vacuum to the one advertised online.
She says it looked like “cheap plastic, something I could probably go and get for $20 somewhere”, rather than the $134 she had spent.
Meanwhile, Ritchie’s foam cleaner finally arrived and she got a surprise of her own when she used the product – the surface of her couch started to peel.
Suspicious, she removed the label from the bottle to reveal the words "brake cleaner" underneath.
Ritchie contacted the company about her discovery and she was offered a refund – if she deleted her review. She was then blocked from trying to warn others.
When Fair Go contacted Car Wash Elephant, its Head of Customer Support ‘David’ denied that the product was brake cleaner, explaining that it was a batch “mistakenly manufactured in the wrong way”.
He said that the ingredients were exactly the same, but were just in the wrong bottles.
As to the long delays, he said that the business didn’t expect to be hit so hard by the Covid-19 shipping problems.
When Fair Go asked him about Car Wash Elephant deleting customers’ comments on Facebook, he replied that they just wanted to offer customers “a chance for them to change their opinion”. He said they've refunded unhappy customers.
On the issue of the products being different to what's advertised, David said that Car Wash Elephant recently did an upgrade on its vacuum cleaners but hasn’t updated its website with new photos.
Fair Go asked David why the same vacuums could be found on overseas websites for around $20 when Elephant’s vacuums were $149? He claimed that the quality of its vacuums were “vastly different” and superior – but has not provided proof to Fair Go, despite requests to do so.
Fair Go enlisted the help of Auckland University's School of Chemical Sciences, where Research Fellow Dr Joel Rindelaub conducted tests on bottles from two different batches. He confirmed that the ingredients were likely the same as what was listed on the Car Wash Elephant website – so, not brake fluid, but also not “100 per cent vegan and eco-friendly” as per the advertisements.
“This is a cleaner, so by nature, it's going to have some sort of harsh chemicals in there,” Rindelaub explained.
“Anyone can just slap it on a bottle right? But 100 per cent eco-friendly, I would say no because you wouldn't want to put this in your garden, you wouldn't want to breathe it in,” he said.
The Vegan Society New Zealand says they find more and more companies labelling their products 'vegan', without proof.
“It was for this reason that we set up a Vegan Certified scheme. This is a guarantee that the product will be 100 per cent vegan, not tested on animals (unless required by law), and any machinery thoroughly cleaned before any vegan product is made,” explained spokesperson Claire Insley.
In this case, the Society doesn't know if the cleaner was tested on animals because Car Wash Elephant isn't certified.
And although Car Wash Elephant says it supports animal welfare – its website promises to donate 10 per cent of profits to the SPCA – when Fair Go checked, the SPCA had no record of donations from the company or its founder.
The Fair Trading Act makes it illegal to mislead consumers, give false information, or make misrepresentations.
The Commerce Commission has received 17 complaints about Car Wash Elephant. It's still assessing them and so far hasn't opened an investigation.
Car Wash Elephant hasn’t responded to Fair Go’s follow up questions, despite repeated attempts to get answers.