Are You Sourcing Ethically Made Face Masks in Canada and the USA?

Rachel Lee

Over the course of 2020, many global leaders have verified the use of face masks as a personal defense against catching and spreading COVID-19. The mask has become a required accessory with many shops, restaurants and indoor spaces now making them mandatory.  Since then, mask production has increased dramatically to cater to constant rising demand. 

Unfortunately, the mask industry has a dark side. In order to quickly meet the sudden demand, some companies are choosing to manufacture their products using unfair working conditions, while other companies make unsafe masks that don’t offer customers an expected level of protection. 

Buying masks that are manufactured ethically and quality-tested ensures a better standard of living during a global pandemic and ensures that you receive a product that you know will work.

The need for ethical face masks

Ethical face masks Canada and USA

The surge in demand for global mask production means that masks are being produced in any means possible, including through means that some masks are produced under slave labour. 

There are reports that some masks sold in Belgium were from Chinese factories that force people of the Uyghur minority to work for little pay while under constant surveillance. The Uyghurs were already subjected to discrimination and forceful relocation from Xinjiang, their province of origin.

Elsewhere, some mask production operations rely on sweatshop labour to supply large quantities of masks. In order to put out products quickly, some organizations are capitalizing on workers producing for unfair pay in poor working conditions - many of whom are undocumented and have no protection under labour laws. 

Unfair working conditions aren't problems that only exist outside of North America. Despite having labor laws, there are still many areas in Canada and the USA where people are underpaid and have few rights.

In March 2020, hospitals in Los Angeles began to request that masks be produced by factories in LA’s garment industry - an industry already known for unethical employment practices. Workers receive subpar wages, and no effort has been made to protect employees from spreading COVID-19 in the workplace. 

We cannot fully take in the benefit of protecting each other during the Coronavirus pandemic with masks while those who manufacture them are unfairly put at risk.

The need for safe and protective face masks

Ethically-made reusable face masks

In addition to unethical employment, the demand for mask production has also created a rise in masks of poor quality. In March 2020, the Netherlands had to recall over 600,000 surgical masks from China that didn’t fit properly on the faces of healthcare workers. 

Later in April 2020, over 60,000 surgical masks had to be recalled in Toronto after it was found that they weren’t manufactured properly and would rip or tear when used. In both cases, the masks were being recalled at the beginning of the pandemic, a time when shortages were common and where the time to prevent further contaminations could not afford to be risked.

The need for high quality reusable face masks

The rush to provide products to the public - as well as to capitalize on the mask phenomenon - means that a lot of masks haven’t been properly tested to see if they provide adequate protection. 

In October 2020, the Kamloops school district had to recall over 15,000 non-medical face masks for students and staff after a student found that the nose wire would stick out of the fabric mask after just one wash. The reusable masks were not expected to fall apart after only one wash and could potentially injure young students, including children, if they were to be poked in the face with the exposed nose wire.

Since the rush to produce and buy masks was very recent, designs or materials for non-medical masks haven’t been standardized, meaning that some masks provide less protection than others against airborne contaminants. Masks are often being manufactured by companies that do not solely focus on masks, which may result in products of lesser protective quality. Some are being made with different materials, offering breathability but less filtration capability. 

Additionally, many manufacturers still make and sell masks with less than 3 layers, despite the World Health Organization’s and Health Canada’s recommendation for masks to be at least 3 layers to prevent the passing-through of harmful particles while maintaining breathability.

The shortage of medical personal protective equipment

The need for ethical reusable face masks

One of the reasons for the rise in non-medical mask production during the Coronavirus pandemic was to reserve medical personal protective equipment (PPE) for healthcare workers. Hospitals and care facilities were facing PPE shortages not only due to global demand, but also from lack of supply, as the manufacturing process for disposable PPE is a complicated process. 

First of all, you must possess the relevant certifications that qualify your company to manufacture PPE to required standards. Since the beginning of the pandemic, there has been a significant increase in certification requests, leading to long wait and response times. Those who produce non-certified products that they claim to be medical PPE may face fines and have their products confiscated, and above all, put lives at risk of exposure to COVID-19.

The second reason for the initial medical PPE shortage in the beginning of 2020 is due to the requirement of melt-blown fiber in its construction. Used to make masks and PM2.5 filters, melt-blown fiber is a fine mesh of synthetic fiber that allows breathability while preventing microscopic particles, such as viruses, from entering. 

Although China is a large producer of textiles, less than 1% of their production per year is in melt-blown fiber. With few factories equipped with the special machines to produce melt-blown fiber, the supply chain to manufacture medical PPE was further delayed.

Soon after health authorities recommended the use of masks to protect against COVID-19, many people wanted access to medical masks due to the standardized level of protection that it offered, which may in turn make them feel at ease as a barrier against a disease that wasn’t well-understood at the time.

However, most people couldn’t gain access to medical PPE due to its lack of availability. This resulted in widespread manufacture of fabric face coverings to fill in the gap. Although cheap and easily-accessible, there are no material standards and many non-medical face coverings are not tested for effectiveness.

To ensure that a non-medical mask offers protection, make sure that it satisfies the World Health Organization’s standards by having these 3 layers:

  1. Inner layer of absorbent material
  2. Middle layer of non-woven non-absorbent material
  3. Outer layer of non-absorbent material

Masked For Work’s Ethically-Made and Eco-Friendly Face Masks
Masked For Work ethically-made and eco friendly face masks

Our breathable and comfortable 3-layer masks are produced at an award-winning facility in Taiwan, where our workers are paid above living wage and work in excellent conditions. Our facilities are ISO 9001 certified which covers employee rights and product quality.

Our fabrics are specially-selected and each batch is quality-tested to a high standard - including a certified recycled polyester used to make our masks’ outer layer. Our mask design satisfies standards from the World Health Organization to ensure protection and breathability. 

When people buy masks from us, they can protect themselves while being assured that their masks were ethically made. 

Conclusion

It’s important to buy a high quality mask manufactured under ethical conditions to ensure the wellbeing of those in your community and beyond. Trying to save a few dollars on masks can cost you long-term as it may support unethical labour and offer less than standard protection.

Here are some questions to ask the next time you buy reusable face masks:

  • Is the mask manufactured under ethical working conditions?
  • Does the company have a commitment to ethical production?

Ask yourself these questions if you want to ensure that your masks will be safe and reliable:

  • Does the mask have at least 3 layers?
  • Does the mask construction follow the standards created by health authorities?
  • Are the materials tested for quality before being sold?
  • Are the layers of the mask made with health authority-recommended materials?
  • Does the company have a record of producing quality products?