Thursday 3 September 2020

Face maks that didn't hurt those who made them

In New Zealand we're now required to wear face coverings on public transport, and they're also recommended in many other contexts.  Many people are turning to reusable masks in an effort to reduce their waste footprint, but cotton fabric often has a pretty hideous human cruelty footprint.  Which masks are most likely to be good for the workers?  I'm after masks that:

  • have supply chains free of child and slave labour;
  • are made by folk earning a living wage, working in safe conditions etc.;
  • didn't involve polluting the local environment where they were made.

Handily, every year Tearfund puts out the Ethical Fashion Guide, which ranks common clothing brands on these kinds of ethical issues.  This year's guide isn't out yet, but many brands that ranked highly in 2019 are making masks.

Before I go to them, a quick note on hand-made masks.  Many of the worker rights and environmental issues associated with clothing occur long before clothes are made.  Forced labour is common in cotton fields even today; child labour is widely used, especially in cotton ginning (turning cotton seedpods into fibre); water pollution associated with fabric dyeing is phenomenal, etc.  So, just because your aunty made your mask, doesn't mean it's free of child labour!

So if you're handmaking masks (or buying masks handmade by a friend or local entrepreneur), be fussy about fabric.  So far as I know, no one is currently selling Fairtrade certified fabric in New Zealand so your best option is second-hand fabric.  You can always find people selling off their fabric stash on TradeMe; op shops are good sources of fabric, too - look for sheets, duvet covers and larger-sized shirts and skirts that you can cut up.  If it's important to you to buy new, look for organic cotton - it's not free of ethical issues, but does tend to involve less water pollution and farmers are often paid slightly more which makes both child and forced labour less likely.

You obviously also want to wear a mask that works - the Spinoff has info on what to look for.

So, onto commercial masks.

Ranked A+ in the 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide


(in Australia but shipping to NZ - may also be stocked in some physical shops).

Etiko sells adult and child-sized masks online.  They are Fairtrade and GOTS certified.  Made of three layers of cotton.


Liminal sells masks for adults and kids.  The masks are two layers of GOTS-certified organic cotton with a pocket for a wool filter (also sold by Liminal).  Made by Freeset, who employ women at risk of prostitution in Kolkata, India.  All Freeset products are certified fair trade through the World Fair Trade Organisation.

Ranked A in the 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide


Adidas sells masks for adults and kids.  Made of two layers of recycled polyester.


Bonds sells adult-sized masks.  Not available for online sale in New Zealand.  Made of three layers of cotton.


Kathmandu sells adult masks in two sizes.  Made of New Zealand merino wool.

Ranked A- in the 2019 Ethical Fashion Guide

Cotton On

Cotton on sells adult masks made of cotton and a breathable PTFE membrane.  Masks are tested to the KN90 standard, meaning they filter 90% of particles.  Profits from sales go to charities supporting youth health and education.

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