As the world settles into the new normal and cities reopen, our wardrobes have a new staple: the face mask. For us in Toronto, face masks are now mandatory for any indoor public spaces. Throughout the pandemic, the question of increased waste has been sparked by images of disposable face masks washing up on beaches and laying discarded in the streets.  Branded, reusable ‘fashion’ face masks, now a seemingly necessary alternative to standard disposable masks, are being positioned as our saving grace. While a profitable product for brands, the market is becoming quickly saturated as brands pump out masks in a wide variety of colors and patterns at hyper speed. But just because these masks are not strewn on the streets doesn’t mean they can escape the environmental and societal harms of mass production.

Masks have become a mainstay in our day-to-day life, meaning most of us are beginning to acquire a bit of a collection so we can match different outfits on different days. Brands are all too aware of the market opportunity, with growth projected to reach USD $3.14 Billion in 2026. Masks aren’t immune to falling victim to what we see all too often with everyday apparel – low quality and trendy styles that are mass produced by brands more concerned with margins than with the impacts of their products.

As production is ramped up and supply meets demand, prices will drop in order to stay competitive. Like with most fast fashion, masks will be a piece that is over consumed, as colors are no longer in style and different trends hit the market. Lower margins mean lower quality and will result in a short life span, bringing the reusable masks closer to being disposable and ultimately contributing to the millions of tonnes of textiles that end up in landfills each year. Like we see time and time again, the impacts that we can’t see throughout the supply chain will negatively impact our environment and the people who make our masks. So, even though masks are helping to prevent the spread of COVID-19, they’re contributing to a different problem altogether. 

 

This begs the question, how do we try and limit the impact of what’s come to be an essential item in today’s society? 

Like when buying any textile product, it’s important to do your due diligence when deciding where to spend your money. Maintaining a good relationship with sustainable consumption can be challenging, even at times that are more manageable than the present.  Below are some suggested tips for adding a more sustainable mask to your wardrobe:  

 o   Ask yourself about the brand you’re buying your mask from. Are they a small local maker? Are they a brand that takes into consideration the social and environmental impacts of their other products? Are they transparent about their manufacturing processes and supply chain?

o   What fabric is the mask made out of? Is it an organic fiber? How much information does the brand provide about the fiber being used?

o   How does the construction of the mask look? Will it be a piece that is durable and easy to take care of throughout its life cycle?

o   What style is the mask? Is it a classic and versatile color that will match most of the pieces in your wardrobe, or a trendy pattern or style that only works with a few items? Is it your preferred mask style (i.e looped behind the ears or tied behind the head)?

o   For brands that may be making a charitable donation or matching your purchase: are they transparent about the amount being donated and where the donation is going?

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The breakout of masks into the mainstream market can serve as microcosms of the wider fashion ecosystem. Eco-friendly brands can use this as an opportunity for new innovation on limiting environmental impacts. Using circular models, biodegradable fibers or incorporating end-of-life solutions to create designs that minimize their impacts and inform the design choices for other textile products.  

Masks are here to stay, at least for the foreseeable future. So, while we’re doing our part to protect our friends and neighbors by wearing them, we also need to ensure that they have as little impact as possible on the environment and the people who are making them.

Need a mask? Here are some sustainable providers we picked out.

Bhumi – No harmful chemicals or dyes used, made from the cutting waste of other Bhumi products. 

Boyish – Woven with silver to increase antimicrobial properties reducing the frequency this mask needs to be washed between wears 

Good Krama – Made from off-cuts and include 30% of profits going to the World Health Organization 

Mantis World – Made of 100% organic cotton, sold in bulk 

Gallant International – A variety of different styles to suit all preferences. Made of 100% GOTS Certified organic cotton and are certified fair trade, sold in bulk and fully customizable