Mask Planet: Sustainable fabric masks made in Australia, that are helping raise money for local charities

Mask Planet make beautiful and fun, triple-layered masks for the community that are washable, reusable, ethically produced and environmentally friendly. They’re run by local Aussie artists and makers. And at least 20% of profits go to awesome local charities, which change every 2 months.

I caught up with founder and creative director Jess who is based in Melbourne, where she’s also a practicing Artist and consulting Digital Director. She launched Mask Planet in July 2020 because she kept overhearing people say they wouldn’t wear a mask because they’re ugly. But she also wanted to give and make a positive difference to the local community and environment.

So far they’ve already supported Beyond Blue, Asylum Seekers Resource Centre, Bridging the Gap Foundation, The Surfrider Foundation, the RSPCA, Arts Access Australia, The Black Dog Institute, SEED, Tangaroa Blue and PTSD Dogs Australia. In November and the lead up to Christmas, they are supporting Backpack Bed for the homeless, and are planning to keep changing the charities they support every 2 months, for as long as masks are needed.

Tell us a little bit about you and your business

Our passions are focussed around positive social impact, sustainability and improving the safety of our community. We are a for-purpose business, and all of our products are entirely ethically produced within Australia. 

What was your launch (and the first few months of business) like? 

Hectic, a complete rush, changing and evolving every single day. But at the same time – invigorating, exciting and heart-warming. The people who have found us have been overwhelmingly supportive and kind, and knowing that our products are helping to contribute to people’s safety, whilst adding a burst of colour and joy to their lives at the moment.. Well that has just made the entire chaotic experience completely worthwhile.

Every 5am finish. Every bobbin jam. Every tracking-code postal saga. These trials have faded into the distant background as every sweet thank you email and recommendation from a customer to a friend or family member has flooded our inbox.. And each time we make a new donation to one of the charities we support, our entire team ends up in tears. It is entirely invaluable to be making a truly positive difference via our creative skills in this strange time of newness.

Tell us about your products, and what makes your business different 

Well, we make reusable masks from fun, humorous and personality-fuelled fabrics that we source locally from a range of Aussie businesses. We care about our supply chain, our environment, and making a positive social impact. We also care about each-other’s creative, physical and mental health. So together, it’s been incredible to create a business that does the opposite of most jobs.

Every time we’ve witnessed a CEO do nothing to help their community with their profits; every time we’ve been saddened to see colleagues overworked and underappreciated; every time we’ve been told that the environment comes as an afterthought to profit. Every time we’ve filed away another “well if it was my business I would..” – those experiences have informed our decisions.

We have made a conscious effort to do good business that supports good people. We’ve seized the opportunities to source locally, produce ethically, choose sustainable packaging and deliver via carbon-neutral couriers. At every step, we’ve consciously made choices that align with our values. 

Do you consider the environmental impact of your business?

Yes. The environment is the main consideration in our making process. Our packaging for larger orders is compostable mailers made from corn-starch. For smaller orders we use recycled paper envelopes. The paper we print packing slips on is 100% recycled. We minimise fabric waste in our studios by economising the way we cut fabric and also turning any small fabric scraps into mask baggies.

Our studios run on renewable energy from wind-farms via Powershop. At least one of the charities we support is environmentally focussed at all times. And we are currently in the process of enrolling in the 1% for planet project. All of our deliveries are made via Sendle – Australia’s first fully carbon-neutral courier service. 

How do you think these initiatives have helped your business?

These initiatives have helped to keep our decision making process clear throughout intensely evolving times. It’s also meant that we can take pride in every aspect of the work our team is producing. With all of these measures in place, it has become a collaborative effort to minimise waste and suggest improvements to our processes. 

You donate 20% of your profits which is great! Tell us about the process. 

To start with, we chose charities in areas we are passionate about. These included the environment, mental health, indigenous community, social impact, arts, accessibility – and of course, doggos. We have carried on supporting these key areas every month, researching each charity’s impact and selecting carefully. We also now open up nominations to our customers on instagram to recommend charities they care about – because we want to give everyone a say in what or who their purchases support. 

How much have you donated so far? 

Thousands of dollars so far.. Not sure exactly as it changes every month.

That’s awesome, especially for a business that only launched a few months ago. How do you think donating a portion of your profits has impacted your business? 

It’s given us as a team the sense that what we’re doing is contributing to a brighter world. That is an incomparable feeling, especially at the moment. An ancillary benefit of being able to make these donations has been the type of customers we have attracted to our business.

Some of the most genuine, warm-hearted people have contacted us simply to say they love what we’re doing. Others have said how much they appreciate that we’re not just giving a token amount to a charity, but are allocating a substantial chunk of our take-home pay to the things we care about most.

In the midst of a plethora of self-centred mega-corps and e-comms giants flaunting tax loopholes and taking advantage of cheap labour, I think this authenticity and desire to ‘do good’ has resonated with people who care about the things we care about.

And the more people who support us by making a purchase, the more masks we’ve been able to donate to initiatives like The Makers Department who have taken it upon themselves to give out masks to those most vulnerable in our community. Customers have become friends as a result of this shared experience – and in a time where our lives and predominantly lived online, this genuine connection has meant everything. 

Our plain masks are a go-to classic favourite, but the most popular of our prints have been our “Modern Wave”, “Doughnut Come Near Me” and “Lorikeep Your Distance” masks. We’re also having a great time now working with fabrics that have been designed by local Aussie illustrators, and printed on Nerida Hansen fabrics in Torquay. It’s great to be able to support local in our own processes and have people then support local again by buying their masks from us. 

How has the demand changed for masks over the last few weeks?

There have been a series of ebbs and flows. Initially, it was constant and we had to pause stock control a few times to catch up. We were also offering a tailored made-to-order service back in July and sending via Aus Post. When the stage 4 restrictions started to really take effect and impact postal timeframes – we adapted. We trialled and then successfully moved exclusively to 100% carbon-neutral couriers. We axed the made-to-order service except for 2% for special requests. Thankfully our standard adult sizing had been a successful fit for all but about 2% of our customers, so we kept some fabric aside for those ad-hoc orders with specific needs. By minimising those snags in our processes, we could focus on the making. We stitched and stitched and stitched and yes, there were many all-nighters pulled. But we had loads of video calls between studios and the comforting sound of banter and humming sewing machines was honestly bliss. 

In the few days before each announcement there was a slight drop and we got some rest. Then inevitably, the announcements came, a few more people seemed to realise that masks are here to stay, and we’d get another influx. Sometimes we do have to spend an entire day cutting, another entire day madly sewing and then another day washing, drying and ironing. But when we’re at the packaging stage and that final sticker goes on – it’s a little shot of endorphins knowing someone will open it on the other end and maybe have a little squeal of joy seeing their new masks. For those transitioning from disposable masks to reusable, we get especially lovely feedback due to the softness of the fabrics and material ear loops we use. 

Where are your products made? What influenced your decision to make the products in this way? 

Here! They’re made in Melbourne and Geelong. We care about supporting local jobs, transparent and ethical production and sourcing fabrics as locally to our studios as possible to reduce our collective footprint. 

How do you attract and retain customers? 

We’ve always tested, innovated and trialled each iteration within our team and small focus groups to ensure we’re incorporating practical feedback and making the mask-wearing experience as enjoyable as possible. Since we’re a small team and don’t have a huge marketing focus, the majority of our sales come from word of mouth. We actively encourage our customers not to buy more masks from us if they are happy with what they have. That may seem to be a counter-intuitive marketing strategy, but we’re about sustainability first and foremost. 

How much time do you spend working on your business? 

What is this ‘time’ you speak of? Does it taste like watermelon? Is it yellow? Does it go by Tim for short? 

What’s something you’ve learned since starting your business? 

Always make the choices in your own business, that you wish the businesses you buy from would make. If you stick uncompromisingly to your values, the people who share those values will find you. 

What has been the hardest part of running a business? 

Due to the nature of our products, the extreme supply and demand factor has meant it’s been everything all at once. We’ve dealt with our own fabric parcels stuck in transit for up to 6 weeks, the entire country running out of elastic, finding ethically produced nose-bridging wire; a thousand little hiccups that we’ve ducked, weaved around and juggled. Add to that the incredibly slow postal timeframes and managing ‘Apocologistics’ on so many lost parcels; it was really hard. Customers were understandably frustrated, and we felt helpless to speed things up once each order left our studio and was literally out of our hands. When we made the switch to carbon-neutral couriers 5 weeks into production, it was the best decision. It resulted in at least 20 hours less admin and customer service for our team each week. And that’s 20 hours for more mask making! 

What has been the best part of running a business? 

There have been multiple ‘bests’. The connection with lovely customers who share our passion for environment, social outreach and creativity. The knowledge that our skills are useful in this strange time. And knowing that we’ve been able to make a solid contribution to causes we care deeply about. Through all this, we’ve made friends in the local for-purpose business network that we likely never would have known had we not all supported each-other through such an intense time. As a team, we have also found a collective sense of purpose which has greatly contributed to our wellbeing and anxiety levels throughout the year. 

What tools and software do you use? 

Our artists and makers all have different sewing machines; quite a few Singers (antique and modern), a Brother, an Elna, two Janomes..Sew, the whole family really 😂 Looooots of thread and elastic and fabric, obviously. Adobe Creative Suite for editing, social and digital collateral. Our photographers have pretty luxe cameras and use Creative Cloud for post-production as well. And we are powered by loving Collies in both our Geelong and Melbourne studios. 

What’s next for you and your business? 

We’ve often said we’ll keep making until the last customer orders their last mask. And we will. Since our combined skill-sets include seamstressing, fashion and garment design, textiles, digital design, social media, photography, videography and illustration – we’ve decided that our team has to stay together. We have a couple of really exciting projects that will launch in December, which we are suuuper excited to share with everyone. 

Do you have any advice for other business owners who either might be thinking of starting a business, or looking for ways to make their business more eco-friendly? 

Create a solid business plan. Catastrophise positively. Get outside input if you feel too close to your concepts. Research thoroughly and regularly. Connect with like-minded businesses and individuals. Put butcher’s paper on your wall and visualise every aspect of what you want to create. Have an evolving mood-board and remind yourself and your team what your goals are. Consider how much work will be involved in each stage and make realistic goals to achieve each step. Insert time to regularly fuel your creativity and innovation inlets, and actively care for your own mental and physical health. 

Making an environmental or ethical buying choice is, for most, still a luxury and therefore a privilege. But the more these values are at the core of organisations, and the more we hold “big-business” accountable for it’s social and environmental impact, the more accessible and less economically dependant this choice will become. That’s something worth supporting and fighting for.

When it comes to environmental consciousness, always make ‘the best choice you can’. That can be in the way you structure your own business practices, it can be to subtly influence your CEO at work, or it can be in your own home-life or when you’re with friends. That choice may not always be the cheapest, but it is most likely the kindest, and the most responsible. A ‘low cost’ product always carries a negative cost at some point in its supply chain – be that environmental, ethical or social. So if you’re in the position to make a choice, make it count. 

There is always an eco-friendly alternative. In areas where technology and materials are still evolving, innovation is constant and collaborative. We are finally in this exciting time when, thankfully, a brand’s bottom line is no longer an excuse to detrimentally impact our environment. Consumers are making more conscious, cautious and savvy choices. In fact consumerism itself is rightly being questioned.

A growing proportion of people are committed to researching where their products come from and how they are produced. Thankfully, “big business” is now under pressure to do better in this regard. And small-to-medium sized businesses have a lot of support within our communities. Have faith in that. Pick up the phone and speak to another local company director. Don’t be afraid to ask what hand sanitiser they buy, which local beers they get for their team, or how their experience with a particular brand of packaging or courier company has been. If their values align with yours, stay in touch with them and explore opportunities to collaborate. If you don’t ask, you won’t learn!

Get in touch

You can help support Jess and the Mask Planet Team by shopping online at their website and following along on Facebook and Instagram.

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