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New Zealand’s largest face mask exporter is forecasting 40 percent growth for the coming year – despite COVID case numbers falling in many countries globally. 

The Kiwi manufacturer which launched five years ago to produce pollution filtration wool masks for high-density urban populations in Asia, is now shipping face masks to 109 countries annually – up from 70 markets at the start of the year.

With more than 30 million reusable and disposable masks produced and sold, MEO has seen significant expansion since the start of the pandemic and is now investing in the development of environmentally friendly masks made from biodegradable natural fibres.

Jennifer Wu (pictured), MEO deputy general manager, says in the past 24 months their masks have been used by a wide range of international consumers ranging from government leaders and diplomats through to Vogue magazine editors, TV actors and celebrities.

She says the New Zealand origin story and the development of a fashion oriented brand incorporating natural wool fibres have been key competitive advantages which are helping to accelerate their entry into new export markets.

Wu says as fashion conscious millennials start to return to the office, they are looking at how well PPE integrates into their ‘look’ – and the plain blue or white mask is not consistent with how they see their image.

“The next evolution of the industry is coming from the realisation that masks will need to be integrated more seamlessly into our daily life for the foreseeable future.

“We are supporting the shift of mask use from purely functional to a protective fashion accessory through high profile partnerships, such as the cast of Netflix’s Dear White People and K-pop boy band BTS. 

“Having sold over 32 million albums, BTS are the most popular Korean act ever and our ability to leverage their brand has helped us sell out an entire collection overnight – following their recent Las Vegas appearance,” she says.

Wu says while there are signs COVID case numbers are falling in parts of the world, mask use is forecast to remain strong as a mechanism for protection against other respiratory diseases and toxic levels of air pollution.

“New research shows air pollution kills nine million people and we know influenza is responsible for the loss of around 400,000 lives globally each year. As a result we have scaled up our manufacturing capability to help meet a significant and diverse set of unmet health needs from markets around the world,” she says.

Wu says a key competitive differentiator is their level of vertical integration which has insulated them from the rapid changes in global supply chains. “We are seeing increasing numbers of niche export opportunities for small, customised production runs of masks made for a corporate or large scale event that can be turned around rapidly.

“An example of this is the South East Asian games in Hanoi last month which had over 45,000 athletes from 11 different nations and saw nine shipping containers of our masks exported to the event. 

“We also recently won a contract for Hilton China to supply branded masks in their corporate colours for each of their 4000+ staff at short notice.

“Every one of these masks features a combination of high performance coupled with fashionable designs and the New Zealand story has been a significant selling point,” she says.

Wu says they run their three separate manufacturing facilities in New Zealand and China like levers in a machine which can be scaled up or down based on a range of geopolitical and logistical factors which impact the global PPE environment. 

She says at peak production levels they have employed over 100 staff across both countries. “In recent months, the inability of global supply chains to cope with fluctuations in demand has had a widespread impact on the timeliness of delivery and availability of raw materials; however, our investment in building our flexible manufacturing capability across the two markets has kept us relatively protected from this disruption. 

“When a new export order comes in we decide how best to supply products to customers, through a complex model which accounts for several variables – including whether there is a free trade agreement in place, local labour shortages, inflationary cost pressures, shipping constraints and proximity to that market. 

“Our ability to produce these orders in a short time frame using proprietary technology and supply chain control is helping us grow our B2C and B2B export channels,” she says.

Wu says there are noticeable cross cultural differences in mask use in each market around the world – which they must accommodate to grow.

“In New Zealand colourful masks are popular, and in parts of South East Asia they also prefer brighter colours, but in Korea it is black and grey. In Japan, where they have been wearing masks for much longer, the more subtle light blue, pink or yellow masks sell well.

“Our market research over the past decade also shows that some cultures can also use masks as a way of maintaining personal space away from others, and in contrast to some cultures where the focus is on self protection, masks in collective societies are primarily worn to protect others. 

“In hot climates like Thailand or Vietnam they are also used by some as a method of reducing exposure of their skin to the sun,” she says. 

Wu says their masks, which range in price from under $2 to $22, are now sold in over 10,000 retail outlets around the world. “Prior to the pandemic the market for masks in New Zealand was very small, with our stockists limited to duty free stores targeting international tourists.

“While the local change in mask mandates earlier this year has had an impact, the domestic market now makes up around ten percent of our total sales – with the balance of production now exported to more than half of the world’s countries,” she says.

Glenn Baker

Glenn is a professional writer/editor with 50-plus years’ experience across radio, television and magazine publishing.


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