Every disaster is an opportunity, or so the saying goes. At least when that opportunity is in business and especially when that business is fashion.
Air contamination in India has been an issue for a number of years, but in early 2014, the World Health Organization declared New Delhi the most polluted city on the planet. According to Plume Labs, last year New Delhi was two times as polluted as Beijing, a city notorious for their polluted and smog filled air. The difference between both cities until the last couple of months, however, was New Delhi’s citizens’ apathy in regards to the poison they have been breathing.
This might have been because India’s main issues like the high poverty levels and over-population (India is home to about one-third of world’s extreme poor and is set to become the most populated country by around 2022, beating China, according to the United Nations) are more pressing and require more attention in terms of immediate action. If you don’t have enough money to eat, you will feel hungry instantly, but the damage that polluted air causes in your organism can go undetected for months, if not years.
That apathy, however, might be reaching its end thanks to fashionable new masks promising that “protect[ing] your health in public can now be a fashion statement.”
Vogmask, a brand of Ohlone Press, a limited liability company launched in Santa Cruz that is now based in San Francisco, describes itself as “the first stylish, high efficiency, well-fitting, comfortable and reusable filtering face mask in the world.”
These air-filtering masks have only been sold in India for a year but they are not new to the global market. China has been selling these masks for years because of their high pollution levels.
According to a Scroll article, anti-pollution masks are in vogue across East Asia, which also faces catastrophic air pollution, though not to the levels that have reached India. Japan spends $230 million in masks every year, and China and Korea practice similar precautions against PM (particular matter) agents.
PM is the term for particles found in the air including dust, dirt, soot, smoke and liquid droplets. According to the US Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), particles smaller than 2.5 micrometers in diameter, PM2.5, can be inhaled and absorbed into the gas exchange regions of the lungs, endangering the respiratory system.
According to EPA guidelines, air quality is considered unhealthy if the average concentration of the PM2.5 particles is more than 100 micrograms per cubic meter. In January of last year, the average PM2.5 level in Delhi was 226, according to the US embassy that monitors their air levels. The average in Beijing for the same period was 95, making Delhi’s air more than twice as bad as Beijing’s. In both cities, however it continues to grow progressively worse as time passes.
Despite the fact that this is not a new problem in New Delhi, the air-filtering masks are just beginning to become popular with expatriates and Indians that are health-conscious and have a significant amount of disposable income; an arguably compact group of the 25 million people that live in the metropolitan area.
Vogmask’s air-filtering masks provide “superior protection from PM 2.5 particles, dust, germs, pollen, and other airborne contaminants.” They are manufactured with award winning filtering textiles and offer “features of N99 filter, active carbon layer (C), and exhale valve (V) in microfiber or organic cotton outer and inner layers,” according to the company’s website.
They are made in many designs, colors, patterns and styles. A total of 34 different models in three different sizes are now offered on their website, ranging in prices from 2,000.00 to 2,800,00 Indian rupees (around $25 to $40).
However, according to the Indian Socio-Economic and Caste Census (SECC), 75 percent of Indians earn less than 5,000 rupees per month, making the purchase of a mask that would cost half of their salary highly improbable for the regular low-income person living in poverty. The same census that surveyed 300 million households, also revealed that only 10 percent of those homes have salaried jobs.
Other mask options have been available in Delhi for a while, though so far, only the high-end designer masks are considered effective in terms of protecting against PM agents. Lightweight cotton masks (the type that surgeons wear) are not really effective because they are designed to trap large particles, such as sawdust. These masks, along with scarves and bandanas, can’t protect the wearer against small particles like PM2.5. Only masks that have filters can stop the small particles that cause the most serious damage, as Vogmask does, because they use, according to their website’s specifications, a “revolutionary microfiber filtration fabric it filters an average of 99.978% of particulate matter such as tiny PM 2.5 particles.”
A recent three-year study by the Kolkata-based Chittaranjan National Cancer Institute found that poor air quality is most harmful to children in the city. In fact, nearly half of the city’s 4.4 million schoolchildren suffer from irreversible lung damage because they have been breathing in the poisonous air. In South-East Asia, deaths attributable to ambient air pollution in children under five-years old reached 40,800 cases in 2012, according to data from the World Health Organization. In another study by the same organization, of the 6000 adults surveyed, 33.2 percent had symptoms indicating respiratory ailments.
It has gotten so bad that many schools in the city have canceled their sport’s days because the excess of physical activity in such contaminated conditions can be detrimental to children’s health. The American Embassy School in New Delhi has instituted a policy against students doing aerobic activity without wearing protective masks when the particulate levels reach the hazardous range.
In February of this year, Surenda Singh, an employee of a nonprofit company in Delhi described to The New York Times an instance in which he was the only person wearing a mask on a bus during his daily commute. All the other passengers regarded him with suspicion, believing that he must be “really sick, perhaps tuberculosis.” Other people also thought that he could be mentally ill. One passenger even believed he must be sick that, “he will die if he does not wear that mask.”
According to Vogmask’s co-founder, Wendover Brown, that attitude has restricted sales in India. In China, sales are four times as high, and it is actually that sentiment that drives them.
One of the most trivial reasons why people weren’t using them there (especially when considering the extent of the damage that PM can cause) was that they weren’t flashy enough. Wearing masks can be inconvenient, because they are either seen to be unfashionable or unsuitable.
In China, the masks have become such a regular and widely accepted clothing item that most people have several of them, in different colors and patterns. Some women even customize them with their own designs, while most men stick to black and dark blue. They are so common and so largely ingrained in Chinese culture, that they were even part of Hong Kong’s 2014 Fashion Week, when designer Nina Griffee used Vogmask’s air-filtering masks as accessories on her runway.
Right now, Vogmask’s website features designs by top Indian fashion designer Manish Arora, who is based in New Delhi as well. Arora was appointed creative director of the French fashion house Paco Rabanne’s women’s wear collection in 2011, where he remained for one year.
Jai Dhar Gupta, the official distributor of the masks in India, said that he began selling them in January 2015. He calculated that he would sell about 10,000 masks a year, but he ended up selling that many in nine days. This past winter he has sold between 500 and 700 masks each day from two retail stores in the New Delhi area as well as the American Embassy School shop and on the mask’s official website.
Some profitable business, that is.