Planes, trains, and changing customs regulations: Why our masks are late, and what we’re doing about it

Planes, trains, and changing customs regulations: Why our masks are late, and what we’re doing about it

We’re officially six days past our original estimated ship date for the non-medical cloth masks that you, our spectacular community wanting to protect the people around you, pre-purchased in good faith that we’d do what we always do: deliver quality, and deliver it quickly. Well, we’ve got the quality - but we haven’t got the speed, and we feel terrible.

It’s Claire here, Unbelts' founder - and I’m sorry. We’re facing a completely unforeseen and intensely frustrating COVID-related shipping challenge, and it’s standing between you and your masks. 

Here’s what happened.

China has implemented new shipping restrictions on COVID-related products, whether or not they’re medical-grade. Suddenly, only three very large manufacturers are allowed to export, and because these new rules have caught factories by surprise, there is an immense customs backlog of supplies already in transit. Orders from smaller factories, like ours from the studio where we sewed our masks, are stuck with nowhere to go. We wish politics and pandemic didn’t have to mix, but here we are with a front-row seat of the global economic impact of COVID-19. 

We’d been told last week that our masks were past customs and waiting to be flown to Unbelts HQ in Edmonton - but then learned that the courier responsible for our shipment had just been too nervous to tell us the truth, which is that we were stuck waiting for an inspection process that he (like everyone else) hadn’t seen coming. Though intensely frustrated, we felt for him. We’re facing a completely unprecedented logistics challenge, with all rules and guidelines changing on a daily basis.

With the communications breakdown now repaired, we do have good news: our masks have officially reached the front of the customs queue and are now at the inspection stage. When they emerge - hopefully by the end of this week - they will be flown directly to Edmonton, where we are standing by with our shipping materials to pop everything else in the mail immediately. Our estimated ship-out date is now May 22, though we‘ll be trying *very* hard to make it earlier. Orders in Edmonton will be hand-delivered.

The elephant in the room: couldn’t you have avoided this whole situation by sewing in Canada?

First, we want you to know that, in line with our B Corporation status and ethical manufacturing ethos, both our Canadian and Chinese sewing studios offer above-average hourly wages; employee benefits; paid vacation; and every other characteristic of a quality employment situation. The main difference is our output capacity. Our Edmonton studio, especially in times of physical distancing, can produce about 200 masks per week. The China studio has 20 staff and can produce 5,000. 

We launched our Better Together collection to meet an urgent demand for a high volume of masks on a short turnaround time - not just for paying customers, but for community organizations and individuals in need of donation masks (our request form is here). Our strategy has been to put our China studio to work fulfilling a large-volume order quickly while we increase our production capacity here in Edmonton. The fact that the China studio can also upcycle premium materials from larger, neighbouring factories’ overstock is a bonus.

When this shipment arrives, it’ll contain over 1,500 masks slated for donation to Canadians in need. It will also include the materials we need to sew masks here in Edmonton, where we’ll complement the volume orders sewn by our China team. And lastly, the shipment holds components that we’re providing at cost to other local companies who have had their supply chains disrupted. Almost every mask-maker’s elastic comes from south China, and we’re uniquely positioned to be able to buy from factories with proven employment standards and product quality. This is a time for cooperation.

Our ask

If you need to cancel your order, we completely understand, and we hope we’ll have another chance to work with you. You can email us to get the return process started. But if you’re willing to stand by as we do our absolute utmost to get you your goods as expediently as humanly possible, and keep you up-to-date right here in this post as we go - well, we appreciate you. A lot. Again, our estimated ship-out date to you is May 22, and if you live in Edmonton, we’ll be putting your order on your doorstep ourselves.

With gratitude,

Claire, Holly, Kassy, Krista, and Grace


Learn more about why we decided to make washable cloth masks here.