The U.S. has been confronting a shortage of face coverings and other personal protective equipment (PPE) items that are critical to protecting public health and paving the way for a safe economic recovery.
Medical professionals and the public alike need masks to protect themselves from COVID-19 and to prevent them from unwittingly acting as carriers and spreading the virus.
The public’s requirements for face coverings must be met while ensuring that medical-grade masks remain accessible to the healthcare providers who need them most, however, and the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services (HHS) is thus working with nontraditional partners, like clothing brand Hanes, to drive increased production of non-medical PPE.
“HHS turned to us and said, ‘We have a need and desire to acquire a large quantity of face coverings that we want to get out to the general public because we think if the general public wears them, it will help cut the spread of the pandemic,’” Matt Hall, Hanes’ chief communications officer and vice president, explained in an interview with PYMNTS. “It will also take pressure off of [consumer] demand for technical PPE that medical professionals need, [like] the N95 [respirator] masks.”
Hanes has pivoted its production processes from apparel as it rapidly works to fulfill an HHS order for 320 million face coverings. The company has already made nearly two-thirds of the order, which it delivers to federal officials at designated sites. Hanes ships the masks via air freight — a method that is more expensive but faster than typical overseas deliveries — and federal officials distribute them to areas where they are most needed. Virginia National Guard members recently distributed care packages that included the face coverings in Henrico County during Memorial Day weekend, for example.
Such shipments are eagerly received, but getting to this point required strategy and effort. Hanes had to take several steps to enable this production shift, including leveraging local supply chains to restart temporarily shuttered factories and rearranging facilities to make it safe for employees to return to work.
Certain industries are better fits for creating specific PPE products, and the ease with which they can transition depends on two factors: whether their traditional supply chains have been spared from disruption, and whether those supply chains provide all the components needed for constructing the new products. Some apparel companies can be well-suited to making masks because they already know where to source the materials for such products. Hanes has been creating masks using the same cloth, elastics and fabric treatments that go into its standard clothing items, for example.
“The reason we could turn on a dime and make the quantities that were needed is that it was pretty much the same material flow,” Hall explained. “We’re making all-cotton, three-ply masks using cotton fabric we’d use in some of our other underwear or T-shirt manufacturing, just in different thickness. … We were churning out masks in startup quantities within a week-and-a-half of the initial meeting with the HHS — I can’t tell you how fast that is. The only way that was possible was [by] being able to use our existing supply chain materials to make a different kind of product.”
Hanes was also able to shift its operations quickly because it controls most of the facilities it uses to make its products, Hall said. That is not always the case for other apparel companies.
“We own most of our manufacturing, which gave us leg up in being able to turnaround quickly and fulfill this huge order,” he said.
Smaller players often cannot afford to own their factories and instead tend to outsource manufacturing to independent contractors, Hall said. These small-scale clothing brands could find it difficult to shift to producing PPE if their contractors had ceased operations during the pandemic and were not yet ready to resume them. A significant portion of companies that produce clothing, Hanes included, closed factories in response to a drop in demand for such items during the public health outbreak and stay-at-home orders. Hanes owning its own factories was the first step toward it being able to restart production.
Hanes still faced challenges in preparing for PPE manufacturing, however. The company normally turns its yarn into fabric at factories in Latin America and Asia and wanted to make the masks at its plants in the Dominican Republic, El Salvador and Honduras to enable faster U.S. delivery. It had shut down its Latin American factories earlier this year due to decreased consumer demand and was then unable to reopen them because government orders have required that they stay closed to reduce COVID-19’s spread. Hanes officials had to solicit exemptions to begin production.
“We had to get special dispensation from all those governments to open up manufacturing to make those face masks,” Hall said. “Part of the agreement for [reopening was] that we were going to provide face masks to those governments as well, so all countries would benefit from restarting this manufacturing.”
The brand also needed to keep workers safe when bringing them back to the factories. That included making sure employees could maintain enough distance between workstations to minimize the risk of catching or spreading the virus, which necessitated running factories at lower-than-normal capacities. It is not possible to completely remove the health risks associated with returning to public spaces, however, so the company wanted to ensure no employees felt forced to return. It therefore asked — but did not require — workers to participate in the reopening.
Hall said the company had completed approximately 200 million face coverings as of early June and has expanded its production efforts to sate high demand from businesses that must provide workforces with protective equipment so they can safely reopen.
The Future of Retail
Hanes is not only selling face coverings to governments and businesses. The company found that consumers are eager to buy the items online, where it has begun selling 10-packs, and said the protective gear could become part of its standard product mix. Consumer demand is unlikely to decrease anytime soon, and many shoppers may add wearing face masks to the protective steps they take during times of sickness in the future.
“Our society will be different from here on out,” Hall explained. “The idea of wearing masks during flu season will be much more normal [in the U.S.], similar to what you would see in Asia and … in the Western hemisphere.”
Meeting workers’ and consumers’ demands for protective face coverings is critical to public health during the pandemic and is becoming crucial as businesses reopen. More consumers will enter public spaces as stay-at-home orders relax, which makes it all the more important that they can protect themselves, especially as infection rates continue to rise.
Keeping workers and customers supplied with face masks is vital to enabling a higher level of commerce to revive and help newly reopened businesses avoid outbreaks that could force them to temporarily close again. Nontraditional manufacturers that can rally their workers and pivot their production approaches to help fulfill PPE demands are thus playing a key part in keeping the public safe during the pandemic and society’s shift toward a new normal.