If you’ve walked the show floor at a Vision Expo show in the last few years, you might have noticed a small, but growing trend in optical. Among the flashy displays, bright-colored frames in increasingly elaborate designs, you might notice more and more brands are taking on an eco-friendly approach to their fashionable frames.
From eco-friendly manufacturing processes to natural materials to programs that give back, optical companies are finding new ways to keep it green. There are many optical companies that have environmentally-friendly practices, so Optometry Times spoke with a few of them to find out what they do—and why.
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One of the biggest trends in eco-friendly optical companies is the switch from petroleum-based resins to plant-based resins. One of those companies that made the switch is Costa.
“We’re able to extract the seeds from the castor plant,” says John Sanchez, Costa’s vice president of product development, “and those seeds are processed with our proprietary chemicals to make an ecological bio based injectable-molded plastic resin.”
Sanchez says Costa switched after realizing that its products that were made with traditional plastic weren’t aligning with the core nature of its customers, who are generally outdoor enthusiasts.
The company was able to make the transition thanks in part to its strong relationship with outdoor gear and clothing company Patagonia. Costa and Patagonia share both technology and ideas, and Costa was able to use some of Patagonia’s suppliers to help with the transition.
“We had to challenge ourselves,” Sanchez says. “In that process of looking at the materials, we found not only did we find a product that lends itself to being very sustainable in an effort to reduce our overall carbon footprint but also one that withstood temperatures much colder, much hotter, and could work with other materials like rubber in ways that we weren’t able to use it before.”
While some companies are being green in the way they make their frames, others are choosing to be eco-friendly in what they use to make their frames.
While Modo’s Earth-Conscious Optics (ECO) brand’s Born Biobased collection is made from castor bean oil, its Born Recycled collection features 95 percent recycled acetate and stainless steel. A spokesperson for Modo says that the production process for these recycled materials is more expensive, but the company believes in lower margins to invest in products that it believes are worth it.
And Modo doesn’t stop there—all of its packaging and marketing materials are made of recycled materials.
One of the coolest examples of eco-friendly materials is Zeal Optics’ metal eyewear frames, which are forged out of recycled stainless steel from Sendai, Japan, the area hardest hit by the 2011 tsunami.
“Zeal Optics sources stainless steel as a way to help the community recover while recycling materials that would otherwise be dumped in landfills,” says Mike Lewis, director of brand activities and digital strategy at Zeal Optics.
Zeal also has a line of biodegradable sunglasses that are made out of 100 percent cotton. According to the company, M49 is a natural material produced from cotton and wood pulp fibers, which is manufactured using only renewable resources. The company says the material keeps all of the characteristics of traditional acetate, but it is free of the toxic substances used in most plastics. If left in soil or water, the frames will begin to biodegrade after 18 months.
And Zeal’s Ellume lens is the world’s first plant-based lens that features polarization and protects against UVA/B/C and HEV light.
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Sanchez, who is the former president of Zeal Optics, says that Costa is looking into utilizing many of the materials used by Zeal, such as cotton and wood pulp fibers. Sanchez says biodegradability is important to the company—especially when you consider that every petroleum-based sunglass ever made still exists.
“There are a lot of great companies who are developing amazing sustainable raw materials,” he says. “The more of those that are used, the better it will be for all of us.”
And while Zeal travels as far as Japan for some of its frames, WooDone just goes out into its own backyard.
WooDone is an Italian optical company that offers hand-made eyewear frames each carved from a single piece of wood from South Tyrol, Italy. WooDone features two collections—Wood and Nature. The Wood collection includes a variety of frame styles, each featured in different woods: acacia, nut, ash, and chestnut. The Nature collection features wood frames with a choice of nature-themed treatments: roses, viöl (violets), fienum (hay), ulmus (leaves), and bling (galena mineral dust).
“We all need to be a little more caring about how we live our lives, and eyewear is just one piece of that puzzle,” says Jeff Stern, a WooDone U.S. sales agent.
Stern says the company chose to work with wood not only because it is environmentally friendly but also because of the unique aesthetics of each frame.
“The factory in Italy is right in the middle of this beautiful landscape and nature,” he says. “We want to do it differently than it’s been done in the past. The environment is important to us—and the aesthetics are important to us.”
Stern says that while wood eyewear frames have been around for years, the market didn’t grow because they were difficult to adjust. But that problem has since been worked out, and wooden frames are growing in popularity.
“It’s really the beginning of a category,” he says. “With each show, it’s growing—and even more so in Europe.”
Costa is well known for its many projects that give back to environmental causes, especially those that protect the ocean and its inhabitants.
“When you put ecological responsibility and social responsibility together, that’s the nature of what Costa has put forth over the years—almost a decade now,” Sanchez says. “We have put a lot of energy and efforts into protecting reefs and conducting research on the natural habitats of sharks.”
For example, Costa’s Kick Plastic initiative encourages its customers to reduce their use of plastic bottles and bags and to recycle through a series of educational articles and videos. Costa has also partnered with OCEARCH, a group of scientists dedicated obtaining data on the movement, biology, and health of sharks.
Zeal Optics has a partnership with American Forests. With the help of this nonprofit organization, Zeal developed Project 5480 to plant 5,480 trees in Colorado each year. Why 5,480? That’s the elevation of Boulder, CO, where the company is based.
Zeal also works with a number of other outdoor organizations including Latitude Project, which helps impoverished communities in Latin America; Adaptive Adventures, which allows people with a wide range of disabilities to participate in outdoor activities; Protect Our Winters, which encourages the snowsports community to take action against climate change; and the dZi Foundation, which works to improve quality of life in Nepal.
Zeal isn’t the only company giving back to Mother Nature—Modo sponsors the One Frame One Tree initiative, which plants a tree for each frame sold. So far, the company has planted more than one million trees in a deforested area of Cameroon.
Why they do it
Taking steps to be more environmentally friendly isn’t always easy and it isn’t always cheap. So why do it?
For some, this eco-friendly approach is part of what they are as a brand. Boulder-based Zeal, for example, is located one of the most active cities in the country. Lewis says the company was created out of love and respect for the outdoors, so it makes products that not only keep up with a nature-loving lifestyle, but also enhance the wearer’s outdoor experience.
“As a company inspired by the world around us, we understand the importance of protecting and sustaining the outdoors for generations to come,” Lewis says.
For some companies, doing the right thing was just as important as the bottom line. But each company that spoke with Optometry Times said its customers have responded to their efforts. While some customers intentionally seek out environmentally friendly companies, others are just happy to see brands they already love take that extra step.
“When we launched ECO, it was our first step toward creating a corporate identity that combines design with purpose,” says Modo COO Rebecca Giefer. “Our CEO said, ‘Who we are is as important as what we do.’ This statement resonated with our team because, generally speaking, we all want to be part of something more than making frames season after season; we all want to find a way to have impact in the world.
“When Modo focused on the who and not the what, we became much more inspired,” says Giefer. “And, in turn, our work became stronger than ever.”
Sanchez says that while what Costa and other eco-friendly optical companies are doing is great, it would mean more if some of the industry leaders stepped up to the plate.
“It’s brands like that who should lead in this space because they provide a lot of efficiencies for other brands to come in and use the raw materials,” he says. “It’s going to take the big guys to make a significant impact. We’re a serious player in the space, but there are major brands who could make a difference.”
Unfortunately, Sanchez doesn’t see that happening any time soon because of the focus on cost. He credits parent company Essilor with supporting Costa to be able to live up to its commitments and standards. And for Costa and its customers, it’s been worth it.
“Eco friendly eyewear is amazing in that it’s just as strong, durable, and beautiful as materials you’re used to working with,” Sanchez says. “When you get your hands on it and you get to know the brands who are putting efforts into using it, you’ll see a ton of value.”