Monday, October 2, 2023

The Eyewear Industry’s 20/20 Vision on Sustainability: From Online Sales to Eco Materials


From eco materials like bio acetate to recycled frames and online try-ons, eyewear companies are beginning to see a clear vision for a sustainable future. Here’s what you need to know.

Eyeglasses have been a cornerstone of vision correction and fashion for centuries. As the global population grows and the need for vision correction rises due to factors like increased screen time, the eyeglass industry has seen significant growth. However, like many manufacturing sectors, it comes with an environmental cost.

Eyewear’s environmental challenge

The primary materials for eyeglasses are plastic, metal, and glass. Plastic frames, especially those made of acetate, are derived from petroleum products. Metal frames often consist of non-renewable resources like aluminum and titanium.

The extraction, refining, and processing of these raw materials contribute significantly to environmental degradation. Raw materials might be sourced from one country, manufactured in another, and sold in a third. The transportation of materials and finished products, often by air or sea, releases significant carbon emissions.

According to Overnight Glasses, more than 4 billion people across the globe wear glasses, and of those, 15 percent buy their glasses online — a number that’s steadily increasing as customers acclimate to online purchasing. Online prescription glasses will reach $191.2 billion by 2025, according to recent data.

warby parker
Courtesy Warby Parker

There are advantages here in reducing the category’s footprint, by producing eyewear on demand when ordered online. Virtual try-on technology reduces the number of physical try-on pairs in shops.

Another benefit of direct-to-consumer eyewear: lower prices. Well-known DTC eyewear companies like Warby Parker and Zenni Optical have successfully entered the internet marketplace and taken a sizable chunk of online eyewear sales. These firms have changed consumer expectations and motivated established retailers to change their business models by delivering fashionable frames at reasonable costs and giving smooth online shopping experiences.

But what happens when those frames break or go out of style? Spent eyewear is a major environmental consideration, namely a chief contributor to the global waste problem. Millions of eyeglasses and sunglasses are discarded every year. While the frames can last for decades, prescription changes or fashion trends can render them obsolete. Most discarded eyeglasses end up in landfills since they’re not typically recycled due to the mix of materials they contain.

Another challenge lies in the production process, especially for plastic frames and lens coatings, which often involve harmful chemicals. These can pollute waterways, air, and pose human health risks if not properly managed.

Sustainable alternatives

While the environmental footprint of the eyeglass industry is undeniable, numerous sustainable alternatives are emerging.

sustainable sunglasses
Courtesy Salvatore Ferragamo
  1. Eco-Friendly Materials: Some companies have started using bio-based plastics and acetate as well as recycled metals for frames. Bio-based plastics are derived from renewable resources like castor beans. They reduce dependence on petroleum products and have a lower carbon footprint. Recycled metals help reduce the environmental impact associated with mining and refining.
  2. Recycling Programs: A few pioneering eyeglass brands have initiated recycling programs where customers can return their old glasses for recycling. The old frames are then either refurbished and donated or broken down, and the materials are reused.
  3. Local Sourcing and Production: To reduce transportation emissions, some eyeglass companies are opting for local sourcing and production. This ‘locavore’ approach to eyeglasses not only reduces carbon emissions but also helps support local economies.
  4. Long-lasting Design: Fast fashion has influenced the eyeglass industry, with seasonal trends pushing consumers to update their frames frequently. Some sustainable brands are advocating for timeless designs that can last years if not decades. High-quality production ensures that the glasses can withstand the test of time, reducing the need for frequent replacements.
  5. Modular Eyeglasses: A novel solution is the development of modular eyeglasses. These glasses are designed so that parts like the arms, rims, or nose bridges can be replaced individually. If one part breaks or if a user wants a style update, they can replace the specific part instead of the whole frame. This not only reduces waste but also offers consumers cost savings in the long run.
  6. Green Production: Environmentally conscious brands are transitioning to greener manufacturing processes that use fewer chemicals and more sustainable energy sources. Additionally, wastewater management practices are being implemented to ensure harmful chemicals don’t reach our waterways.
  7. Buying Secondhand: Vintage eyewear has become a trend in its own right. Opting for second-hand glasses not only offers a unique fashion statement but also ensures that one less pair of glasses ends up in the landfill. Many opticians will fit new, prescription lenses into vintage frames upon request.

Understanding bio acetate

Bio acetate is derived from renewable sources, making it an attractive sustainable alternative. The primary difference between standard acetate and bio acetate is in the plasticizers used during the manufacturing process. Traditional acetate often utilizes phthalate-based plasticizers, which are linked to environmental harm and potential health risks. In contrast, bio acetate uses organic plasticizers, significantly reducing the material’s environmental footprint.

A key source for bio acetate is wood pulp from sustainably managed forests. Additionally, cotton fibers, which are both renewable and biodegradable, can be used. These materials replace non-renewable, petroleum-based compounds in the creation of the acetate.

Jason Momoa in bio acetate eyewear
Jason Momoa in bio acetate eyewear | Courtesy Electric

Eyeglass companies including Jason Momoa’s sustainable sunglasses partner Electric and premium eyewear brand Raen have embraced bio acetate. Raen’s latest collection, made with M49 acetate from Mazzucchelli and Zeiss sustainable polyamide lenses, produces 50 percent fewer CO2 emissions during production than conventional eyewear, the company says.

“By incorporating M49 Bio Acetate into our designs, we are taking a significant step towards an eco-friendlier future,” Raen Co-founder and Design Director Jordan Percy, said in a statement. “This partnership allows us to combine our passion for timeless designs with Mazzucchelli’s innovative bio-based material, creating a premium feel and look that Raen has become known for.”

Leading eyewear manufacturer Ray-Ban has been slowly shifting its collections to bio-based materials. Earlier this summer, it gave its Corrigan glasses an eco upgrade. The century-old design keeps its classic lenses developed for military use on the RB RB4397, but adds bioplastic and bio-based materials to give this classic design a sustainable makeover.

Bio acetate’s environmental footprint

Switching to bio acetate significantly reduces the carbon footprint of eyeglass manufacturing. By relying on renewable resources, manufacturers can minimize their dependency on fossil fuels and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. Additionally, bio acetate is biodegradable under the right conditions, meaning frames made from this material won’t persist in the environment for centuries as plastics might.

Moreover, as the demand for sustainable products grows, the eyeglass industry can benefit economically from adopting greener practices. Consumers are becoming more discerning about the environmental impact of their purchases, leading to an increased demand for sustainable eyewear options.

Practical benefits for users

Beyond environmental advantages, bio acetate eyeglasses present benefits for wearers. Frames made from this material are lightweight, making them comfortable for extended wear. They also provide a hypoallergenic option, ideal for users with skin sensitivities. The malleability of bio acetate allows for a diverse range of styles and designs, ensuring that aesthetic preferences are not compromised for the sake of sustainability.

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