5 reasons to choose ethical and more sustainable sunglasses
Now, many of you may be thinking this heading sounds a bit obvious, but with the health of our planet coming increasingly into focus, there is good reason to re-enforce the benefits of taking a more ethical and sustainable stance on your choice of eyewear. Indeed, the reasons ‘to choose’ are just as relevant to the wider fashion industry as they are for eyewear, so regardless of whether you are in the market for sunglasses or not right now, this will provide a useful opportunity to remind ourselves of what we should be thinking about when it comes to our purchase behaviour and how we’re tracking against where we want it to be.
Taking a stance to protect the planet
The clock is ticking, we all know that. No doubt the ‘climate emergency’ has taken an even more elevated position in recent times as we have all been forced to reflect on the fragility of this planet. There is ever-increasing pressure on its finite resources and there is little doubt that the fashion industry is a major contributor to the problem. However, for consumers to change their purchase behaviour, brands need to step up and offer credible, sustainable solutions that are compelling enough to interrupt their usual consumption habits.
Fortunately, we have been seeing a response in the eyewear industry in recent years, albeit led in large part by the smaller more recent challenger brands that have entered into the market built on authentic, solid sustainable values as opposed to the major players in the market that continue to trade off the brand names that are licenced to them.
The fundamental focus of the ‘new kids on the block’ has been to seek better alternatives to the materials currently in use. The vast majority of frames currently on the market are made from oil-based plastic and this needs to change. You are only a Google search away from discovering frame materials ranging from sustainably sourced wood, bamboo, recycled metal, horn, recycled PET bottles, recycled marine plastic… even ground coffee. Some brands, as we do at Pala, use bio-acetate, a high-quality material that is sourced entirely from plant-based renewable resources and therefore 100% biodegradable.
What material choice you make comes down to personal preference in the end but discovering brands that are working with these new materials is the first positive step towards making change for you and the planet.
The ‘Makers’ and the supply chain
Consumers are calling on fashion brands and governments to ensure transparency and respect for human rights and the environment along supply chains. Indeed, a recent report by Fashion Revolution found that 75% of people agreed that fashion brands should do more to improve the lives of the women making their clothes (incl. shoes and accessories). Eyewear brands built on ethical foundations will have a clear position here and should be in a position to provide you with the information on their supply chain and any certifications that supplier upholds on how they look after their employees.
In addition, when we talk about protecting the health of our planet it is inextricably linked to the impact on populations around the world. Depending on where you are reading this you may not be feeling the effects of climate change. However, in Bolgatanga, Upper East Ghana, where the weavers for our recycled sunglasses cases live, devastating droughts as a result of climate change has meant that their traditional straw (elephant grass) which they have been so reliant on is no longer locally accessible. Their supplementary income from crop harvests is diminishing due to dryer seasons and increasing soil quality degradation. We feel a responsibility for these incredibly talented weavers and their families whose livelihood is under threat. We pay them what is termed locally a ‘prosperity wage’, one that intends to help empower them out of poverty as opposed to simply maintaining their standard of living. You can find out more in our film about how our unique cases are made.
It’s important therefore when looking at eyewear brands, or indeed any fashion brand to see where their impact is going further, working with artisans so that traditional skills continue to be passed down through generations and making the bridge so that their achievements can be appreciated in the global market. It is where genuine change really can happen.
Higher quality and longer-lasting products
If as an ethical brand you are using well-sourced materials, engaging with and developing a close relationship with suppliers, paying well and securing the best raw materials, then inherently you as the customer reap the benefit of taking that more considered approach – a high quality, well-made product. It means producing a frame that is more robust that will last longer. We have to move away from buying frames that simply last a season and are then disposed of – that culture has to disappear.
Yes, you’ll often find ethical and sustainable brands higher priced than their non-sustainable counterparts for the very reason that the cost of product manufacturing is so much more expensive. However, the trade-off is that you’ll have a pair of sunglasses or eyeglasses that are built to last. The mantra of ’buying better but buying less’ is entirely relevant here – by not having to replace your sunglasses so frequently, you are ultimately saving yourself financially in the long term as well as the planet.
As a brand that positions itself as being more sustainable, we are not doing our job properly if we find customers returning after a couple of years because their sunglasses have worn out.
Recycling and circular economy
So where can sustainable brands offer to help more in this space? Well, they can offer a refurbishment service as some brands do, or a lens replacement service that will ensure the lifespan of your frames last longer. At Pala, we will be introducing a lens replacement service towards the end of 2021, so an important and exciting development for us.
However, a time will come when your frame does come to the end of its life (let’s face it we’ve all sat on pair of glasses at least once in our lifetime) and for sustainable brands, this is a key area of focus right now. Globally, according to National Geographic, only 9% of the nine billion tonnes of plastic the world has ever produced has been recycled. Clearly, this is a problem far wider reaching than the eyewear industry, but what are the issues within our industry that we need to understand?
Due to the mixture of material (polycarbonate lenses), metal wire core and screws and the myriad of frame materials that can be used. Finding a solution that breaks the frame down to the component parts and is upcycled or recycled at scale can really make a difference to the impact our industry has on this planet.
The problem, however, is economics – a 2011 Australian study that found, the total cost of reusing donated specs was twice as high as simply producing ready-made glasses, once you factor in shipping and the labour costs. Indeed, our giving partner Vision Aid Overseas closed down their recycling operation recently for this very reason. So, the short answer is that there isn’t any viable solution at scale in the market right now, although as a member of the Circular Fashion Group we hope to find a way of getting partners together to find the innovation and process to make better progress here.
For Pala, we have our own ‘micro’ solution in place. We will take back up to any three of our customers’ old frames that they may have tucked away in their draws and through our partnership with TerraCycle turn it into raw material to be used in new products such as nuts, bolts, traffic cones and similar.
So, there is a chance for a frame to have a second life at a much smaller scale. It is also local only to the UK, because the economics of sending old frames across the ocean does not stack up, nor does the C02 footprint! Our vision ultimately is to take more frames out of the system through recycling than we are adding, and we look forward to the day when we cross that threshold.
Finally, we have to take a look at transparency. Ethical and sustainable brands have to be built on these foundations, and indeed you as potential customers want to be able to trust the brand you are buying from. We tell you things we are doing well, but also tell you the things we aren’t doing so well – we should have open and honest conversations with you. There is, unfortunately, a lot of ‘greenwashing’ going on out there which is why you need to take the tie to investigate the brands you are buying from and ensure they are telling you everything you want to know across their whole business. A good barometer for providing guidance is the B Corp Certification, the highest standard of verified social and environmental performance, public transparency, and legal accountability to balance profit and purpose. Pala is one such company of only a very few in the eyewear industry and we use this certification as a baseline to improve and be better.
Choosing ethically and sustainably – summary
The conclusion we hope you get to is that making a decision to buy a new pair of sunglasses should go further than just buying a frame that looks great on your face. By buying sunglasses or eyeglasses that are ethically sourced, sustainably based or both, you are making a decision that is creating impact, whether that be to minimise your environmental impact, positive social change, or both.
At a time when we are all aware of the need to change our habits to protect our planet and people’s livelihoods, the choice in the eyewear market is growing all the time, lots of great independent brands out there to investigate. It is up to you to pick the values that you best align with, the brand that provides the authenticity and transparency that connects with you most, and then you have the simple matter of deciding on that all-important frame. We’ll leave that part of the decision to you!