Shiny frames: how sustainable is my pair of glasses?
Eyeglasses are indispensable to many of us. Scholars indicate that eyeglasses were first created in Venice in the 13th century, but it was only in the 18th century that frames equipped with rigid side-arms pressing on the temples ending in large loops came into use, i.e. the eyeglasses we use today. Sunglasses were created much later and though created to protect eyes from sun rays, today they represent a fashion item. While Ray-Ban may be today's brand that is synonymous for sunglasses, the first brand that made sunglasses a fashion accessory was Foster Grant. The eyewear brand, launched on the Atlantic City boardwalk in 1929 by Sam Foster, became famous for its advertising featuring film stars such as Peter Sellers, Carroll Baker, Louis Jordan and Claudia Cardinale.
Looking at the history of everyday objects offers us a fascinating perspective on human creativity and development, but today we want to focus on the future of eyewear - one that is emerging but has yet to be invented. We are not going to look at smart glasses but eco-sunglasses. In 2019, it is s expected that Americans alone will buy over 200 million pairs of sunglasses , which shows that there is a clear need for sustainable options. If having information on fabrics and raw materials used in the fashion industry requires research and excellent investigative skills, when it comes to eyewear, one has to practically become an eco-Sherlock Holmes. Neither the producers of raw materials nor the eyewear manufacturers explain their processes or give any information on raw materials sourcing. Undeterred by the opacity of the industry, we researched extensively on the topic, and are able to provide some insights and, hopefully, guidance on future eyewear purchases.
When it comes to materials, there are three main ones used for the frames:
Acetate is a high-quality, beautifully glossy and transparent material with just the right amount of bend that is used for premium frames and luxury brands. While cellulose acetate is a non-petroleum-based plastic that is made from natural cotton and wood fibres – therefore from renewable sources – manufacturers do not provide any information of the sustainability profile of acetate, i.e. there is no mention of the type of cotton (standard or organic) used, or whether the wood pulp is responsibly harvested. One brand that does specify that its acetate raw materials are responsibly harvested is Stella McCartney, which uses a bio-based acetate- i.e. acetate that does not contains plasticisers such as diethyl phthalate (an ingredient derived from oil that is indicated as potentially harmful for human health generally, and also produces toxic gases when burned). Another exciting brand that utilises bio-acetate is Dick Moby, whose tagline "Look good for the planet" clearly identifies the company mission. Dick Moby offers also recycled acetate. To conclude, we looked at the chemical process used to transform wood pulp or cotton lint into acetate- the process uses hazardous chemicals (acetic acid and acetic anhydride and sulfuric acid), and we assume that all chemicals and by-products are handled and disposed of properly, making the end material production safe for the environment and workers (we cannot question what we do not know!).
Virgin plastics is another widely used raw material for frames and sunglasses. Cheaper than acetate, it is often used in premium fashion and fast fashion collections. Eyeglasses made of nylon were introduced in the late 1940s. Today, eyeglass manufacturers use blended nylon (polyamides, co-polyamides and gliamides) resulting in frames that are both strong and lightweight. Nylon is also a premier material for sports and performance frames because it is very resistant to hot and cold temperatures and because the frames are very flexible. It is evident that virgin plastic is not a sustainable material (it goes without saying!). While Revo, a sports brand of Luxottica (the major eyewear manufacturer in the world), launched a range of pre-consumer recycled frames as far back as in 2009, we could not find frames made of recycled plastic in the current collections of any of the major brands. We are, however, pleased to see that a number of innovative and niche brands are offering recycled plastic frames - notable amongst those we have discovered for you are: Solo Eyewear, Sea2See (whose 100% made in Italy frames are made from ocean plastics, or more precisely abandoned nets, fishing lines, ropes collected from Girona, Spain), Waterhaul (we recommend you to have a look at the website and video of the recycling process!) and Bureo, a B certified company that does not only make sunglasses from recycling fishing nets, but also fantastic skateboards and cool objects such as the game Jenga in “ocean plastic”.
Many frames - especially opticals - are made of metal. Once more, disappointingly we could not find recycled metal frames when we looked at the biggest manufacturers and brands, especially since metal is a material that can quite easily be repurposed. Of all the brands we looked at we found two that offer recycled metal: Proof that has a Recycled Aluminum Collection (aluminium per se can be infinitely recycled) and Dick Moby that uses a surplus of surgical-grade stainless steel.
In addition to these materials that are most frequently used for eyewear, there are innovative eco-friendly materials that are increasing their presence on the market. Wood and bamboo are becoming more popular, and we also found plant-based plastic eyewear brand Zeal whose frames are made of castor oil (actually, castor seed oil).
Now that we have looked at the frames, we can move to their packaging. While traditional eyewear brands use carton boxes and/or leather or plastic cases, innovative sustainable brands show us that alternatives are possible. We report here a few examples, and we invite you to look for further information on each brand websites. Dick Moby uses recycled PET pouches and recycled leather case, Pala has boxes that are FSC MIX certified, it uses recycled paper stock for all print materials, and its cases are woven from recycled plastic bags.
The last component of a frame we need to look at is lenses. CR-39 plastic, polycarbonate, Trivex (a plastic made up of a urethane-based monomer), high-index plastics and crown glass are most frequently used. While we searched for information regarding the recyclability of lenses, we found very little information (we assume is that recyclability may be very hard for lenses with an applied a protective coating or mirror lenses, but we could not find confirmation of it). Two brands make an exception: Waterhaul, whose lenses are made from 100% recycled mineral glass instead of plastic (these Italian premium lenses, made by Barberini, are polarized and offer full UV protection as well as superior comfort) and Zeal, that uses a plant-based polymer called Ellume for the coating of their polarized lenses.
We think we have covered as much as can be said on the sustainability profile of sunglasses. In a later blog post, we may talk about the social programmes - that many brands offer to bring better vision to disadvantaged communities - and environmental programmes which span from initiatives of plastic collection to planting trees. Stay tuned!
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