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Eco-Frame of Mind: An Ethical Edge for Eyewear

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Miles Agbanrin Bio

State of sustainability in eyewear

Industries such as apparel and footwear have been periodically rocked by high-profile ecological and labour rights scandals. However, awareness of and action on ethics and sustainability in eyewear production are still underdeveloped. In Euromonitor’s 2017 Global Consumer Lifestyles Survey, 62% of consumers selected comfort as an influential feature, while 52% cited value for money.

As lower-priced frames flood developed markets, the value will remain significant but is likely to decline as a source of differentiation for players seeking a competitive edge. In 2019, 64% of consumers surveyed by Euromonitor claimed that they try to have a positive impact on the environment through their everyday actions.

Given the range of potential ecological and ethical issues common to eyewear production, an appeal to consumers’ ethical inclinations may influence the purchase decisions of discerning eyewear consumers, particularly those shopping at higher price points.

Cellulose acetate frames have often been touted as an eco-friendly alternative to plastics. Their production, however, exposes workers to particularly toxic chemicals, risking long-term health consequences if adequate ventilation and protective clothing are not available. Additionally, eyewear production may involve the disposal of up to 75% of the acetate used to produce frames, with this waste requiring significant purification before disposal to reduce ecological harm.

With most of the world’s frames produced in vast and opaque supply chains across low-cost labour markets, the safety of working conditions and waste disposal between brands may vary as much as the quality of the frames themselves.

Frames retailers have typically been unable to provide interested consumers with any significant verifiable detail about the materials and processes employed in the manufacturing of the brands that they stock.

Digital drives a growing focus on ethical frames

The rising importance of digital channels has significantly contributed to more consumer awareness of ethical issues in eyewear. While internet retailing accounted for only 8% of global eyewear sales in 2018, up from 5% in 2013, digital channels have grown into major influencers of consumer decision-making. In 2017, 36% of consumers reported that they researched apparel and personal accessories on a tablet or computer and 35% on a smartphone.

Where comfort, price and style are comparable, a growing segment of consumers will be prompted to act on their ethical leanings and opt for ethical or green frames. Indicative of this is digital platforms such as The Iconic, an Australian multibrand retailer where product searches can be filtered on factors such as “sustainable materials” and “fair production” in addition to price and brand.

This growing awareness opens several competitive opportunities for optical players to differentiate themselves from mass-market rivals, by taking a more advanced position on ethics and sustainability in frames than the industry standard.

Green innovation and ingenuity for an advantage  

As shoppers for sunglasses increasingly demand bold designs and spectacles wearers seek more personalised fits, frames with verifiable ethical credentials can boost the squeezed margins of optical players by enhancing product features that consumers are already willing to pay for.

To markedly reduce its carbon footprint, Belgium’s KOMONO replaces the fossil fuels used in acetate production with organic derivatives of castor bean oil. This also results in distinct glittering particles suspended throughout the frame, an aesthetic that may be a powerful draw to consumers seeking a unique product.

3D printing technology allows players such as Belgium-based supplier Materialise to markedly reduce the waste typical of acetate frames manufacturing. With relatively little material used to create intricate designs, consumers also benefit from improved comfort due to the frames’ lightweight construction. Moreover, the technology allows for more complex and personalised designs to be produced at little or no added cost to the manufacturer

Emerging ethics and sustainability in global eyewear

Sustainability and ethics in eyewear will remain more influential as purchase factors in the mature markets of North America and Western Europe than in developing markets. Widespread access to vision care and a range of sophisticated formal retail outlets has enabled more informed and flexible purchase decisions than is typical of Asia Pacific or the Middle East and Africa.

As global eyewear players seek to meet demand for frames from an expanding middle class in emerging markets, any such barriers will be progressively reduced. These consumers arguably have a more intimate understanding of the negative impacts of unethical production on local communities and the environment than their counterparts in mature markets. As the intensity of competition for these new eyewear shoppers rises, so to will their freedom to act upon it with their purchase decisions.

Frames production and sourcing have not yet earned the same degree of global ethical and sustainable notoriety as apparel or footwear. There remains a fleeting window of opportunity for players in eyewear to gain competitive advantage by taking leadership on the ethical production ahead of their rivals.

With growing consumer awareness and advances in production technology offering a growing range of options for players to build ethical credentials while sustaining or improving margins, these issues are likely to receive growing attention from both rivals and regulators. Competitive eyewear players must seek to lead on ethics and sustainability, rather than be pressed into following what may grow into an industry standard.

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