Supplier insight

The unstoppable rise of eco-eyewear

Awareness and demand for more environmentally-friendly frames is growing, and as new materials become available, manufacturers are responding to the call

Millmead Optical Group

The global conversation around sustainability has filtered into many aspects of everyday life, from clothing to household products, and eyewear has not escaped the scrutiny of consumers looking for greener options.

It seems that the pandemic has only accelerated discussions, with researchers at Mintel finding that: “COVID-19 has made many consider the impact their habits have on the environment, suggesting it is now a higher priority for many consumers than before the pandemic.”

Writing in the Optical Goods Retailing report in 2021, Mintel analysts said: “While there are limited ways opticians can promote sustainability, frames and glasses are areas where a lot of sustainable innovation is happening.”

James Conway, CEO of Millmead Optical Group, suggested the push towards sustainability in eyewear is driven by a combination of factors: “It is a hybrid of consumers asking questions and wanting to know how their products are made, what they were made of, and expecting more.”

“From the point of view of the manufacturers and suppliers, we also have a responsibility and we have to think about the future impact our businesses are having on the environment for everybody,” he continued.

The evolution in materials and manufacturing processes is an additional factor accelerating product development.

Nicky Clement, head of marketing at Eyespace Eyewear, agreed that, “whatever angle you approach this subject from, the exponential increase in demand for sustainable product is driven by increased awareness in all directions.”

“The increasing prevalence and choice of sustainable materials – and the extensive marketing and education support backing eco-frame innovation – is undoubtedly driving awareness for practice-buyers and consumers,” Clement said.

Changing the agenda

An important change in the push for eco-friendly operations is the adoption of sustainability into business goals and discussions.

Steve Tulba, managing director of Inspecs, noted a transition in business approaches towards more environmental, social and corporate governance. “The ‘single bottom line’ of profit only, is now the ‘triple bottom line’ of profit, people, and the planet,” he said.

“More sustainable materials have been available for longer than most think, but how they are applied and scaled is what has changed the landscape more recently,” he added.

Alberto Macciani, marketing OCB and global communication head for Safilo Group, agreed that there has been a shift amongst many companies, telling OT: “A sustainable approach is at the top of all corporate agendas.”

Elaborating on this, he shared that a sustainable approach has become a ‘must have’ for businesses: “For a company, being sustainable is no longer just the right and convenient choice to make in order to respond to new market demands, but must become the default choice to protect its business and the entire society.”

For example, Safilo has incorporated sustainability as one of the pillars of the group’s new 2020-2024 business plan, aiming to integrate these considerations into the business strategy, processes and products.

The company has noticed that sustainable eyewear has a different appeal in various geographies and markets, with sports channels particularly sensitive to the topic and keen to support sustainable products.

Being sustainable is no longer just the right and convenient choice to make in order to respond to new market demands, but must become the default choice

Alberto Macciani, marketing OCB and global communication head for Safilo Group

Making the switch

There have been hurdles to overcome in the journey to more sustainable eyewear.

Recycled materials can have their limitations, Millmead found. In creating the new Cameo Sustain range, made from recycled PET, the company found it was difficult to achieve a shiny finish.

“Acetate is often used for a shiny frame so we needed something to match that and didn’t really want to compromise too much on the appearance,” Conway shared. This was something the team spent more time exploring to find a solution before launching the final products.

Creating more eco-friendly ranges has also required a degree of investment from manufacturers.

Clement said: “Sustainability cannot be achieved by token gestures, so we are swiftly working towards a future where practices have the ability to offer every patient a sustainable frame option.”

The investment required in this, both financially and in workload, has been a challenge, she shared, noting that it requires “extensive research before we can consider bringing a new innovation to market and hold confidence in its performance. We rigorously test new frame materials and components for viability, durability and stability, whilst also auditing the supply chain to understand the social, environmental and sustainability credentials at every stage of its production.”


Tulba also felt that cost and traceability were two key challenges in this field, suggesting that having certification for the materials and processes used to make eyewear in a more sustainable way can be difficult.

While Inspecs has a vertically-integrated supply chain (where the supply chain is incorporated into the company), which Tulba said allows for “ultra-transparency on all materials and manufacturing processes,” he suggested companies with a different model could find this level of traceability more complex.

Safilo, too, sees certification as an important issue, with Macciani suggesting a “lack of shared standard regulations” for products and marketing claims defining sustainability can create complexity.

He suggested the “lack of standards generate a multitude of marketing claims that are difficult to channel into a clear value proposition for the consumer and customer.”

Supply chain issues resulting from the pandemic have also hit the market, he highlighted, from the availability of materials to longer delivery times and associated costs.

Beyond frames

“The opportunities to be kinder to our planet by offering more sustainable options are as big as they are complex,” Tulba said, suggesting that materials used for eyewear are “just a part of the equation.”

“Sustainable packaging, demo lenses, cases and completing the lifecycle of the frame through recycling or repurposing eyewear, is just as important,” he shared, along with offsetting the carbon footprint involved in transporting frames from factory to the patient.

Demonstrating this, the company’s Botaniq Eyewear collection has been designed with consideration for each stage of the product lifecycle.

The lifecycle of frames will be increasingly key to improving the sustainability of the eyewear industry. Highlighting an example, Conway noted that the metal components used in frames can make them more challenging to recycle, but suggested: “That’s going to change in the future, I think. The metal core is needed for adjustability in dispensing, but that makes it more difficult for it to be recycled again, so finding ways to remove or process those is something we are working on.”

“Saying something is recyclable is fine, but what you really want is something that can be continuously recycled,” he added. “I see the process moving towards more of a closed loop of manufacturing.”

The opportunities to be kinder to our planet by offering more sustainable options are as big as they are complex

Steve Tulba, managing director of Inspecs

Looking beyond the frames themselves is key to reducing the impact of the industry, Conway agreed. He identified lens waste as a key issue, suggesting, “In terms of lens waste, we estimate bout 3000 tonnes goes to landfill a year in the UK,” something that the company is hoping to resolve. Meanwhile, the company has seen a positive reception to Optoplast’s new range of cases made in the UK from materials sourced from recycled plastic bottles.

With the industry set to see more frames made from sustainable materials, Macciani also expects to see a wider adoption of frames that are made from standard materials but integrated into an open loop of traceable recycling.

“In the more distant future, we see the possibility of a cradle-to-cradle approach, but to be successful in this, the retail structure will undoubtedly require significant evolution,” he said.

The company has made a number of partnerships in recent years to shake up its materials and processes. This included the introduction of Econyl, a material created through regenerated waste, and a collaboration with Eastman – a provider of raw materials for chemically recycled acetate, propionate plastic and polyester plastic.

Unstoppable growth

Businesses in optics need to accept that the push for sustainability is the future, Conway shared. “I think social responsibility and consumer awareness of what is going on in the environment are absolutely not going away. This is one-way traffic.”

Suggesting that this will become “the new normal,” he added that making changes doesn’t need to be expensive, and can begin with small steps.

“There isn’t a magic pill and nobody is going to solve this on their own,” Conway said. “Everyone has a bit of responsibility: as a business, and as a consumer.”

The market around environmentally-friendly frames is expected to grow over time, particularly as improvements are made in materials. Conway explained: “I think at the moment it is probably around 2% to 3% of products. It will grow to five, seven or 10%, but not until the materials are good enough, and easy enough to reliably produce in all the colours required.”

“It’s not a matter of ‘if’ but of ‘when’. I don’t think it will be in the next year or two, but that percentage of the market will continue to grow,” he added, pointing to the high demand for sustainable products and processes in the fashion industry.

Everyone has a bit of responsibility: as a business, and as a consumer

James Conway, CEO of Millmead Optical Group

Clement also sees sustainable frame design and development becoming the ‘norm,’ advising: “The more we integrate sustainable thinking into our everyday behaviours, the easier and more effective we become at taking strides forward.”

The launch of the company’s Eco Conscious collection marked the beginning of its public-facing sustainability initiatives, with more plans to roll-out new materials across its portfolio in 2022, in line with its vision for patients to have a wide level of access to eco-friendly options.

Education has also been on the cards for Eyespace Eyewear as the company hosted its first Green Summit for customers in January 2022, aiming to provide the tools for customers to move towards more sustainable practices.

Sharing a suggestion for the ways optical practices can embrace sustainability, Conway said: “Support as much as possible the new products brought to the market, embrace them and explain to the practice team and patients why they are beneficial. It should be a part of every conversation, and I think you would be surprised by the response you will receive from a lot of patients.”

‘In three words’: top considerations in sustainability

OT asked the eyewear experts to pick out the three biggest factors or considerations they think are crucial when working with sustainable materials in eyewear

Macciani, Safilo:

  1. Certification standards: the lack of widely adopted and recognised certification standards covering products and packing is one of the biggest barriers to optimising the adoption of clear and sustainable product practices
  2. Life-cycle assessment: standards are also linked to a broader life-cycle assessment that allows the industry to really measure the value of sustainability of the whole production cycle
  3. Marketing commitment: this is essential to generate a consistent consumer response that will drive long-term market demand, thus enabling the necessary capital investment to fuel this revolution that is already underway.

Clement, Eyespace:

  1. Fashionable: sustainable frames are fashionable items, and the availability of sustainable eyewear is increasing at such an unprecedented rate, frame buyers can be confident of finding sustainable frames that are just as fashion-forward as those manufactured in traditional materials
  2. Innovation: there are many easy wins when it comes to sustainability, and seeking out newness, difference and innovation, so your offering has exciting sustainability unique selling points for your patients to take advantage of, will bring you and your portfolio added kudos
  3. Education: sustainability can be one of the most exciting ‘rabbit holes’ you can find yourself down, especially when considering new eco-frame innovation. There is just so much to get excited about, and that excitement and passion are infectious when you start to engage your patients with the knowledge that their choice of frame comes without compromise, on any level.

Conway, Millmead:

  1. Responsibility: sustainability is a shared responsibility
  2. Sustainable: we should question, in what ways is a product or supply chain sustainable? What does it mean when it relates to eyewear?
  3. Accreditation: we have got to be careful to ensure that we can track back on the things we are claiming, and that accreditations are in place to make sure claims made are what they say. That will become self-policing in time, because you won’t be able to make the claims without having the accreditation behind you.

Tulba, Inspecs:

  1. Quality: never compromising on the quality of eyewear being made – being sustainable should never mean inferior product
  2. Cost: finding ways to keep the cost of manufacturing comparable to non-sustainable materials, so the customer has a very easy choice to make
  3. Certification: being confident of legitimate material certification and transparency throughout the supply chain, especially when working with suppliers outside of Europe.