“By ignoring it, you are going to do yourself a disservice”

CEO of Millmead Optical Group, James Conway, talks to OT  about the changes that Millmead has been introducing in order to make its business more sustainably-conscious

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Getty/Malte Mueller

Millmead’s sustainability journey started around five or six years ago. One of the first things we did was to change the light bulbs at our Liverpool head office to LEDs. This change had started as an efficiency saving conversation, during which we worked out what the saving would be over five years if we moved to LED bulbs. We realised that it was both much better for the environment due to the energy we were using, and we would save money.

This began us on our sustainability mission as a company, and today the list of changes we have made across the business is vast. Yet while the list gets longer and longer, for us the journey will always be ongoing. We have learnt the importance of always questioning ourselves and the things we are doing.

At Millmead the changes that we have made and are going to make can be split into two categories. There is the core, which is product-based in terms of how we make products, and then there is the periphery, which is how we provide the product and everything else.

Changes at the periphery

We supply a lot of different products to the profession every day as we work across frames, lenses and cases. Seeing all of the cardboard waste that relates to this being generated, as well as the waste going into landfill, got us thinking about how we could act in a more environmentally responsible manner. As a business we now recycle all paper and cardboard waste, and have invested in a waste compactor at our Liverpool facility that allows us to reduce the volume of the waste by 90%. This means that we are sending less to landfill and reducing our carbon footprint.

We have also introduced a consolidated shipping model to our customers – they get no more than one delivery from us a day – this helps to both reduce our carbon footprint as well as the cost to the customer. All of the cardboard boxes that we use, and even the tape that binds them together, are made from recycled materials, and the polybags that are used in these deliveries are biodegradable, as are the demo lenses.

We want to encourage our staff to act more responsibly in and outside of the workplace, and we have been making changes that will positively impact them as a result. Everyone has been given a metal reusable water bottle so we can reduce the use of single use plastic water bottles, we have a bike to work scheme, and are in the process of building a bike shed and installing electric charging points in our car park.

Throughout all of the changes that we have made our theme has been to try and reuse something that has already been created rather than make something new. It is working closely with our staff that has enabled us to achieve the Investors in People gold accreditation, which we have been awarded at each reappraisal since 2016.

The product changes

On the product side, there have been three or four big projects to date. The first, within our Optoplast case arm, was a move to making cases from recycled PET in the UK. This has massively increased our case manufacturing over the last 12 months – it feels almost like we have had a resurgence of case manufacturing in the UK again, which is great. There are so many benefits to producing these cases in this way – it’s time saving, cost saving, better for the environment, and it’s reusing stuff that already existed. We also have microfibre lens cleaning cloths that are made from recycled PET.

Earlier this year we extended Continental Eyewear’s Cameo collection with the launch of our Cameo Sustain range. The frames in this collection, which is about eyewear reincarnated, are made of recycled PET, and is again about trying to reuse rather than create something new.

Plastic waste, in my opinion, remains one of the industry’s biggest problems – 3000 tonnes of lens waste ends up in landfill each year in the UK alone. From demo lenses to edging and surfacing, every time you make a frame you can see the waste, and most people are visibly shocked when they see it. We want to highlight and raise people’s awareness about the issue of lens waste and are currently working with the renowned sustainability designer (sculptor) Yair Neuman to do so. We are really excited about this project, having recently seen the design concepts.

The sculpture, which will be made out of our Liverpool factory’s own lens swarf and discarded demo lenses, will be created by Yair alongside a fine art student from Liverpool John Moores University, who is working with us this summer through a sponsored internship scheme. We are thrilled to be able to help develop the talents of a local up and coming student as part of this whole initiative. Once built it will begin a road trip from Liverpool’s Royal Albert Docks, traveling across the UK to raise awareness of this issue. We believe that by shining a light on the issue and acknowledging the scale of the problem we can help expedite a solution within the industry as a whole.

While we have moved to biodegradable demo lenses for our Cameo Sustain range, we are still looking at a solution for demo lens waste overall, but it is a super complex challenge. In saying that, we are quite close to having something really quite incredible that we look forward to sharing later this year.

Sustainability in practice

When it comes to practitioners becoming more sustainable in practice, I would advise them to initially find something that is quite simple and easy to achieve. You are not going to save the world by doing one thing, but once you start, you will realise that there are some quite quick wins to be had in general. A first step could be anything from encouraging staff to car share one journey to work a week, or to cycle or walk, to stocking a particular product. I would also encourage practice owners to appoint a recycling or sustainability champion in practice. What is really good about this is not only does it give one member of staff a focus on the area and the responsibility to champion change, but it also provides everyone else with someone to share their ideas with. Some of the best ideas we have had at Millmead have come from our staff. None of these things are mutually exclusive, so you can do one of these things, all of these things, or two of these things. They will enhance each other.

There is a belief that when you go down this route and you try to act more sustainably, it’s really difficult and it’s costly. And while yes, sometimes there is a cost, this is not always the case. Either way, don’t be frightened of it. By ignoring it, you are going to do yourself a disservice.

About the author

James Conway is CEO of Millmead Optical Group, which manufactures and supplies frames, lenses and cases. It celebrated its 75th anniversary last year and retains its identity as an independent, family-owned organisation.

  • As told to Emily McCormick.