“Sustainability is not a bullet point list – it’s a holistic vision to impact the environment less”
Daniel Scott, aka TheEyewearStylist, hosted at a panel discussion at 100% Optical around the optical industry and greenwashing
30 April 2023
Greenwashing in the optical industry was the focus of a panel discussion at 100% Optical 2023, led by dispensing optician, Daniel Scott.
Scott, who is also known as TheEyewearStylist, opened the session by presenting a number of questions.
“I always find it really hard to understand, what is truly sustainable?” he said. “What questions do we need to be asking our suppliers in terms of what they’re doing to try and improve their sustainable credentials?”
It is important to look outside of optics and speak to experts on the issues being faced, Scott emphasised.
The panel, which took place on the Main Stage, was made up of Rachel Oakley, segment market manager for eyewear at Eastman; Carole Riehl, CEO of Optics for Good, and Thiago Gentile, senior carbon advisor at Redshaw Advisors.
What is greenwashing?
Daniel Scott (DS): What does sustainability mean to you?
Rachel Oakley (RO): At Eastman, we did consumer research on this subject. What a product is made from is number one – three quarters of respondents ask this. 10–15% ask what happens to it at the end. Does it go in the bin? Does it go to landfill? Does it go in the ocean? About 10% asked how something is made – is it made ethically? I think that is a great starting point.
Carole Riehl (CR): Sustainability is not a bullet point list – it’s a holistic vision to impact the environment less.
Thiago Gentile (TG): Sustainability is complex, because it involves so many different variables. The answer for me is from the operational side of companies, the supply chain: how you source products in a sustainable way. Are they being sourced sustainably from the manufacturers, for example? How is the operation taking place, and how is everything is produced? Do we know how much footprint we have in our business?
DS: To get every aspect of that right is a real challenge. If someone is saying they’re sustainable, we need to know where we can draw the line. Greenwashing is where someone is claiming to be super sustainable, but when you dig into the detail, are they doing as much as they claim to be doing? So, what is greenwashing, and how do we stop it?
RO: Greenwashing is making an environmental claim that may be true for one aspect of a product, but perhaps isn’t true for another aspect.
Years ago, you used to see that Kellogg’s Cornflakes were advertised as low fat. Well, I was always hoping they didn’t fry my cornflakes. It’s the equivalent of that.
One of the ways to combat this is around certification. We’ve had some high-profile cases with H&M and Decathlon, where they’ve been fined 500,000 Euros each for greenwashing, because they made very generic claims. H&M had a selection option for ‘conscious’ on their website. That was felt to be unclear and not substantiated. The key thing for greenwashing is to make sure your claims are substantiated. A great way to do that is third party certification, both of the materials and your products.
Greenwashing is making an environmental claim that may be true for one aspect of a product, but perhaps isn’t true for another aspect
CR: How to stop greenwashing? It’s simple: it’s to be transparent, to be found to be true, and to explain your commitment clearly. If you don’t know, don’t invent something to be [seen as] greener. The main thing is very to be transparent, but also to explain your commitment and the process.
TG: The majority of companies don’t greenwash because they want to mislead the public. Sometimes it is because of lack of knowledge. What do carbon neutrality, carbon positive, and net zero mean?
If it cannot be scientifically backed up, it shouldn’t have been suggested to the public. If you don’t know, don’t say you know. Try to understand, read, look for companies who can help – don’t publish things you’re not completely sure about. That’s one of the main reasons for greenwashing.
RO: My big message right now to the eyewear industry is: don't be afraid. We know there’s a huge push right now. People want sustainable products; they want to buy from sustainable companies. It’s a journey. So be honest, be transparent; give the details. Your customers are asking for it.
We’re all afraid of greenwashing. Just be honest, because customers do want it. That’s my big message here: don’t tell lies. It’s a journey. Don't be afraid of talking about it. You’re not perfect. None of us are, but we’ll get there.
DS: It’s knowing how to find the information you want, so you can speak to people with confidence on sustainability. There is every chance that you’ve got the desire to provide sustainable products, but you don’t know the questions to ask to make a judgement. If you’ve got someone who knows a lot about it and is questioning you and you don’t know the answers, it could feel a bit scary. You might feel like you want to glaze over something to get across to the next point.
The majority of companies don’t greenwash because they want to mislead the public. Sometimes it is because of lack of knowledge
DS: There are frame manufacturers across the world using acetate. What’s the main difference between a standard acetate, a recycled acetate, and a bio-acetate? Are some more sustainable than others?
RO: All acetates contain a certain percentage of cellulose, either coming from wood or cotton plants, so they’re all based on bio. You’ve got to talk about the beginning of life, so what it is made from, and then the end of life.
You will hear ‘bio-acetates.’ They are made from biomaterials, so the beginning of life. It’s biodegradable, so the end of life. If it goes into landfill, does it break down?
You also have acetates that are made from recycled plastics. At Eastman, we provide acetates where the bit that isn’t the wood is made from recycled plastic. They can also be combined with products that are going to make it bio-based, bio circular, and biodegradable.
Standard acetate is about 40% bio-based and about 60% fossil fuel based. Recycled acetate is about 40% bio-based, 30% recycled, and 30% that can be fossil-based or bio-based, depending on where you buy from.
Bio-acetate takes regular acetate, and adds in a bio plasticizer. It’s still going to be about 70% sustainable, but it’s going to be 70% bio-based. It does get very complicated.
In terms of what’s more or less sustainable, bio-base means it has come from something natural. We’re not digging up oil or mining coal; it’s come from a bio-base renewable. Look at where it has come from: you need to make sure it’s not infringing on food production. Is it sustainably sourced, with certification?
Also, if you’re looking at the end of life, you’ll hear biodegradable. Ask how it degrades. That’s very important. Can I put it in my regular rubbish, or does it need to go in composting?
How to stop greenwashing? It’s simple: it’s to be transparent, to be found to be true, and to explain your commitment clearly
DS: In terms of eyewear production, when it comes to acetate, how often is it a cotton base and how often is it a wood pulp base?
RO: Most acetates nowadays are based on wood. You do see some cottons used, but it’s the wood part of the cotton. It’s technically called the cotton linter. That tends to get used in very high-quality acetates. But a lot of it is wood-based, so look for the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) and Programme for the Endorsement of Forest (PEFC) certifications.
DS: What’s the difference between carbon negative, carbon net zero, and carbon positive? Can we become carbon positive?
TG: We can. The first step for any company is identifying where the hotspots are, ie what kind of emissions they have.
It’s divided into three different scopes. In scope three, there are 15 different elements. 11 of those are related to the supply chain. When you talk about sustainability in eyewear, the supply chain is the biggest chunk of emissions.
Carbon neutral is the first step. A company that wants to become carbon neutral needs to identify their emissions, create a baseline for the first year, and then strategically create a plan to decarbonize. The first year you compensate your balance, or offset those emissions you cannot reduce.
There are two types of offsets: avoidance and pipe removal. The one that is used for carbon neutrality is avoidance. For example, think about a forest. That is a massive piece of land. How do the landowners generate income? They need to deforest and use it for agriculture, cattle grazing, or similar. With green investments, revenue is used for them to preserve as opposed to deforest. By avoiding deforestation, you are reducing the amount of CO2. Carbon neutrality is when you use the same amount of offsets to balance your emissions: you have 100 tonnes of CO2 per year, and you buy 100 credits or 100 tonnes of CO2.
Carbon positive is when you double that amount, so your emissions are 100 tonnes, but you offset 200 tonnes.
Carbon negative is when you use removal offsets. Removal offsets are projects that remove the CO2 from the atmosphere. It’s removing, not avoiding or reducing.
Net zero, which is the end goal for 2050, is more complex. The company needs to reduce up to 90% of their own emissions, and then use the 10% remaining with carbon removals. That’s how, eventually, we are going get to net zero.
When you talk about sustainability in eyewear, the supply chain is the biggest chunk of emissions
DS: As an optician, I’ve got various suppliers as well as the energy in my own building. How do we work out the carbon footprint of our own businesses?
TG: The difficulty is [taking] the first step. When you start Googling, there is so much information and it is complex.
There are three different scopes, when you start breaking down where emissions come from. Scope one is anything related to the burning of fossil fuel. If you use diesel or heating oil and natural gas to heat up the building, that’s fossil fuel. We can identify those failures.
Scope two is electricity. Kilowatts per hour is the data we need to translate into our amount of CO2.
There are many ways of understanding our footprint, but I understand that most people do need guidance.
DS: Is it expensive for us to do on a micro level, if we’re independent opticians?
TG: It doesn’t need to be expensive. We focus on the operational boundaries of every company: scopes one and two, and four elements of scope three: business travel, employee commuting, water, and waste – areas that, as a business, we can make reductions.
When it comes to supply chain it is more complex, but it’s not something to be overlooked. We need to establish relationships with the supply chain. I understand that we might have had a supplier for 10 or 20 years, so changing these could impact operations or finances. It’s very difficult, but this engagement needs to start. You need to push them. Say, ‘we are doing our bit. Are you doing yours?’ Our scope one and two is someone else’s scope three, and vice versa. If they start reducing their one and two, your scope three is going to be directly impacted. It’s 360.
DS: Is there anything we can do in terms of recycling or disposing of lenses?
RO: About 3% of all plastic used for the eyewear industry goes straight in the trash. Dummy lenses are a very visible waste. They’re needed in the frames: they make them suitable to try on and they’re needed for transport, but they are a plastic that’s not easy to recycle, although it can be done.
There are collection services. At Eastman we've done a pilot with Warby Parker, a chain in the USA, recycling dummy lenses into acetate that they then use for their frames. That’s a beautiful example of a closed loop.
What is a closed loop?
The other thing is prescription eyewear. A lot of opticians will be fitting the frame, so you know it’s 80–90% waste on the lenses. That’s a lot. The way that waste arrives and the way it’s distributed is proving challenging. We’re trying to find ways to recycle all the types of waste: the waste from making the frames; the demo lens.
My next challenge is to figure out how to recycle the prescription lens waste. It’s difficult because it is, to use a non-technical term, fluffy. Stuff that’s fluffy doesn’t process through pipes very well. We are trying to work on that.
DS: Thiago, do you have any statistics on carbon footprint in the healthcare sector, in terms of the UK versus other countries?
TG: We always need to do better. A few big companies disclose this kind of information, but as a whole, the industry is behind. Companies need to start footprinting their emissions; they need to start understanding and being accountable. There aren’t many companies doing this.
Questions from the audience
We’re seeing 300 independent opticians close every year in the UK. In 1996, independent opticians held 70% of the market share, and now it’s under 20%. How important is sustainability and prioritising that for the independent optician in a game where staying alive is winning?
TG: That reflects in many other industries. We’re going through a recession; there’s an energy crisis. There are so many variables. The macroeconomics are not looking good.
A lot of people ask me, ‘why should we do it? Why not the big companies?’ But everyone needs to. You can do it bit by bit, and make changes. We can all do that. You don’t need to spend a lot of money to understand your footprint and create a strategy to decarbonize.
Obviously, for big companies, there is more money involved, because they need to decarbonize their whole manufacturing system process. I don’t think it should be used as an excuse for companies not to do anything. At the end of the day, we are accountable. I changed my electricity supply at home to a green tariff, because I think it’s the right thing to do. I’m a single parent; it’s not that easy for me either, but we all need to take accountability. It doesn’t matter how big or how small.
What would you consider a greenwashing statement, versus something which you consider more credible as a sustainable statement?
CR: A simple example is, you take delivery of compostable frame. Yes, it is compostable, but this is only true in the industry sense – it can’t go in your garden compost. For me, it’s a crime to sell it as a frame that is compostable, because it’s a call to sow your frame. It is unnatural, so it is not compostable in that sense.
What questions should people ask their suppliers to find out if the products that they’re supplying are sustainable?
DS: For me, if they don’t know the answer, the question would be: do they know someone who does? There’s so much information, that I imagine there’s a lot of willing from a lot of companies, but inevitably there are going to be questions people don’t know the answers to. If they don’t know, a point of contact would be a good thing. We can go to the root source.