The discussion

Bringing sustainability into practice

Independents and multiples are switching their focus to sustainability – but what does that mean on the ground? OT  found out

Two people holding a planet

Sustainability might seem like a complicated, multifaceted concept. So, how do businesses go about incorporating it in practice? How can practices turn a potentially nebulous concept into something with practical applications, which can realistically be adhered to whilst patients are streaming through the doors?

For Peter Telfer, managing director at Hakim Group’s Urquhart Opticians, which has eight practices in Scotland, it’s about incorporating sustainability into each aspect of the patient experience – and that starts with the suppliers that Urquhart uses, “from frame choice and lens selection to aftercare and contact lenses.” A recent addition has included stocking Coral Eyewear, which uses discarded materials from landfills and fishing nets to create ophthalmic frames and sunglasses.

Peter Telfer
Telfer said: “All Coral’s packaging is recycled, and the cases and cloths they provide are made from recycled materials too. The introduction of an eco-friendly brand has been well received by our patients; we know sustainability is a focus for a lot of people.”

A sustainable practice that Urquhart has had in place for longer includes refillable lens cleaner bottles, which are available for purchase and are also given to patients when they collect new spectacles.

“We have refill stations in each practice,” Telfer added, “so it’s easy for patients to pop in and have their bottle refilled instead of buying a new one.”

Urquhart is also a drop-off point for recycling contact lenses as part of the Johnson & Johnson Acuvue Contact Lens Recycle Programme, and also names Shamir, which launched its new Metaform lenses this year, as its main supplier. Metaform lenses use less water, energy, and materials for their production than previous offerings, Telfer said.

Specsavers, through its joint venture partner model, has also been paying close attention to what happens in practice, and how changes that stores are putting in place can be supported by head office.

Tracy Pellett
“Sustainability matters to Specsavers at all levels of the business, from store to CEO,” Tracy Pellett, the multiple’s sustainability director, told OT.

She added: “We support each other in our individual and collective sustainability journey – including through the recently created Specsavers Sustainability framework.”

The framework outlines Specsavers’ ambition “to make a positive difference to our people, our communities and our planet,” Pellett added.

In-store activity in 2021–2022, she said, included fitting LED lightbulbs in all new, relocated and refurbished practices, and working with audiology partners to create a more efficient system for shipping hearing aid batteries. The use of plastic cases for audiology equipment has been reduced, and an independent audit of plastic packaging used in stores and within supply chains is also being undertaken.

Specsavers has also launched ReWear, a nature-inspired range of frames that is partially made from recycled, post-consumer plastic waste. Each frame contains five plastic bottles, Pellett said, allowing customers to “choose a more environmentally conscious frame.”

When you start doing the little things, the big things don’t actually seem impossible anymore

Dr Angela Smith

Dr Angela Smith, optical commercial manager at Asda Opticians, is also extremely aware that customers are looking for sustainability: before the pandemic, the highest volume of correspondence into the company’s CEO was about sustainability. Customers’ concerns switched to safety in 2020 and 2021, but now sustainability is their top focus again.

The multiple currently stocks four adult brands where the product is made from sustainable materials, equalling 10% of their product range. Children’s frames are set to be added in September this year, with more following in March 2023.

“I’m really pleased that there are two kid’s brands coming in,” Smith said, “and I’m sure they will be turned over more quickly than the adult frames. Those customers are the most vocal. A lot of the correspondence that comes into the CEO is from children.”
Smith is asking, though, if some of Asda’s frames can be sustainable, why can they not all be? She hopes that, in the future, this can become a reality, to avoid virgin material being created unnecessarily.

Dr Angela Smith
“Sustainability is about really obvious quick wins,” she said. “When you start doing the little things, the big things don’t actually seem impossible anymore. More of our products should be made from more sustainable material, because although it’s low volume, it all adds up – especially if the whole world moves on and follows with these materials.”

Smith added that Asda Opticians were among the first multiples to launch sustainable frames. “I’m really pleased everyone else is doing it now. Often, in retail, there’s talk about wanting to be exclusive. But I want everyone to have sustainable frames, because it’s the right thing to do,” she said.

There is a cost aspect, too: “The more people buy into it, the more that it can be at different price points for everyone,” Smith said. “I can’t get the frames at my opening price point at the moment, and I would like to be able to. Other people need to get on board, and we’ll get cost prices down.”

Despite her ambitions, Smith is realistic about the practicalities of sustainability in practice. She flags an industry webinar that she attended recently, which advised optometrists to install lights that would go off if there was no movement in the room – “but you can’t have that, because you stay still having an eye test. So, you do need to think about these things.” One investment that practices could make instead, she said, is in changes to display cabinet lighting, which are sometimes designed to stay on permanently.

Behind the scenes

At Asda, sustainability is already built into existing processes – although that does not mean optometry-specific schemes are not being put in place.

Smith explained: “Because we’re a grocer, sustainability has been high on the agenda for a long time. Optical is quite a different type of industry – it’s lower volume, and sustainability changes have been happening behind the scenes. Because we’re trying to provide low-cost products to our customers at Asda, both generally and within optical, that high volume, efficient way of working lends itself to sustainability.”

Within supermarket retail, Smith explained, efficiencies in areas such as delivery already exist. Optics-specific policies include cutting back on product being moved backward and forward, for example, by only having sample frames in store and keeping stock at the glazing house.

One of the first changes Smith made when she started her role five years ago was to cut down on the amount of cardboard used by the glazing house as packaging for the frames. Cardboard, she noted, can often be worse for the environment than recyclable plastic, because of the amount of water used to generate it.

She said: “Each one had a full piece of card, bigger than the frame, in a polybag, and each had a sleeve. None of it was doing anything. I asked the suppliers to remove the card because the customers never see it. You don’t need two sleeves. The way the cases were packaged was too much.”

Smith continued: “There are so many things that have been done for a long time in grocery that we’ve brought along into optical, including helping the supplier and losing tertiary packaging. We need to get into a mentality that it’s waste, and it’s all going in the bin.”

Having a neat, succinct range, Smith said, with the same frames in every store, is also good for efficiency, as is paying attention to courier deliveries and making sure items that could be delivered in the same van or along the same route, where possible, are.

Overcoming challenges

Practices might have the best intentions, but knocks along the way are to be expected. For Telfer, finding a “truly sustainable” partner for spectacle recycling, after the closure of Vision Aid Overseas’ scheme, is something he is currently working on. “We are trying to fill this gap with the most appropriate solution,” he said.

As a multiple, Specsavers is assisting with spectacle recycling by sending out boxes to each of its stores. Frames will “be turned into 100% recycled board, ready for a multitude of uses by our recycling industry partner,” Pellett explained. “Every board or item created from this process can be recycled again at end of life.”

A lot of our patients didn’t know contact lenses could be recycled

Peter Telfer

At Asda Opticians, Smith finds demo lenses are a particular bugbear. “We’ve been talking about making them recyclable,” she said. “It’s easy to make them biodegradable, but that’s not really useful – being recyclable is far better environmentally.” She has asked all her suppliers to make this change, and is also planning to look at whether demo lenses are even required – metal frames, for example, are unlikely to lose their shape without them.

Smith added: “I’d like to think everyone would move along that journey. When my big suppliers made changes on the tertiary packaging, their other customers were fine with it. The demo lens is my next big action, and by this time next year it should be sorted.”

Contact lenses, and the perception that dailies are less efficient than monthlies in terms of waste, is also a concern. In reality, Smith said, because of the volume of bottles and boxes, dailies are often better for the environment – although there is still more packaging than she believes is required. It is another subject that she is pushing her suppliers on, although she appreciates that change when it comes to contact lenses is hard, because “that’s all unified globally, and it goes right on your eyeball. Changes need to happen carefully. But they are happening – the big four players in contact lens manufacturing have research teams looking at improving the footprint of their material. They realise it's quite high waste. With contact lenses it’s coming, it’s just behind.”

Customers pushing back on suppliers and flagging issues such as excess cardboard and film, she added, would also help speed up the process.

Recommended schemes

Telfer recommends other practices use a contact lens recycling scheme, as Urquhart does. “A lot of our patients didn’t know contact lenses could be recycled,” he said, “and they would often end up in the bin when a patient’s prescription had changed but the boxes had been opened so couldn’t be returned.”

He added: “As part of the TerraCycle scheme, the lenses, the blister packs, and even the laminated foil, can all be recycled. We take contact lenses and packaging from not only our own patients, but anyone who is looking for a sustainable solution to discarding their contact lenses.”

Smith advises looking at tertiary packaging, and also making changes to glasses cases: she has moved to flat cases, made from recyclable material, rather than the bulky, plastic cases that are frequently used. A more widespread change when it comes to this, she believes, would make “a massive impact on the environment in our industry... That’s a lot of virgin material not put into the world.”

She added: “With most sustainable initiatives, when you start working on them, you find another benefit – usually cost; often operational efficiencies. That’s why we should face up to sustainability, as a business.”

She also recommends Recycline, a start-up that is “addressing what has been a massive bugbear in our industry for the last couple years” – glasses recycling, which Telfer has mentioned struggling with. Recycline turns the plastic and metal from old glasses into shelving, panels and units for retail, which Smith believes is “really exciting, because it’s a closed loop.”

She added: “It stops old glasses going to landfill, and new virgin material being used. It’s a double win.”

The scheme, she explained, works like traditional contact lens recycling: a bin in practice, glasses collected from patients and customers, and collections a few times a year.

Making sustainability a staff objective

To make a practice truly sustainable, every team member needs to be on board: they need to be empowered to make change, but they also need to be recognised for it. As Pellett at Specsavers said: “It’s all about harnessing the passion and energy of our colleagues, educating them so they can make sustainable choices.”

Specsavers is doing this through the development of sustainability champions throughout every area of the business, who can lead on this work.

It’s all about harnessing the passion and energy of our colleagues, educating them so they can make sustainable choices

Tracy Pellett

Telfer emphasised the need for sustainability to be quantifiable, if team members are going to be measured on it.

“Encouraging team members to get involved in sustainability will be crucial and incentivising the team may be a way to do this,” he said, “if clear targets and how they will be measured can be provided.”

Smith thinks that making sustainability a staff target is a must, and points out that team key performance indicators (KPIs) need to be aligned, in order to avoid them jarring and becoming impossible to achieve.

“I absolutely think it has to be aligned,” she said, “otherwise the business won’t do it. People get their bonuses and promotions based on their performance, based on what their KPIs say. It has to happen.”

She added: “We are told strategically, by the senior leaders, that it is the right thing to do, to reduce plastic packaging and tick those boxes. They need to put their money where their mouth is, which we are doing now, as a business.”

Future vision

So, what do our interviewees hope happens over the next half decade, in terms of sustainability? How do they see their practices progressing in this area?

Specsavers has recently appointed CEO John Perkins as chief sustainability officer, making it clear that this is a priority at the top level of the business. Dedicated roles, focused on sustainability, and new governance structures, with both global and regional sustainability committees, have also been introduced, “to lead the thinking and change within Specsavers.”

Other targets include becoming climate positive by 2035 (ie, taking out more C02 from the atmosphere than they put in), which it hopes to achieve by reducing operational emissions, focusing on packaging and product waste, and looking at the way materials are produced, where they come from and their journey. Closer attention will also be paid to what happens to products once they reach the end of their life.

Pellett wants to emphasise that Specsavers is “reviewing our impact on the world around us to ensure we are sustainably making a difference.”

She added: “We’re challenging ourselves to make better sense of the role we play in the lives of the people we work with, the communities we serve, and the planet we all share. We’re looking at everything we do through a new lens, to make sure we’re doing all we can to work towards our belief of changing lives for the better.”

At Urquhart, Telfer is looking at new ways to bring sustainability to the business. Ideas for the near future include adding electric car charging points at practices, and looking at how insulated practices are. He notes that, when it comes to sustainability, “you consider these things for your own home, but may think less about it when it comes to your business.”

It’s about doing it for the right reasons, even if no customers ever find out about it, because it’s the right thing to do

Dr Angela Smith

Meanwhile, Smith wants Asda Opticians “to drive the whole market, continuing the path we’re already down, which is working with suppliers and it not being an exclusive product.”

She added: “It’s about doing it for the right reasons, even if no customers ever find out about it, because it’s the right thing to do. We need to push it further, and never be complacent – always looking at the next step.”

Smith’s personal goal is to see 100% of Asda Optician’ frame ranges being made from sustainable materials, which she predicts might take three to five years.

But, she said: “If I can get there, if we can make that work commercially and the suppliers can give me that much variety, then it seems doable.”

She added: “The more customers see sustainability, the more they’re asking for it. That's why I’m happy to bring it forward and push it harder, because I think that will make it the norm – and that’s only for the best.”