Despite Roadblocks, Eyewear Industry Rallies for a More Sustainable Future

·8 min read

The eyewear industry is rallying to make up for lost time when it comes to matters of sustainability.

“The industry was really struggling to make it happen, but now I see many companies talking and moving,” said Vladimiro Baldin, global product officer at Safilo.

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Much of eyewear is made of high-grade plastics — both injected material and resin acetates. Only recently, in the past two years or so, have the industry’s main plastics suppliers like Mazzucchelli begun offering more sustainable options like bioplastics and renewable acetates.

“I would say we [as an industry] are at the beginning of the process of becoming more responsible, if I can use that word. There’s been a lot of progress in the last few years. Over the last 18 months, there have been many initiatives developed and we invested in upcycled plastic and bringing that to some of our license brands,” said Nicola Zotta, president of Marchon.

Developments by material companies are still imperfect options — with most materials still having some component of new materials, and around 30 to 45 percent post-consumer recycled waste or plant-based material. Mazzucchelli, luxury eyewear’s largest supplier of plastic material, has made advances in recycled acetates or injectable plastics partially made with plant material, including castor bean oil. But these developments — which in order to enact real change, require a level of quality, durability and aesthetic performance that match original, non-sustainable material — are slow-going.

Costa’s “Untangled” collection in collaboration with Bureo, with 97 percent recycled fishing net material. - Credit: Courtesy/Luxottica
Costa’s “Untangled” collection in collaboration with Bureo, with 97 percent recycled fishing net material. - Credit: Courtesy/Luxottica

Courtesy/Luxottica

“I think it is complicated with the limitations that technology today provides,” said Zotta, adding that a full spectrum of colors is not always possible with eco plastics.

It’s reasons like these that most eyewear executives seem hesitant to place a timeline on their company’s road to full sustainability. “There are many things not dependent on a company in itself — you need to make sure you get proper clean energy from outside and that’s not necessarily something you can manage. We signed an agreement to plant 10,0000 trees and this is helping CO2 emission but in the wider scope, it’s hard to get a certain level of autonomy in managing energy sources,” said Fabrizio Curci, chief executive officer at Marcolin.

While plastics continue to prove a sticking point for increased sustainability, companies are getting clever with what’s available. Safilo has experimented with Econyl for some of its licenses, which uses regenerated nylon derived from fishing nets, carpets and fabric scraps. Both Safilo and Marchon have worked with Eastman Acetate Renew, made of 60 percent bio-based material and 40 percent recycled acetate. Marcolin and Marchon have used a bio-based injection material partially made with plant-based material. And in July, Luxottica’s brand Costa unveiled a collection in partnership with Bureo, producing frames with 97 percent of its material coming from recycled fishing nets — one of the ocean’s most pervasive pollutants.

At Marcolin, that means assessing the right sustainable material for the right license partner. “The viability of the material has to be right for the brand and these are all different. We haven’t seen one comparable single material,” Curci said.

“We have tested solutions, and as long as we felt more comfortable in terms of quality and consistency of production, as well as the control over the cost of the product itself, we have started to expand. There is a commitment on our side to expand as long as the solutions are able to meet consumers’ needs and cost goals as well. We do not want to have the consumer paying a higher price,” Zotta added.

At Safilo, the company is taking charge of sustainable frame production for metal wire styles. This week, the company unveiled a new galvanic production process that allows it to reduce the use of palladium by 90 percent. This will, of course, reduce heavy dependency on palladium mines and therefore minimize ecological impacts.

Tommy Jeans glasses by Safilo, made with Econyl material from recycled nylon. - Credit: Tessarollo Silvano
Tommy Jeans glasses by Safilo, made with Econyl material from recycled nylon. - Credit: Tessarollo Silvano

Tessarollo Silvano

“It’s a matter to find some economy of scale, to have all the supply and demand factors to jump on this movement. I see other fashion accessories categories were slow — we are very close to fashion and luxury and they are not so ahead when it comes to product. With materials, you cannot just offer ones that benefit the planet, it has to be something aesthetically nice as well — so it’s difficult to compromise,” Baldin said.

But in the spaces in-between materials, eyewear firms are beginning to look at sustainability as a whole and rethink variables over which they have more control. These include packaging, shipping and transportation and workforce management.

“We have started looking at packaging and replacing the bags with biodegradable material. Another we are looking at is the size of cases and the weight in order to reduce transportation costs and also what that means in terms of emissions. Cases are much more demanding from a space point of view so we are changing out hard cases for pouches, allowing us to create a much more efficient transportation strategy. It hugely reduces the impact of our carbon footprint,” Zotta said of Marchon’s recent projects.

Safilo is reviewing its display case materials in order to eventually switch those out with more sustainable materials.

Gant eyewear by Marcolin, with 85 percent of its material from recycled bottles. - Credit: Courtesy/Marcolin
Gant eyewear by Marcolin, with 85 percent of its material from recycled bottles. - Credit: Courtesy/Marcolin

Courtesy/Marcolin

While companies like Marchon as well as Marcolin said it is too early to publicly define their sustainability goals in measurable terms, eyewear’s biggest player has upped the ante. In July, Essilor Luxottica pledged to become carbon neutral by 2025, even despite the current material hurdles, through emission offset activities like planting trees and switching to solar power.

“We are a company of doing,” said Luca Balzarini, product sustainability director for Luxottica. These efforts add to Luxottica’s humanitarian pledge to eradicate poor vision on a global scale by 2050.

In early 2021, Luxottica opened its own recycling plant on the grounds of its Italian manufacturing hub. By the end of this year, the company said 100 percent of the energy it purchases in France and Italy will come from renewable sources.

Marcolin is taking initial steps toward making its eyewear fully traceable. A recent law in Europe requiring all medical devices to be traceable made the company take action on its own product offering — by considering eyewear as a medical device.

All Marcolin-produced eyewear that hit the market from this June onward is embedded with a special serial code. Right now, all it will represent are shipping dates and manufacturing batches, but eventually it could be used to implement wider blockchain technology across the broader company.

“It will allow us to better service people and as soon as all the information is available from suppliers, we could include that,” Curci said.

This comes in addition to Marcolin’s aim of improving the functioning of its workforce — which Curci counts as a priority toward larger sustainability goals. “The social and governance portion of it will be something crucial in the next few years,” he said.

Marcolin is making large investments to implement automation at its manufacturing facilities. But unlike in the U.S., where automation is a feared word that often results in job losses, Curci said this is not the case at the company.

Dragon eyewear by Marchon, with plant-based resin. - Credit: Courtesy/Marchon
Dragon eyewear by Marchon, with plant-based resin. - Credit: Courtesy/Marchon

Courtesy/Marchon

“It’s the opposite. We are here to help people in their jobs. Automation is in service of the people and giving them a chance to help evolve their work from just a manual job. We need to have craftsmanship but that doesn’t mean we cannot add innovation. It’s a balance between the two things. We don’t need to have people moving goods with their hands. These people can control a machine instead as an evolution. It’s showing people that they can have a better life in the company and going to a different stage — it’s a good thing for everyone,” he said.

At Marchon, the company has measured workforce output during the pandemic, when employees were mostly working from home — and saw that productivity had increased. Now having surveyed its employees, Marchon saw that the flexibility of work from home was enjoyed by most employees; so the company will now implement a permanent work from home policy. This will enable Marchon to shrink its corporate offices — offering a better perceived quality of life to employees while also minimizing its carbon footprint with a smaller office space.

But as eyewear continues to evolve its offerings, it’s doing so with the full understanding that a tidal wave of interest from consumers seeking more sustainable options is quickly approaching. While shoppers seem to have zeroed in on food, apparel and other categories as near-term sustainable priorities, the idea is that eyewear could be next. For now, the industry is toiling behind the scenes to work out the kinks of its supply chain and operations so it is ready to meet that moment.

“I think it’s a journey of another two to five years,” Baldin predicted, before the industry and consumers are fully ready to embrace a mostly sustainable eyewear industry.

“We are hearing that, across the globe, consumes are interested and paying attention. We do believe that is here to stay; it’s not temporary and especially younger consumers will pay more and more attention,” Zotta added.

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