RICHMOND, Va.—When Brian Spittle, OD, founder of The Eye Place, a multi-optometrist group practice located here, took a trip to Central America to learn more about contact lens manufacturing, he did not expect to return to the United States with a newfound look at sustainability in the industry. Dr. Spittle, who is also president of ECP Fastlane, a boutique consultancy, never thought that the trip would eventually lead to his practice becoming 99 percent solar powered. But sometimes the best changes come in the most unexpected ways. 

In this story, Going Green: How I Went from an Eco-Skeptic to a Solar-Powered Office, Dr. Spittle recounts his trip, his discoveries and his long journey to creating an office that is nearly fully powered by the sun. This story originally appeared in Jobson’s Independent Strong from Review of Optometric Business.

 Brian Spittle, OD.
A few years ago, I was invited to tour a contact lens manufacturing facility in Central America. The invitation was perfectly crafted to capture my attention: free air fare, free food, Central America, and just a few weeks’ notice. The trip was billed as a “manufacturing tour,” and I had never seen contact lens manufacturing. I was curious. I also needed some time away from work because work/life harmony is elusive. 

I’m in! 

Norma, my wife and fellow OD, comes along for the trip.

We arrive in Costa Rica. A car takes us to a hotel. The driver gives us the full Wikipedia experience, sharing facts about the population’s education level, the construction of buildings, a local volcano, etc. He proudly points out that most of the country is designated as an ecological park.

We start the next day on a shuttle to the facility. It is located in an economic park with other high-tech manufacturers. The government has established the area to provide quality jobs. The facilities are perfect. Open. Bright. Pristine landscaping. Workers with cute hairnets. Glass-walled conference rooms (with Dr. Jennifer Stewart as the screensaver in one of them!). There’s a gym and a medical clinic for the employees.

After our tour, we are introduced to everyone. Senior corporate types are there from the U.S. and Canada.  A member of the media is there. Roughly eight ODs are in attendance, also from the U.S. and Canada.

The hosts of the meeting turn out to be the PR firm hired by the manufacturer. They put the meeting together because consumers, employees and providers do not realize how “green” the manufacturer is. They felt there was a story to be told (and money to be made) and our workshops were to figure it out.

Full stop.

My Experience with Sustainability
Our childhood experiences inform much about our future selves. Those are now known as “implicit biases.”

Looking back at some of my childhood experiences, sustainability and going green weren’t necessarily at the forefront of my family’s values. My relatives were much more interested in hunting and eating animals, rather than saving them. My first memory at my grandma’s house relates to the gore of hunting. Deer, raccoons, squirrels, chickens. If they thought it was edible, they proved themselves right. They threw their trash in the “gully” behind the house. 

Looking back, it’s easy to judge. Even though I was raised in the suburbs and was not the first to go to college (my dad was), I am proud of my heritage.

This line of thinking wasn’t just relegated to my childhood. Two weeks before this trip to Costa Rica, I was in Palm Springs visiting my sister and her realtor husband. It was our first trip to the area, and it’s a strange place. It’s a desert, but there are fancy houses with lush, green yards. Wind turbines and solar farms can be seen all the way to the horizon. 

During our stay, there’s a domestic disagreement. A client fusses at my brother-in-law because he’s driving a Lincoln Navigator and not a Prius. The client wants to know why he should buy a house from him while the competition is more earth-minded. My sister, raised as I was, rolls her eyes and shuts down the argument. They’re keeping the kid-hauler—even if gas is nearly $6 a gallon.

Going Green
Now, I find myself at a “free” meeting and suddenly realize it is not what I was expecting. This is a meeting about being “green,” and I’m surrounded by tree huggers! We break into small groups and rotate through some workshops about the practicalities, statistics, competitive benefits, marketing and messaging of being a “green” company.

For two days, I suffer. I can’t hide and I want nothing to do with it. I play along.

Then, someone connected it for me. Back home, I work in a city with approximately 200 other optometrists. Ultimately, we all had the same schooling, and there’s a bias that all doctors are equal until we screw up. It’s a tie, and patients ultimately choose us after a tiebreaker. For some, that’s word-of-mouth or insurance acceptance. For my sister’s community, they break the tie with a “social” perspective. For their realty client, it was about being green.

I’m torn. My foundations are challenged. Was Grandma a bad person?

We flew home. I turn on my phone and reconnect with the world and my whirlwind experience overseas. My phone randomly (we all know it’s listening) suggests an article that says the 30 percent federal solar tax credit is expiring in six months. Tax savings?! My wife and I both come from families that clipped coupons. Letting one escape unused is a Cardinal sin.

A Solar-Powered Practice
In December 2019, I signed a contract for a 78kW solar array for our office. It’s $160,000 for the full installation. I put down the $5,000 deposit, and we inked a contract for an April 2020 installation. We forgot about it because there’s a cancer diagnosis and a pandemic. Like everyone else, we spent countless hours navigating COVID, terminated all of our employees and closed our doors. However, come April, the solar folks gave us an installation date, and I’m barred from canceling the installation due to the terms of the contract.

Four years later, we have 253 solar panels, and our office is 99 percent solar powered. The breakeven on the cost of the panels is nine years. By the time the panels need replacing, they will have produced $236,000 in electricity for us—at 2019 rates. 

Patients like it. Employees are proud of it. I may be proud of it, too.

It turns out that you can be a capitalist and be kind to the environment. One day I may even buy an EV and charge it at work.