Cover Story: Seeing Green

The Optical Industry Goes Eco-Friendly


Photos courtesy of iStockphoto ®

By Deirdre Carroll

Associate Editor

NEW YORK--Today, media messages concerning environmental issues abound. Almost every publication and general news network is joining dedicated Internet sites and community groups to build awareness and capitalize on the growing “green” movement. Buzz words like “renewable,” “sustainable” and “carbon footprint” are an increasing part of the dialogue from business forums to classrooms.

But what does “being green” actually mean, why is it important and what kind of changes really need to be made to become more environmentally sensitive?

In honor of Earth Day this month, Vision Monday reached out to a broad spectrum of optical businesses to find out how they are addressing environmental concerns and sustainability and we learned that some companies are doing their part in both big ways and small, inside their organizations and out, to explore more ecologically compatible practices, a movement they tell us will become increasingly important each year.

From offering frames made of recycled materials and green marketing initiatives, to internal changes that have made the running of their day-to-day business more eco-friendly, many in the optical industry are taking action now to slow down the negative impact they and their businesses are having on the environment.

The Greening of Industry
The green movement is roughly defined as a social and political call to action that espouses global environmental protection and social responsibility; a relatively benign definition for a concept that has such devastating consequences if ignored.

The Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD), an association of 30 countries, including the U.S., Japan, Italy and France, that, among other things, supports sustainable global economic growth, recently released their 2008 Environmental Outlook Report that combines economic and environmental projections for the next few decades and simulates specific policies to address key challenges.

According to the OECD report, economic-environmental projections show that world greenhouse gas emissions are expected to grow by 37 percent by 2030, and 52 percent by 2050, if no new policy actions are introduced.

It further found that by 2030, to meet increasing demands for food and biofuels world agricultural land use will need to expand by an estimated 10 percent; 1 billion more people will be living in areas of severe water stress; and premature deaths caused by ground-level ozone pollution worldwide will quadruple.

The general consensus among environmental activists is that if businesses don’t voluntarily start to employ more eco-friendly practices now than they will definitely have to when stricter government statutes are implemented.

Companies like Whole Foods already use 100 percent green energy, according to the Environmental Protection Agency’s (EPA) 2006 list of organizations that purchase the greatest amount of green energy, as does the EPA itself. Office Depot has launched an “environmentally preferable” line of products including recycled paper, notebooks and file folders, as well as re-manufactured ink and toner cartridges, non-toxic cleaners and compact fluorescent light bulbs. Wal-Mart, already the world’s largest purchaser of organic cotton, has announced that it eventually wants to use only renewable energy, create zero waste and sell products that sustain resources and the environment. In 2005, it opened two stores to experiment with ways to cut waste, studying everything from recycling french fry oil to testing wind power, in order to see which successful technologies could be implemented at other stores. Electronics retailer, Best Buy, has begun adding solar power to its stores, as well as recycling packaging and exploring ways to build electronics that consume less energy.

The list of companies “going green” goes on and on, their campaigns are taking on more media prominence, and the optical industry is among those starting to make its mark in this arena.

Reduce, Reuse, Recycle
One of the most literal ways that businesses in the optical industry are making strides to become more green is the development of frames that are partially, or completely, made of recycled materials.

One example of Linkskins offerings made from recycled plastic.
In 2006, Zeal Optics, a Moab, Utah-based performance eyewear company, began exploring ways to incorporate recycled materials into their frames after successfully developing a complimentary hard case made of 30 percent recycled materials. This year, the company added three sunglass styles made of 30 percent recycled nylon to their line. With the recycled nylon frame additions, Zeal has expanded its collection of sustainable eyewear choices, which already included the use of recycled plastics in goggle straps and carrying cases that have been available for the past seven years.

“We’ve proven that recycling can be profitable,” said Wink Jackson, co-founder and designer of Zeal. “It may take more time to complete some projects, but saving the world’s resources is priceless.”

Designer Jhane Barnes, who is launching a line of green products across many of her product categories in May, agreed. Among the new environmentally responsible offerings are three new frame styles distributed through Kenmark Optical. The frames feature titanium fronts, and use demo lenses made from bio-degradable corn rather than the standard petroleum based lenses. The temples feature thin sheets of recycled wood pulp laminated into an acetate temple consisting of 30 percent recycled scrap, while the backing cards will be printed on recycled paper as well.

One of Zeal Optics performance sun styles made from 30 percent recycled nylon.
“Sustainable production and development of eco-products are rapidly rising in the light of heightening environment awareness and increased legislation,” said Yann Lacroix, commercial manager for Linkskin, another line of eco-friendly eyewear. “Consumers are also getting more environmentally savvy especially in the U.S., European Union and Japan. This makes it economically sensible for us to ride the ‘green wave.’ Linkskin’s corporate social responsibility is exercised by developing and launching our series of eco-friendly eyewear.”

The concept behind the Linkskin line is the reuse of plastics which undergo minimal re-processing or alteration. Reusing the plastic reduces consumption of energy and emissions of harmful chemicals such as carbon dioxide, nitrogen oxide and sulfur dioxide.

“It took us more than a year to find the right type of recycled polymer,” continued Lacroix. “Then going through the process of extruding recycle polymers into sheet form of consistent thickness was another obstacle. Also we had to make sure that all of the paints were Restriction of Hazardous Substances (RoHS) certified. The whole R&D process took us around two years before we were ready for commercial production.”

Even the cases for the frames are made of recycled materials, as are the packing materials, like bleach-free boxes made of recycled paper and ink, and carrier bags that are bio-degradable.

Linkskin has even developed an eco-friendly booth to display the collection at this year’s Mido exhibition. “The booth is designed such that every element ranging from lighting and partition walls, to the table and chairs, are all made out of recycled materials,” added Lacroix. “By keeping to the spirit of staying ‘green’ we are proving that by carefully combining ergonomics, style and environmental consciousness, we are able to create eyewear that is both beneficial for the environment and exciting to wear.”

LBI China, a division of the Los Angeles-based LBI Eyewear, has gone so far as to develop the prototype for a frame made of 100 percent post consumer products. “The plastic frame is the result of collaboration between LBI and a Midwestern recycler of plastic from the automotive industry,” said Keith Lehrer president of LBI. “Technically speaking, it took several years of testing so the raw material would perform properly in production, and remain sturdy yet flexible. The result is a colorful frame suited ideally for sunglasses or ready-made readers.”

LBI’s commitment to the environment can be documented back to 1994 when they first used recycled paper and soy ink on their St. Moritz backing cards and 1996 when they produced an eyeglass case made from re-claimed beverage containers.

“LBI is conscious of efforts, large and small, that contribute and convey a commitment to the environment and we care about leaving a better planet to future generations,” continued Lehrer. “We plan to continue making progress developing products and processes that leave a shallower ‘environmental footprint.’”

Green Design
Eco-consciousness is growing in the field of architectural design, too. One retailer, Wink Optical in Boulder, Colo., has incorporated eco-friendly materials and construction ideas right into the construction of its store.

Green Marketing, Green Planet
Implementing these kinds of significant changes to the development and manufacturing of products can be time consuming and costly, so many companies in the optical industry are exploring alternative means of compensating for their impact on the environment.

LBI’s frame made from 100 percent post consumer products.
During the 2008 Sundance Film Festival this past January in Park City, Utah, Marchon and ck Calvin Klein Eyewear paired with the festival to promote its “green effort.” The brand provided attendees with a pair of ck1058s aviator sunglasses in military green to commemorate its donation to the Carbon Fund Organization, a group that fights against global warming climate change.

The ck Calvin Klein Eyewear donation helped to make the festival more carbon neutral by offsetting the carbon footprint and greenhouse gas emissions caused by the flights, taxis and hotel stays of the festival guests. Becoming carbon neutral involves calculating the total damaging carbon emissions from an activity, then balancing them by reducing where possible and by purchasing a carbon offset, such as paying to plant new trees or investing in green technologies like solar and wind power, for the remaining emissions.

Vision West Inc. (VWI), one of the U.S.’s largest ophthalmic buying groups, based in Oceanside, Calif., has launched a ‘Going Green’ initiative and developed a program with what it calls Eye-Eco Premium Vendor programs, to help independent eyecare providers save more money in their practices. They are also launching a national campaign, “Take the Eye Eco Challenge,” the first initiative of which is a program to help reduce pollution caused by plastic bags by developing its own environmentally friendly, reusable Eco-Tote, sponsored by Carl Zeiss Vision, Empire Optical, Essilor, Hilco, ClearVision, Odyssey, Rudy Project and WileyX, that will be distributed to all VWI members.

According Vision West, “With this Eco-Tote, our members can take part in ‘saving the planet, one bag at a time’ by helping to keep plastic bags out of the landfills and oceans. Our focus this year is ‘Goin Green, Makin’ Green and Savin’ Green.’ Throughout the year, we’ll be providing savings tips that are also good for the environment.”

In addition, companies like Nouveau Eyewear and The McGee Group have partnered directly with conservationist groups to help reduce their effect on global ecology.

In 2007, The McGee Group launched the Ducks Unlimited collection of eyewear in partnership Ducks Unlimited, a group founded in 1937 that conserves, restores and manages wetlands and associated habitats for North American waterfowl. A portion of the proceeds from all Ducks Unlimited Eyewear sales are used directly to reclaim and protect important wetland habitats in the U.S. and Canada.

And just this past February, Nouveau Eyewear teamed up with American Forests, the nation’s oldest nonprofit citizens’ conservation organization, to introduce Global ReLeaf Eyewear. For every Global ReLeaf frame purchased, Nouveau Eyewear will plant a tree through the American Forests’ Global ReLeaf project. The launch of the collection was supported by a complete marketing program printed with environmentally friendly ink on recycled paper.

“Going forward we are working on an eco-friendly case,” said Marj McGraw, co-president of Nouveau. “We will be using either recycled plastic or cotton and hemp to make the cases and we will continue exploring ways of making the frame construction more and more green.”

In a further effort to support local and global sustainability, Nouveau Eyewear uses only Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified paper for company letterhead and business cards. Environmentally friendly soy-based inks and FSC-approved printers keep correspondence and marketing materials eco-savvy, while recycled frame backing cards and 100 percent recyclable packing fill and frame bags help reduce the company’s impact on the earth.

“People really need to start thinking about this,” continued McGraw. “This industry as a whole produces so much paper in POP and marketing, we wanted to bring awareness to the issue.”

Green Behind the Scenes
Like Nouveau, many of the companies Vision Monday spoke to have been quietly implementing greener business practices internally that shouldn’t be overlooked. L’Amy America has started to explore using recycled materials for future packaging and is no longer printing catalogs, instead opting to provide each member of their sales team with USB sticks containing the catalog which the reps can easily place on an account’s computer saving on the unnecessary use of paper.

VWI’s Eco-Tote
A&A Optical in Carrollton, Texas, has also made a company-wide commitment to preserve the Earth’s natural resources with changes made to their 2008 catalog. The company partnered with the Jobson Creative Services team on the layout and design of the catalog released this past February and produced solely from FSC certified paper products.

Other green products will be available from A&A throughout the year, including a bio-degradable, organic cotton shopping tote from their Jalapenos brand to be introduced in the second quarter of 2008.

“One of our initiatives for 2008 is to grow consciousness for environmental responsibility throughout A&A. Not only will we seek out environmentally-friendly printing materials and new ways to use recycled materials but we make a conscious effort every day at our corporate offices to recycle all paper products and corrugated materials,” said Robert Liener, president and CEO of A&A Optical.

In addition to recycling and reusing all cardboard and re-useable papers, recycling printer/copier cartridges, employee generated food packaging and old cell phones, as well as using energy saving programmable thermostats and requesting all of their supplier partners have programs in place to reduce, reuse and recycle throughout their facilities; Hauppauge, N.Y.-based ClearVision Optical has implemented a “Commuter Alternative” initiative.

The initiative strives to motivate employees to minimize drive time during lunch hours by installing picnic tables outside the office to encourage them to “brown bag it” onsite. Additionally, company management added healthy vending machines, a television and a computer station with internet access to also give employees incentive to stay onsite.

ClearVision’s commuter initiative is part of an application process for a grant from Long Island Transportation of Management. If awarded the grant, ClearVision intends to designate the funds to raffling off gas cards to carpoolers, create preferred designated parking spaces for carpoolers and also offer a “Guaranteed Ride” program that will allow registered employees four paid taxi rides a year if their carpool mate is unable to drive.

“We’re continually looking into new and effective ways to be a responsible, green organization,” said Brenda Litzky, ClearVision’s director of vendor relations. “After all, we only have one shot at taking care of the earth.”

German eyewear line, Cazal maintains high standards in ecologically sound manufacturing and practices focused on the sustainable and responsible treatment of the planet and its resources. The company operates its plant with ecological electricity and a biomass heating system that generates power from renewable energy sources. During their galvanization and electroplating processes, water is recycled, distilled, reconditioned and then reused, effectively preventing acids and wastes from being drained into the groundwater. All paints used in the construction of their frames are 100 percent environmentally compatible and skin friendly and the cleaning agents used in the final stages of manufacturing are also fully bio-degradable.

Vision-Ease Lens (VEL) is reducing its carbon footprint and setting new sustainability standards for lens manufacturers at the same time. VEL manufactures all products at its Ramsey, Minn.-facility with 100 percent renewable energy.

Nouveau’s Global ReLeaf POP, which explains the benefits of purchasing each frame and is printed on recycled paper.
“Consumers in general are becoming more eco-minded,” said Doug Hepper, president and CEO of VEL. “Reducing Vision-Ease Lens carbon emissions as a manufacturer translates directly to customers.”

VEL’s commitment to sustainability makes it one of the largest industrial companies with 100 percent renewable energy in Minnesota. Through Connexus Energy, an electric distribution cooperative, all energy purchased for the Ramsey facility is generated through renewable power including wind, solar, hydroelectric and biomass.

“We pay a premium to use renewable energy, but the benefits far outweigh the cost,” added Hepper. “By switching to renewable power, we will avoid the release of more than 15,000 metric tons of carbon emissions each year. This savings is equivalent to the emissions that result from burning more than one and three-quarter million gallons of gasoline.”

In addition to the conversion to renewable power, VEL has already engaged in a number of other eco-friendly initiatives. They have eliminated extra product shipments for manufacturing, saving more than 12,500 gallons of gas in 2006 and 113 metric tons of CO2 emissions, the equivalent to the electricity for 15 homes for one year, according to VEL. They have replaced all the lighting in the Ramsey facility with energy efficient fluorescent lighting saving almost 800 metric tons of CO2 emissions since the conversion in January 2007.

“We’ve also cut down on the amount of packaging for our lenses. Our progressives come in a special box without the plastic cup,” added Hepper. “And all of our polycarbonate is recycled, as is all of our production scrap and cardboard.”

Lastly, National Vision, Inc. (NVI), a national optical retail operation based in Lawrenceville, Ga., has also been ramping up their green programs and proving that going green can save some green. Their Retail Support Center in Lawrenceville is expected to recycle over 50,000 pounds of paper annually from this facility alone.

They have also started to recycle the swarf, or the waste left over after a lens is cut, from their Lawrenceville-based lab, which according to their estimates generates over 50 tons of swarf per year, and are about to install equipment that separates and dries their swarf to increase its recycling value.

Additionally, they have made a capital commitment for a new way to recycle the cardboard, polystyrene, and lens boxes from their lab and distribution center waste. Instead of the compactor they used to use for the four to five tons of cardboard waste the facility generated per week, they have switched to a bailer. By bailing it, and changing firms, they have gone from paying to get rid of it to making a small profit.

“We figure our annualized net savings from this year’s environmental efforts is going to be between $50,000 and $55,000 for just our Lawrenceville Retail Support Center, lab, and distribution center,” said Reade Fahs, CEO and president of NVI.

Last year NVI changed from a fresh water supply in their lab surface departments to a new recycled water system, which is estimated to save them about 37 percent in water consumption and cost.

“We are using our Lawrenceville facility as our model for green behavior and are spreading the best practices to our other facilities as we advance on the learning curve,” added Fahs. “We regard our efforts as one of those rare business trifectas. It helps to save the planet, it saves the company money, and our employees are proud that their company is taking the time and trouble to do the right thing.”