For the second year in a row, VM has tackled the subject of sustainability in the optical industry in our May Cover Story titled, "Growing Into Sustainability." Across most sectors of the industry, eyewear companies, contact lens manufacturers, lens makers, optical labs and ECPs have gotten the memo—sustainability matters to consumers, whether it’s shopping for eyewear, recycling contact lenses or buying from optical companies that worry about their carbon footprint.

It looks like the sustainability movement is here to stay. A 2023 report from Harvard Business Review predicts, “We’re on the brink of a major shift in consumption patterns, where truly sustainable brands—those that make good on their promises to people and the planet—will seize the advantage from brands that make flimsy claims or that have not invested sufficiently in sustainability.”

VM’s editors talked to a wide variety of optical players for this special feature and one theme resonated—consumers want to take a more sustainable approach to shopping, and optical companies are sitting up and taking notice. Take a look at an overview of our Cover Story below as well as feedback from eyecare professionals about their own sustainability philosophies and initiatives.

  Editor’s Note
To learn more about the optical industry’s efforts on sustainability, read the full story “Growing Into Sustainability” live on the VM website and in the May print edition of Vision Monday.


As Sustainability Efforts Grow, Optical Pivots to Eco-Friendly Solutions

 INVU Eyewear offers sun styles made from recycled water bottles, with accompanying POP to tell the story of the brand.
NEW YORK—There is no avoiding the fact that concern for the environment impacts every aspect of our daily lives. From decisions on how people commute to work, to what they eat, to who they vote for and, of course, how they shop—there is a sustainable choice in every decision we make. Retail is often at the forefront of these conversations about sustainability and everyday life, and for many people, changing the things they buy and the frequency with which they buy them is an easy first step toward a more sustainable lifestyle.

Taking a more sustainable approach to shopping and retail can mean different things for everyone. For consumers, it can mean paying closer attention to the realities behind the making of their favorite products. For retailers, it can mean paying closer attention to what they stock and, crucially, how they communicate the sustainable stories behind the brands they stock to customers. For brands and creators, it can mean redoubling sustainable efforts, breaking new ground and truly committing to an eco-friendly business model.

When it comes to consumers, the data is pretty clear—people want to buy sustainably more than ever before. A September 2023 report from Harvard Business Review (HBR) stated, “For most consumers, sustainability has been considered a ‘nice-to-have’ in the brands they buy, but it’s rarely been table stakes. That’s about to change. Our research suggests we’re on the brink of a major shift in consumption patterns, where truly sustainable brands—those that make good on their promises to people and the planet—will seize the advantage from brands that make flimsy claims or that have not invested sufficiently in sustainability.”

Sea2See puts protecting waterways at the forefront of all decisions.

The core of HBR’s research is that consumers value trust, and a commitment to sustainability from a brand drives trust. Of the more than 350,000 U.S. consumers aged 18 to 98 that HBR surveyed, it was Gen Z and Millennials who truly valued this commitment. HBR reported, “When Gen Z and Millennial customers believe a brand cares about its impact on people and the planet, they are 27 percent more likely to purchase it than older generations are—a clear measure of sustainability’s power to drive buying decisions in this group.”

Of course, these younger generations will soon have more purchasing power in the U.S. as wealth transfers (HBR reported, “Forecasting experts calculate that the purchasing power of Millennials and Gen Z will surpass that of Boomers around the year 2030.”), so establishing these trustworthy relationships with these two generations now, as their purchasing power grows, is critical for a brand’s survival.

Research from the NYU Stern Center for Sustainable Business (CSB) and Edelman, as reported by Forbes, found similar results: “Adding claims around sustainability significantly boosted the product’s appeal and audience size—an increase of anywhere from 25 percent to 33 percent.” The most effective claims were ones that “pertained to benefiting consumers’ daily lives,” as opposed to nebulous claims about helping the planet.

Most effective were claims about basic human needs, Forbes reported—and these resonated with Gen Z above all. “Gen Z consumers were more likely to respond to more-abstract messages—perhaps because the potentially catastrophic impact of climate change on their lives is a more personal matter for them… They also were more likely to consider a brand’s environmental record when making purchasing decisions than other generations.”

 Cherry Optical redirects thousands of tons of waste from landfills each year.
It’s not just Gen Z, though, who cares about the future of the planet. November 2023 research from Bain & Company found that “72 percent of Gen Z consumers and 68 percent of Boomers globally are very or extremely concerned about the environment.” Perhaps most surprisingly, the researchers also found that this isn’t completely divided along party lines.

“In the U.S., 96 percent of consumers agree that the climate is changing. Among those concerned about the environment in the U.S., 85 percent of self-described liberal voters are very or extremely concerned about climate change, compared with 39 percent of conservative voters. Yet conservatives say they worry more about specific issues such as water, biodiversity loss and air pollution.”

J&J Vision depends on windmill power for its plant in Ireland.

In the U.K., Deloitte research also found an increased interest in sustainable purchasing, in part driven by the rising cost of living. Deloitte reported, “In a sign that the cost of living crisis is having an impact, behaviors with the largest increase in adoption this year include buying more second-hand items, paying more for longer-lasting products, repairing more and using the car less.” This has a direct impact on the eyewear industry: understanding what frames are made to last, and are able to be repaired, could be a major decision-making factor for consumers.

With that in mind, pricing and affordability remain important. In November 2023, Bain & Company published its findings after speaking to thousands of company executives about sustainability; the research found that “consumers in the U.S. are willing to pay an average premium of 11 percent for products with a minimized environmental impact. However, 28 percent is the average premium for products marketed as sustainable in the U.S.” Consumers are willing to pay more when they feel a product is responsible—but most still have monetary concerns and a hard cutoff when it comes to what they’ll spend.

GOING GREEN keeps tabs on what optical retailers and ECPs are doing to implement sustainable products and practices into their business and on what the standards, terminology and successful activities can be to make an impact on local, regional, national and global environmental issues.
It’s possible that this gap could be bridged with better communication. Bain & Company reported, “Worldwide, 48 percent of consumers consider how products are used when thinking about sustainability. These consumers are more concerned about how a product can be reused, its durability and how it will minimize waste. In contrast, most companies sell sustainable goods based on factors such as how they are made, their natural ingredients and the farming practices deployed. These factors cause many consumers to conflate ‘sustainable’ with ‘premium.’”

Because of this, the research found that “nearly half of all developed-market consumers believe that living sustainably is too expensive.” For retailers, this seems to come in part from a communication breakdown, or a misunderstanding of what consumers are looking for. It’s possible that with better in-store and POS talking-points and communication, the conversation around sustainability in eyewear and eyecare can become much more productive.

The road to sustainability is built on small steps here and there, and there is truly no such thing as perfection. But the data and real-world situations make it clear that it’s a road we all must travel together. With communication, collaboration and community, a more sustainable industry is not just possible but inevitable.

Gwendolyn Plummer, Senior Associate Editor


Jennifer Tsai, OD.
ECPs Weigh In on the Growing Need for Sustainability in Eyecare

For Jennifer Tsai, OD, owner and founder of Line of Sight in New York, sustainability is all about “minimizing environmental impact as a retail practice while still prioritizing patient ocular health.” For Dr. Tsai and her staff, this means implementing energy-saving measures like LED lighting, using washable drinking cups instead of plastic bottles, recycling materials, cutting down on all forms of paper, purchasing from sustainable companies and partnering with eyecare recycling programs.

Dr. Tsai has also noticed a growing interest in sustainability from her patients, who have started shopping around to find both the products and the providers who are willing to implement sustainability initiatives in their practices.

“I’ve noticed that patients are becoming more informed and conscious consumers, and they are starting to prioritize sustainability when making decisions about their eyecare products and even providers,” Dr. Tsai said. “Our patients are more willing to participate in recycling their contact lens waste and used eyewear frames and bringing them to drop off at our practice.”

She also noted the eyecare industry has moved more in the direction of sustainability. “There's definitely been a growing awareness of sustainability within the eyecare industry in recent years. Eyewear brands are responding to this by using more sustainable materials in their frames and packaging, in addition to environmentally friendly manufacturing processes. Contact lens companies have initiated recycling programs for used contact lenses, cases, bottles and packaging materials.”

Climate change is an area where Dr. Tsai believes sustainability plays an important role in combating related eye conditions. She noted that climate change can impact eye health by worsening conditions like dry eye syndrome and allergic conjunctivitis, due to changes in temperature and pollen distribution. She also warned that increased UV radiation from climate change can potentially lead to concerns like macular degeneration and cataract formation.

Finally, she said, extreme weather events can cause physical eye injuries, corneal abrasions, and changing disease patterns may affect eye health.

“Climate change is a high priority for our interest in sustainability initiatives due to the understanding that it can exacerbate eye and health conditions, such as dry eyes, contact lens discomfort and ocular allergies. Overall, climate change sustainability efforts help us engage with our local community as well as support each other in the neighborhood.”

 Rasika Whitesell, OD.
Catering to Patients’ Sustainability Needs

Rasika Whitesell, OD, owner of Port City Optometry in Wilmington, N.C., has seen her patients’ interest in sustainability products and the health of the environment heighten since she opened her doors about a year ago. 

“I think people are much more aware of what they are putting into the environment. There is so much research about how humans are impacting the earth and the environment. Larger corporations are, thankfully, becoming more involved and speaking out. Companies are actively taking steps to reduce their carbon footprint, such as car manufacturers, the beauty industry and an increase of measures in the eyecare world. This has really helped spread awareness of environmental issues.”

Dr. Whitesell noted that the most common question she gets from patients about sustainable eyecare products pertains to daily contact lenses.

“Daily contact lenses are on the rise in our patients because doctors know they are healthier, more comfortable, and have the lowest risk of infection. When I mention to the patient that we should try daily contact lenses, many times they say ‘that seems wasteful.’ They are worried about the extra packaging and plastic that is being used and tossed away daily,” she said. 

“What I tell patients is that most contact lens companies are now making sure the plastic they use is recyclable. I also tell them that if they were in a monthly contact lens that they would still need plastic contact lens cases and at least two bottles of contact lens solution per month. The amount of plastic that it takes to make those products also adds up to nearly the same as the amount of daily contact lens package waste.”

For Whitesell, whose practice provides care for patients with cataracts, dry eye, glaucoma, macular degeneration, and other eye conditions caused by systemic diseases, the opportunity to reuse and recycle is something she values in her new practice.

“I do not believe in wasting anything. I try to purchase/invest in items that can be reused, repurposed or donated. When I opened my practice one year ago, I really wanted mostly everything to be digital. I don’t use much paper in the office,” she said. “Patients love the digital aspect. Patients also love that they can bring their older pairs of glasses to donate. We send all gently used glasses to the Lions Club. In turn, they will take them on mission trips and/or donate [the eyeglasses] to anyone in need. 

“Energy efficiency is also key. Thankfully, in optometry we don't have to use bright overhead lighting. We do have to use a lamp and some equipment does involve bulbs. We try to use LED-efficient bulbs whenever possible. We also try to do all electronic billing to patients through email or text and we rarely send out a paper bill anymore or even a reminder postcard. We thankfully live in a digital world that most people have embraced.”

Climate change is another area that can affect the ocular health of patients and presents another opportunity for sustainability initiatives to take hold both at home and in businesses.

“Environmental changes such as humidity, temperature and air quality can have a big impact on ocular health,” Whitesell said.  If air quality is reduced, this can increase allergens and pollutants in the air. This would impact the eyes causing dryness, irritation and redness. 

“The other concern with climate change is ozone depletion and the decrease of UV protection of our earth; this can negatively impact humans. The eyes, especially, are very sensitive to a higher UV index. Cataracts, pterygium and eye cancers can increase dramatically with an increase in prolonged UV exposure. Rising temperatures, which has also been attributed to climate change, will also lead to dehydration which can result in severe dry eyes.

“Overall, we each have to make small changes in how we run our homes and our businesses. This can collectively lead to a positive impact on the environment and keep our earth sustainable for many more years,” Dr. Whitesell concluded. 

Frances Bynum, OD.
Educating Patients on Sustainability

Sustainability may not be top of mind for most of the patients that walk through the door of Northwest Tennessee Eye Clinic in Martin and Greenfield, Tenn., a provider of vision care products and services in the area. But that hasn’t prevented owner Frances Bynum, OD, from letting them know that her practice takes the topic of sustainability seriously.

“I do believe that there is more awareness about sustainability, and I think patients expect companies to be mindful of our world and its resources,” Dr. Bynum said. “But patients rarely ask about sustainability. However, I like to take time to tell patients that we like to do business with companies that are forward thinking about sustainability. We like to think of it as a partnership.”

According to Dr. Bynum, she is choosing to partner with companies that have sustainability plans. “As an eyecare provider, I am responsible for my patients, staff and my family. If I can choose to partner with companies that find value in helping our environment and develop processes that use renewable resources, recycle, use resources more efficiently or create less pollution, then we can preserve the environment for future generations.”

Climate change is among the factors that drive Dr. Bynum and her staff in their sustainability efforts, but it isn’t the chief motivation.

“I would not say climate change is my motivation. My motivation is to be responsible for what I can control,” she said. “That is doing little things like recycling all the cardboard, paper and plastic. Unfortunately, we do not have ‘recycling pickup’ where I live, therefore, I have to take recycling to the local recycling center. Also, be mindful of water, electricity and other resources that we must use in our practice.”

She continued, “There are many ways that climate changes affect eye health. Increased UV rays (from loss of ozone) can increase conditions like cataracts, pterygium and possible retinal issues. Extreme weather events such as wildfires can put harmful irritants in the atmosphere. Decreasing rain forests and increased deserts, which have arid conditions, increase dry eyes (ocular surface disease). 

“We do not know the long-term effects of climate change on the eye and overall health factors associated with long-term changes, but we should be mindful of these conditions that are affected by short-term events and be prepared to diagnose, treat and monitor.”
 Daniel Breeman, Senior Editor