Eyewear that doesn’t cost the Earth

Sustainable bamboo, castor oil seeds and “liquid wood” are just some of the materials inspiring a new generation of eco-friendly eyewear, as Nicky Collinson discovers

Sustainable eyewear crafted from renewable materials to minimise your carbon footprint is probably not the first thing on your mind when choosing a new pair of frames. But a movement is afoot to challenge our way of thinking, with the application of processes and materials that don’t cost the Earth.

Sustainably harvested wood, novel acetates (plastics) containing a higher percentage of natural materials like cotton, and buffalo horn from responsibly farmed cattle, are being used by a growing band of eco-minded eyewear producers.

The 2012 Gucci Eyeweb collection, for instance, includes two “bio-based” sunglasses in a natural material made from castor oil seeds that helps to reduce CO2 emissions during production. The joy of castor plants is that they are not genetically modified (non-GMO) and can grow on poor soil in semi-arid areas using little water and very few pesticides.

The luxury brand, in partnership with Safilo, is also developing sunglasses made from “liquid wood”, a biodegradable material made of wood fibre from sustainably managed forests, lignin, which after cellulose is the most abundant renewable carbon source on Earth, and natural wax. The initial prototype in semi-matte black with shaded grey glass lenses is based on Gucci’s bamboo-inspired frame and features recycled metal. New sustainable packaging, featuring the Mobius loop recycling symbol, adds to the brand’s eco credentials.

Sustainable materials are being used by a growing band of eco-minded eyewear producers

Meanwhile, Stella McCartney launched a range of eco-friendly sunglasses this year crafted from injected bio-plastic, which is 54 per cent made from castor oil seeds. The aim is to limit the use of plastic made from petroleum, which takes millions of years to regenerate after consumption. The frames also combine cellulose, which is renewable and biodegradable, together with natural plasticisers (agents that soften plastic) derived from citric acid.

And it’s not just the big names seeing green. Among a host of emerging niche suppliers, Washington DC-based start-up Panda Eyewear hopes to help change the environmental and social impact of sunglasses. The young company produces high-end sunglasses handcrafted from sustainable bamboo – the fastest growing plant on Earth – and recycled polycarbonates. What’s more, every time someone buys a pair of Panda sunglasses, a free eye exam and eyewear is donated to a person in need.

Panda’s Vincent Ko says: “We have seen a growing trend in how consumers view what their sunglasses are made of, how they are made and their social impact. This mentality was not around a few years ago but, as more consumers want to know the complete story about the product they buy, I believe this thought process will spread.”

The aesthetics of sustainable eyewear are not going unnoticed either. Free Form Eyewear Green by Thomas Trauth, designed to minimise carbon footprint, received a coveted Red Dot product design award earlier this year. The collection, by Stuttgart-based Trauth, consumes the least material, requires the fewest production steps in terms of machine time and releases no toxic materials during production.