This article is part of our Going Against the Grain series, which tells the stories of companies bold enough to break business norms and try out new ideas. To explore the rest of the series, head here.
When sunglasses maker SunGod achieved B Corporation Certification at the end of August, it underscored the company’s efforts to prioritise sustainability.
B Corp status is one of the highest markers of sustainability in the business world. To achieve the distinction from the non-profit organisation B Lab, a business must demonstrate high social and environmental performance and make a legal commitment in its corporate governance to balance the considerations of all stakeholders in its actions.
SunGod earned its certification after a rigorous 20-month process. The Verbier, Switzerland-based sunglasses and sports eyewear specialist is now a triple bottom-line business in its articles of association, says co-founder Ali Watkiss, meaning it must balance the profit with the company’s social and environmental impacts.
“We have to put the planet and people on a level footing with profit when we’re making decisions,” he adds. “It means we always have to think about the wider impact on all the stakeholders to make sure that we’re doing the best thing for everyone involved.”
Ali says the B Corp process was “all-encompassing” and “dug into every part of the business”. It’s also helped to formalise many internal processes. Onboarding rules were once written on paper, while perks like afternoons off in the winter months for skiing were shared by word of mouth; these are now properly recorded. He says this will help maintain the company culture as the business scales.
“It’s been a long but very fruitful process, which has actually helped us to elevate and professionalise the business,” says fellow co-founder and wife Zoe Watkiss.
Sunglasses for life
The married couple say the main motivation for starting SunGod was to challenge the sector’s throw-away culture. “When we started there were really two options for consumers. There were the expensive Oakley-style pairs and then at the other end of the market there were the fast-fashion products that people wear for a couple of days before disposing of them,” says Ali. “We set out to build a business that sat between the two, to create a product that was built to last and that wasn’t at all fast fashion.”
Although the sunglasses industry is rarely considered among the largest contributors to carbon emissions, the impact of fast fashion means many pairs go to waste each year. According to Statista, 768.7 million sunglasses were produced in 2021; this is expected to grow to 901.4 million by 2025 as demand increases.
SunGod sought to set itself apart from other industry players from its inception. A key differentiator is that all its sunglasses come with a lifetime guarantee. If any of its products are ever broken, the customer can send the item back to be repaired. “We realised that when a pair of sunglasses breaks, it’s probably only one component that’s broken; it’s wasteful to throw the entire product in the bin,” Ali says.
Zoe admits her risk profile doesn’t match that of her husband but is glad he convinced her to commit to the lifetime promise. “I think it was a fantastic credibility driver to actually demonstrate that we’re doing things differently,” she says. “It’s powerful to be able to say it’s been in our DNA since the beginning.”
The company only produces sunglasses with ‘classic designs’ to avoid fashion fads. It uses recycled materials in the frames, doesn’t allow returns, doesn’t offer discounts and only makes its products available direct to consumers.
The decision to prevent returns is “very anti-fast fashion”, says Ali. “That also helps us reduce the impact because it’s pretty damaging to ship items out to customers and back again,” he adds. “With some fast fashion brands it’s cheaper to destroy returned products than to repackage them.”
SunGod opted against stocking its products in retail stores, a commitment that was also made in the interests of sustainability. By going direct to the consumer, it makes it easier to offer a lifetime guarantee. What’s more, the company can produce to meet customer demand, rather than to stock up retailers, and the journey between suppliers and retailers is also cut.
“It’s a much simpler model and a simpler supply chain as a result,” Zoe explains.
The sustainable advantage
Zoe admits it can be harder for a small business to hold itself to a higher standard than much of the rest of the industry. However, she says that every decision the company has made in the interests of sustainability has also been a good business decision.
Ultimately, they hope the changes they make can help set the industry standard as the business grows. Ali thinks there’s only a “shallow recognition” of the importance of sustainability from some of the industry leaders. This left room for a challenger brand like SunGod to come in and “shake it up a little bit”, he adds.
While many of these bigger companies have set ambitions of being carbon neutral by 2025, SunGod can claim to be carbon neutral since its inception, after backdating and offsetting all its historic CO2 emissions last year.
“The bigger we get, the more impact we can have; it means we can set an industry standard,” says Zoe. “Obviously we’re a long way from being the same size as some of the big brands, but if we can make a company like Oakley change, that would be our biggest success.
“Getting to that critical scale is an exciting place to be because it means we can demand change within the industry and people will increasingly start to listen and change their behaviour.”
Taking the sustainable route hasn’t always been easy. SunGod previously used virgin plastics in its glasses, but has recently developed a new frame material made from 100% recycled material. Although the new material is cheaper to buy, it’s more complicated for the manufacturer to use as it requires more precision with injection temperatures and the speed of the moulding machines.
The co-CEOs hope that the business can now leverage its growing brand power to encourage its manufacturers to be more sustainable. “We know working with recylced material causes our manufacturers headaches,” Zoe says. “But it’s where our business is moving, so we need them to come on board with us on that journey. Sometimes that takes a bit of explaining and convincing to do.”
Changes in consumer behaviour make the process easier. The pair believe SunGod’s sustainable credentials are key to the customer loyalty that the business enjoys. “It’s part of the value proposition that people are buying into. I know as a consumer I’m thinking twice about where my money goes. I think that is part of why people are choosing us over other brands,” Zoe says.
Ultimately, Ali believes SunGod’s commitment to sustainability has been repaid in terms of customer loyalty, employee satisfaction and brand recognition. “I see sustainability as a competitive advantage, not a disadvantage.”