A spectacle frame is unique in the market today. It is a product worn close to the body and in regular contact with the skin, and yet there is almost no information about the materials used in its manufacture available to the consumer.
I think it is time that we unpick some of the complicated supply chain and give consumers a little more clarity when choosing glasses.
A brief history
The world of Optometry has largely been immune from questions regarding ethical manufacturing. This may be partly because Optometry is part of the healthcare industry. That distinction gives it a more respected edge and the remnant of that respect is maybe why people don’t ask the questions they should. We sometimes tend to gloss over the ethical issues involved in how our medical devices are made because they are providing an essential service rather than a disposable choice.
A modern Opticians Practice has become a delicate balance between healthcare and retail, but that wasn’t always the case. The industry evolved from a background rooted firmly in healthcare and spectacles were seen as a medical device. The people that wore those medical devices were called patients.
The industry in the UK was radically changed in 1989, and with new regulation a new marketplace was opened up. Large retail companies were set up and began to compete in an un-tapped market. This led to fierce competition and with it came the impetus to drive prices lower and lower. Suddenly those patients were no longer patients, they became consumers.
The UK manufacture of spectacle frames was once a thriving industry but the competition to drive the price lower meant that the UK could not compete. Now there is no large-scale factory left in the UK and what remains are niche producers of specialist frames.
There is now a fairly convoluted supply chain to get from the raw materials to the completed spectacle frame on the Opticians display stand. This frame will be displayed with very little information about where it was made, in what conditions and what it is made from. Until people start asking those questions then there is no reason for anything to change.
The Supply Chain
Long gone are the days when Opticians fashioned frames in the backroom of their own Optometry Practices. The constant modern market force to drive down prices has meant that every part of the spectacle frame may come from a different country and from a factory specialized in making that one part.
Opticians generally buy spectacle frames from frame distributers, who buy from frame design companies. These in turn buy their product from manufacturing factories that source the raw material from producers.
In my experience it is very difficult to trace a product back to the original producer because the frame distributers do not always have direct contact with the factories in which they buy their product. Often the frame companies will have a portfolio that includes product from many different manufacturing factories reflecting the complex nature of the supply chain.
The supply chain can get more convoluted when different manufacturers are making different parts of the frame. So, for example, the front of the frame may be made in a different place to the hinges or the nose pads. The component parts of that frame may be then assembled in a separate factory. This obviously increases the amount of travel or frame miles the product has undergone before it reaches the consumer.
It also highlights one of the issues in frame manufacture. Spectacle frames are generally marked as being made in a particular country. However, to legally display that tag only the most expensive part of production has to have been completed in that country. The component parts could have been made anywhere and only put together in that particular country.
Some of the larger frame companies will control their own factories. Frames are manufactured in places such as China, South Korea, France, Brazil, India, Japan, Germany, Italy and USA. Each factory is governed by it’s own standards and local regulation. It is very rare for an Optician to be able to be confident of the standards of factories in which the spectacles are made because they are too far removed from the manufacture.
The Optical industry has had it’s fair share of unethical spectacle frame materials. If you look around the display stand of a high street Opticians you can find frames described as being a tortoiseshell colour. This is a throwback to the days when the natural product was used to make spectacle frames. The tortoiseshell used was actually a marine turtle called the Hawksbill turtle. It remains classified as critically endangered by the World Conservation Union and it is now thankfully illegal to sell products derived from its shell.
There are a still few spectacle frames still made from natural materials such as horn or wood. The horn used is generally from the water buffalo and is a byproduct of the meat industry. Whilst some may not like the exploitation of animals bred for meat, it does ensure that no part of the animal goes to waste. Horn that is not used for other industries ends up in landfill. Wood spectacle frames are a specialist product and the frames I have seen have all been produced using FSC approved timber.
The vast majority of spectacle frames on the UK market are made from man-made materials or derivatives. The industry has evolved to demand a cheap, light, strong material and is constantly looking at alternatives. The motivation of the spectacle makers may be sometimes at odds to an ethical consumer.
Plastic frames can be made from many different composite materials. A more expensive and ethical choice for molded frames is a plastic called cellulose acetate. This is a natural based plastic made from a source of plant cellulose (usually cotton or wood pulp.) If is it is pure cellulose acetate then the material is relatively ecologically friendly since it is biodegradable and compostable. Although it is virtually impossible to find the source of the plant cellulose and whether this has been harvested in a sustainable way.
One of the more ecologically friendly materials I have found recently is a plastic derived from caster seed oil. This particular company is able to trace its product back to the castor farms and remains one of the few frame companies able to trace its product back to the raw material.
Other plastic materials sometimes used can include nylon, carbon fiber or polycarbonate. Cheaper and less ecologically friendly plastic frames are made from petroleum based plastic. It is impossible to tell the difference between this and cellulose acetate by looking at it, although some people say that the petroleum based plastic has a greasy feel to it.
Metal frames can again be made from a host of different metals. They often consist of a cheap base metal plated with a more expensive and better looking metal. Cheaper metal frames are commonly made from nickel and copper-nickel alloys. These can range in nickel content from 12% to 68% depending on the alloy. They are often coated in an attempt to stop the nickel touching the skin and causing irritation.
More expensive metal frames may be made from stainless steel, aluminum, titanium or gold. Titanium is often classed as one of the more ecologically friendly materials because in developed countries there are stringent regulations in how the mines operate. It is very difficult to find out from the frame companies where their titanium has been mined.
Plastic and metal frames also include chemical additives such as dyes, glues, UV inhibitors, lacquer and mould inhibitors. None of this chemical information is offered to the Opticians buying the frames and many frame companies do not know the full make-up of their frames because they have never been asked the question.
It is not currently possible to recycle old spectacle frames in household recycling in the UK.
There are schemes in which consumers donate their unwanted prescription glasses to deprived areas of the world. Charities collect unwanted glasses, measure them and deliver them to areas that need them. Whilst this is to be applauded there is some evidence that this is not a financially viable solution to the lack of prescription eyewear around the world.
None of the charities that currently collect glasses accept broken frames or progressive lenses. A study from Australia in 2012 found that only 1 in 15 of donated glasses are actually used by the charity. The same study found that the cost involved to measure, sort and transport the frame to a deprived country was actually more than the cost of manufacturing a completely new frame. This left the authors of the study to conclude that donating spectacle frames to charity was a feel good waste of money.
The majority of frames in the UK will end up in landfill. No frame company currently has any scheme to recycle any parts of its product.
There are issues in the sale of spectacle frames for the ethical consumer to be concerned about. The industry is regulated and safe but the clarity is lacking. If consumers start asking questions of their Optician, then in turn their Optician will start asking the questions of the frame companies, and maybe we will end up with a more transparent industry.
Please feel free to email with any questions or comments.