Fabulous Frames from Warby Parker
The mainstream fashion media consumes itself with the latest ‘must-haves’. A great many column inches are taken up with what is deemed to be the essential purchase of the day. If we believed the hype, our social lives, sex lives and even our lifelong happiness depend upon whether or not we buy ‘it’, or buy in to it.
Now, I’m not going to be a total fashion bore here and say we should only buy what we need. That would be dull and far too worthy. I like to buy luxuries - my wardrobe is full of things that I don’t really need - but I like to buy them carefully, consider their provenance and treat them with love. Many of the things I write about are not life’s essentials, merely beautiful things that hopefully have a positive impact on the communities in which they are made, have been produced with respect and should be treated with that same respect. But I digress.
There are of course very few items that we do actually need – true ‘must-haves’. It would be safe to assume that even if you are committed to conscious consumption, these wardrobe mainstays will be easy to find. This is not always the case. Underwear, shoes, winter coats, glasses, sun hats, umbrellas – the things we need to protect us from the elements or help us to traverse our daily lives safely – are not always readily available or affordable if you want a stylish and ethical option, even if you know where to look.
US brand Warby Parker was set up in this spirit – to provide prescription eyewear (above) and sunglasses that are designed, produced and even sold with great care. Design plays a huge part in the success of the brand and their glamourous, vintage inspired SS16 collection looks pretty darn cool.
Back to the beginning - ‘every idea starts with a problem’ or indeed a need. One of the four founders, Dave Gilboa - now CEO, then a student - lost his glasses while backpacking, and because replacements were so expensive, he spent his first term at grad school ‘squinting and complaining’ with no glasses. How can it be that prescription glasses cost so much that a college student in the US can't afford to replace them? Warby Parker explains on its website:
‘The eyewear industry is dominated by a single company that has been able to keep prices artificially high while reaping huge profits from consumers who have no other options...We started Warby Parker to create an alternative.’
So, how do they achieve this?
‘Most high-end brands do not produce their own eyewear. Instead, they sell those rights to massive companies who design, manufacture, and sell branded glasses directly to optical shops. Those optical shops tack on additional mark-ups to frames and lenses before selling them to you...We cut out the middleman by designing and producing our own eyewear, then passing on the savings to customers. We effectively sell glasses wholesale (because it makes no sense for customers to pay for multiple mark-ups).’
Prescription eyewear from Warby Parker starts at $95 (around £67) which, as an example, is less than half the price of some high street brands currently available at UK optician Boots.com.
Founded on the ethos that ‘everyone has the right to see’, Warby Parker has a buy-a-pair-give-a-pair model to address the problem of nearly one billion people worldwide having no access to glasses. That equates to ‘15% of the world’s population [who] cannot effectively learn or work’. Unlike some one-for-one business models who simply give an item directly to a person in need, Warby Parker has partnered with non-profits like VisionSpring (Neil Blumenthal, Warby Parker co-founder and CEO was a former Director there) who oversee training and distribution. The team outlines on the website why this model is preferable to just donating a pair of prescription glasses:
‘It’s a sticky fact of life that kind-hearted gestures can have unintended consequences. Donating is often a temporary solution, not a lasting one. It can contribute to a culture of dependency. It is rarely sustainable...Instead of donating, our partners train men and women to sell glasses for ultra-affordable prices, which allows them to earn a living. More important, it forces our partners to offer glasses that people actually want to buy: glasses that fit with local styles, look good, work well, and make the wearer feel incredible.’
Warby Parker’s contribution to the work at VisionSpring has enabled the nonprofit ‘to train over 18,000 men and women in over 35 countries to date’, which has resulted in the distribution of 'over a million pairs of glasses to people in need'. Further proving their commitment to social and ethical issues within the supply chain Warby Parker are licensed as a B Corp - a ‘for-profit compan[y] certified by the nonprofit B Lab to meet rigorous standards of social and environmental performance, accountability, and transparency’ – and boast a rating ‘twice as high as the average B-Corp’.
Their ‘mission is as much to benefit society as it is to incur profit’ and they work with independent auditing organisation Verité ‘to ensure that [their] factories have fair working conditions and happy employees’. The B Lab report on Warby Parker also states that a living wage is paid to all employees, 30-40% of management is from previously excluded populations and they conduct an internal environmental review. The brand is also proud of its status as one of the only carbon neutral eyewear brands in the world, as B Lab explains 'Warby Parker has mapped out all of their greenhouse gas emissions from frame production to shipping to warehousing to office work and have purchased carbon offsets accordingly.’
Their brand new collection, in dozens of delicious summer shades is very tempting indeed: I am pretty sure that popping on a pair of those beauties might make me feel like the 1950s screen siren I dreamt of being in my teens.
Ok, so I said I'm not one for 'must-haves', but if you need a pair of sunglasses or prescription eyewear, then at the very least you ‘must-have-a-look-at’ these fabulous frames.