Guest blog from optometrist Simon Berry
Despite being worn by 69% of the population there is almost no information about the materials used in spectacle manufacture available to UK consumers.
There is a complicated supply chain to get from raw materials to the completed frame. However little information is available to consumers about its manufacture or what it is made from.
Supply chain issues
Opticians generally buy spectacle frames from frame distributors, who buy from frame design companies, who in turn source their product from factories.
In my experience it is very difficult to try and trace a product back to the producer because the frame distributors rarely have direct contact with the factories from which their product is sourced.
The supply chain can get more convoluted when different manufacturers make different parts of the frame e.g. the front of the frame, hinges or nose pads. The component parts may then be 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 is therefore 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.
Asking tough questions
To my knowledge our practice is the only one in the country that gives frame companies and suppliers a questionnaire to assess how ethical their products are.
I have found it very difficult to get them to complete it because they have never been asked such questions before. Some are more honest and forthright than others.
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 in manufacture is lacking. The only way to improve the situation is for consumers start asking questions also.
Most spectacles are produced using conventional plastics and metals but there are some notable exceptions.
There are still a few spectacle frames made from natural materials such as horn or wood. Horn comes from the water buffalo and is a byproduct of the meat industry. One such company producing these frames is Lindberg.
Wood spectacle frames are a specialist product and the frames I have seen are all produced using FSC approved timber. You can find a good range from Moathouse Eyewear who handmake wooden frames in Derbyshire from FSC approved timber.
A more ethical choice for a plastic frame is cellulose acetate, made from a source of plant cellulose (usually cotton or wood pulp.) If it is pure then the material is relatively ecologically friendly since it is biodegradable and compostable.
One of the more ecologically friendly materials I have found recently is a plastic derived from castor seed oil. This product is traceable back to the castor farms and a company called Zeal is one of the few frame companies able to trace its product back to the raw material.
Cheaper and less ecologically friendly frames are made from petroleum-based plastic. It is impossible to tell the difference between this and other plastics by looking at it.
Metal frames can again be made from a host of different metals; the cheaper ones from nickel alloys. These can range in nickel content from 12% to 68%. They are often coated in an attempt to avoid skin 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 it is mined.
Plastic and metal frames also include chemical additives such as dyes, glues, UV inhibitors and lacquer. 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.
You can find out more about how Simon ethically sources his frames on the ethics section of his website.