You wouldn’t think that something as innocuous as glasses would represent an industry ready for a complete overhaul.
But think of it, glasses frames are primarily made of plastic and metal. They are everywhere. They are not easily recyclable. The processes undertaken to make them are wasteful. And the market for lenses and frames is cornered by one massive conglomerate organization that has marked the price of glasses up in some cases by 1000%.
The danger of any industry being controlled by one company is that prices and processes can go unchecked. In today’s disruptive world, industries that have gone for too long without some type of correction are due for a change.
Before having a conversation with Mike Murray, Director of Dresden Vision Canada, I did not realize to what extent the optometry market was one of these industries.
Clarity of Vision
Dresden Vision is a relatively new company that started in Australia. Dresden was founded by Bruce Jeffreys and Jason McDermott, an entrepreneurial duo. Jeffreys had just come off the heels of co-founding a successful rideshare business that was the first of its kind in Australia.
They entered the market with little experience, but they did have something going for them—insatiable curiosity, and a desire to do things differently. And, being glasses-wearers themselves, they had inherent frustrations as consumers to fuel their desire to make a change.
Mike Murray has been instrumental in bringing Dresden into Canada, which has now grown to three retail outlets in Toronto, and plans for more.
“When we got into glasses, we had a philosophy that went against hiring anybody with an optical background,” says Murray. “We wanted to get fresh eyes on things so to speak, and ask really stupid questions.”
One of these so-called stupid questions was, why should it take so long for people to get glasses? A generally accepted wait time usually ends up at about 1 – 2 weeks to get a pair of prescription lenses with frames. The answer?
“It’s really because companies don’t want the burden of carrying the stock and paying for the machinery to cut the lenses,” Murray explains. “They outsource that and pay someone to do it, and in turn, they have to charge you.”
Conversely, Dresden has boldly undertaken the task of rethinking the manufacturing process, right from the frames of the glasses to the lenses. When you enter a Dresden outlet, you end up rethinking everything you thought you knew about the process of making glasses. And imagine going into a store to buy glasses and leaving with them in 15 minutes.
“It’s all on the floor,” Murray says. “It’s actually done in front of you. It’s about demystifying things. When you walk in, you can see the entire process, everything is out in the open. We don’t wear lab coats or anything—you hit a couple of buttons, and it’s done.”
Murray makes no bones about his disdain for the current state of the optometry industry.
“If you buy Ray-Ban or Gucci or Chanel or Lacoste, or Polo, or whatever brand you can name, and then you walk into a LensCrafters or Sunglass Hut or whatever it is, not only do [Luxottica Group] own all those brands, they own all those stores too. They are completely vertically integrated. And nobody knows this.”
Dresden and the Environment
Dresden did not start out with a focus on sustainability, their primary mission was to make glasses affordable and accessible for the people who need them. As a result, Dresden took up the noble cause of rethinking every part of the process for making glasses. The manufacturing process for the frames, the lenses themselves, the screws to hold them together—everything was up for discussion on how to be optimized. Sustainability became one of the focuses of the company rather organically, if you will, after they realized through their information gathering that the glasses industry in its current state undergoes practices that are terrible for the environment.
“A lens comes in a disc,” explains Murray. “And that disc gets cut down to whatever shape of frame you have. Usually about two thirds of that disc is waste. The machine grinds it so fine that the plastic turns into foam, and they put it straight into the water system. Another stupid question we had was: What do you mean you just put it down the drain? They answer was that it is ‘standard’. It turns out it’s not even legal to do that, but who regulates the optical industry?”
In response to this “standard” practice, Dresden worked with an engineering firm to determine a way to properly capture and filter any waste from their manufacturing process.
Similarly, in a “we can certainly do this better” approach, Dresden takes great care to explore, obtain and test many different materials that can be used to make their frames.
“The nylon that we started off using is called TR90, which is like the Rolls Royce of nylons.” Murray explains. “It’s made in this extremely sustainable factory in Switzerland. That was the benchmark. With sustainability, you can’t compromise. In other words, you can’t have a sustainable product that sucks. So this product we started with (that is recyclable) you could bend it in half. We probably experimented with dozens of new materials after that, we’ve even tried making frames out of pasta. So if you were stuck on an island, you could boil them and eat them. We’ve used wood composite, we’ve used recycled cash (old currency), beer keg lids, bottle caps… we even did a BMW car bumper.”
Because the materials used in the manufacturing of Dresden frames are all made from recycled plastic, they are also recyclable at end-of-life. The same cannot be said for the many millions of existing frames currently on the market—the metal and plastic components melded together make them impossible to recycle and so they end up in a landfill, or worse.
“Anytime you see frames with metal in them, they’re going to landfill,” confirms Murray. “When you have metal in frames, the manufacturing emissions go through the roof. Just by us not using metal in our frames we have 99% less CO2 emissions in our manufacturing process. And, they are recyclable at end of life.”
Now that the company has a few years of experience from asking “stupid’ questions, the focus continues to be on research and development and continuous imporovement of materials and process. That includes conducting research on materials that you wouldn’t normally expect would have any place in glasses frames.
“We keep trying new things,” Murray says. “What happens with most of the recovered material is that it’s not pure; it’s mixed with other materials. The best we’ve found so far is recycled fish nets. If you can haul tons of fish through kilometres of water with it, then it should work pretty well to hold lenses on your face.
“The frames that we just released are actually old shampoo bottles,” he continues. “We found a company called Green Circle Salons that collects and recycles all kinds of materials from salons; tin foil, dye bottles, shampoo bottles, even hair trimmings (which are used to clean up oil spills). It’s a constant story of adapting. Sustainability is a pursuit—we’re definitely not there. Even if we do get an extremely awesome source, we’re still going to be looking and trying new things.”
As a compliment to the sentiment that you don’t need to get into politics to incite meaningful, impactful change for the better, Dresden pulls no punches to balance social and ethical responsibility, while also being a solvent business model.
“We’re a triple-bottom line company,” Murray says. “We only do things that have societal and environmental outcome weighted evenly with trying to make money, because we’re a business after all, we’re not a charity. We want to prove that you can make money while doing good things.”