Pala Eyewear is a brand on a mission. Not only do they create sunglasses that are sleek, stylish and sexy, but they’re trying to help put an end to poverty by providing grants to eye care projects in Africa, and they’re also putting ethical and sustainable practices at the forefront of their operations.
Eyewear isn’t just a form of self-expression but is an invaluable economic tool that helps empower its wearer. Pala’s “Buy One, Give One” model provides people in disadvantaged African communities with eyewear that can enable reading, learning and better access to education, which ultimately paves the way towards a more prosperous future. With eye care inaccessible to 640 million people worldwide, and considering that 80% of all vision problems are avoidable or curable, this is an incredible gift that Pala is giving—a gift that we as consumers can help them give.
The grants that Pala gives are very much vision-focused, and include building new Vision Centres and supporting outreach programmes—all sustainable, long-term solutions that facilitate eye care, eye-tests and the provision of spectacles. Through funding these projects Pala is able to calculate a ‘cost per patient helped’, and it is this cost that you—yep, you—provide through purchasing their eyewear. So, for every pair of sunglasses sold, a pair of spectacles is given to a person in need.
The Pala Eyewear case is turning waste into resource, and is another shining example of the innovation being shown by this brand. The cases are weaved in Bolgatanga, a region of Upper East Ghana, and though cases are traditionally weaved with grass, this region now repurposes recycled plastic instead. As Pala grows, more and more people are being taught to weave, providing them with a new skill and ultimately a new source of income. By using recycled plastic (a resource that is already in excess) rather than the traditional straw (a resource that is limited by seasonality), Pala is able to provide a more steady and regular income for their weavers all-year round.
Pala have really committed to being sustainable in every possible area—even their packaging boxes are FSC certified and their print materials come from recycled paper stock. They also commit to offsetting their CO2 for every pair of sunglasses sold. For this they work with not-for-profit Atmosfair through the financing of Wonderboxes in Nigeria and Rwanda. As for the glasses themselves, they’re all made in a Chinese factory that undergoes an annual SMETA (Sedex Members Ethical Trade Audit) to ensure adherence to ethical trading and corporate social responsibility.
Don’t just make a fashion statement with your eyewear, make a social statement as well, and help bring more opportunity to the places that need it most.
Behind the Brand:
An interview with John Pritchard, the founder of Pala Eyewear.
What made you start Pala?
The initial catalyst stemmed from a desire to do something with my life that provided me a genuine sense of purpose – to make a tangible difference to the lives of others and not just my own. I didn’t want to sit back in my rocking chair in 30 years’ time (or something much more futuristic) knowing that I hadn’t tried to do something positive and lasting during my short stay on this planet.
Setting up my own business and putting a social cause at the heart of it was my way of doing this, giving me the purpose that I was seeking. Having become aware of lack of access to eyecare across Africa during my travels, I already had the seed of that cause.
A pair of spectacles is recognised as the number one most effective tool to fight poverty; it empowers the wearer by enabling them to read, learn and work. Simple, yet so very so effective. It was therefore a natural decision to create an eyewear brand that provided the vehicle for delivering that change.
What has been the most challenging thing you have uncovered since the beginning?
Like most start-ups we’ve had our fair share of challenges; we had a trademark dispute in the early days with a $bn company (which we won!), stolen stock, supply chain delays and the familiar issue of high MOQ’s to manage, but I think the main challenge has been getting the Pala brand out there into market. The eyewear industry is a huge, huge industry and you are competing with brands that have equally massive budgets that simply swamp a meagre budget of a start-up which means routes like AdWords and PR are tricky, as money really does talk.
So, you must be agile and be really focused with your marketing strategy and appreciate that brand growth will be slow and steady. Patience is everything in this world!
Within the ethical fashion community, there’s a big question that we ask which is ‘who made my clothes’; In the scope of Pala, who made your sunglasses? Can you tell us a bit about them?
We use a factory in China. China has a good reputation within the eyewear industry for producing great quality eyewear. Making eyewear (unless very high end) isn’t an ‘artisanal’ process and relies very much on technology to create the product, however we are very careful to work with a factory that is ethically audited and undergoes an annual SMETA audit which I have visibility of.
I met up with some of the team from the factory earlier this month and it is important for us both that we build a relationship of trust over producing a quality product that doesn’t compromise ethical standards.
Why did you pick the materials that you have chosen to work with?
Acetate is a cotton-based material used in the manufacturing of high-quality eyewear, so in that sense it’s the quality component that was important to me. It also provides the widest choice of colourways and sits lightly on the face so it has those practical advantages as well.
However, being cotton-based doesn’t mean it is ‘green’; there are harmful chemicals used in the manufacturing process. The good news is that bio-acetate is becoming more readily available which removes these chemicals from the process, and whilst we’re still limited in choice we’ve got a couple of styles for 2019 utilising this substrate, and we’re keen to increase this within our collection as we grow.
We also launched our first style this Autumn using recycled acetate created from the offcuts from other frames produced within the manufacturing process.
Best piece of advice you have ever received?
Wow… that’s a tough one! There have been so many people out there who have given me a nugget of wisdom.
For me though, one of the essential pieces of advice is to take care of your own health.
Create a routine so that you achieve balance to your week. Running a start-up, you can easily find yourself constantly in ‘work mode’ and failing to switch off. There’s always another email to answer! However, incorporating discipline into your day means that you work more efficiently, and you get the mental wellbeing that is crucial in setting you up for each new day. So, every Sunday I’ll find half an hour to plan my week in advance, blocking out my calendar so that I am orientated for the week ahead.
Why was it important to you to make your brand ethical?
I find it hard living a comfortable life knowing that there are people around the world far more disadvantaged simply because they were born in a different country under different circumstances—it’s a roll of a dice.
For me to go and get my eyes tested it’s a 10 minute walk down the road. For people I have met in Zambia and Ethiopia it’s a 3 day bus journey and having to sleep on the floor outside the eye centre to be seen the next morning. If I can somehow help in some small way towards resolving this problem, then I have that all important ‘purpose’ in my life which I would otherwise always be searching for.
What is something others wouldn’t know about starting an ethical business that you think they should?
When you ‘go it alone’ I think there is some trepidation that you are just that, alone in the world with your laptop and ideas. However, what I found right from the start was that there is a lot of support and resource out there and you should look to tap into it when you can.
As ethical businesses we all have this shared vision of a better planet, whichever strands of sustainability we choose to pursue, so I have found other brands, stockists, influencers and platforms are inherently more invested in helping you out. They are keen to see you succeed. I didn’t find this ‘embrace’ in my previous corporate life.
One tip you’d give to others who are wanting to start their own business?
It’s rather tied to above, but it’s to network. Someone always knows someone.
Whether it’s finding a fulfilment company, a packaging manufacturer, legal assistance, etc., you will most likely need to access these and a whole lot more at some point. Go with personal recommendations rather than dial up arbitrary information from the internet.
Where do you envision Pala in the future?
If you look at the 17 Global Sustainable Development Goals set by the United Nations, you can broadly summarise that their aim is to end poverty, protect the planet and ensure that all people enjoy peace and prosperity. Pala’s priorities are aligned with these goals and I want us to continue to challenge ourselves to do more in this space.
Our focus (pardon the pun) is on sunglasses for now, but we will be launching a capsule range of optical frames in the UK next year. It feels a natural step for the business to take and we’re looking forward to this new challenge.
What or who inspires you to do what you do on a daily basis?
I am inspired by all those independent brands out there that have set out with that same purpose of creating change for good in the world. It’s not easy starting up a fashion business and I still think there is a way to go before we see consumers in their volumes, gravitate towards sustainable products. So, I give huge kudos to those ‘Ethical Entrepreneurs’ who are driven by their passion, who are innovating and challenging the norms. It takes a lot of hard work and sacrifice.
Do you have a morning routine? If so, what is it you do to set yourself up for the day ahead?
My alarm goes off at around 6:45am and I don’t tend to hang around for too long.
However, a recent introduction to my life has been the Headspace App, which helps prepare my mind for the day ahead, so I do ten minutes of that before anything else.
Three times a week I do a spin class, which gets me back home for 8am. I try and have a decent breakfast—eggs tend to find there way in there a lot (!) and work is then just a 15 minute walk away. When I don’t have the class on then I’ll do an hour of work instead. I find it nice to have that uninterrupted time so that when I hit the office I can get straight on with task-based work rather than losing myself down email wormholes!
One book everyone should read? Why?
It’s probably one that most people have heard of: Purple Cow by Seth Godin. It’s not because it’s short (although for me that is a plus point!), but it just seems to talk complete sense around marketing strategy in ways I understand, and by using several good case studies.
If you want an abridged version, then it fundamentally talks about modern marketing being around engaging the early adopters and facilitating word of mouth… but there’s a lot more so go out any buy it anyway.
One documentary everyone should watch? Why?
Very current I know, but I was really moved by the recent documentary on the BBC, ‘Drowning in Plastic’. The fact that every piece of plastic that has ever been produced is still very much present on this planet must surely raise alarm bells, and now seeing how that it is impacting our oceans and our food chain has made me more aware still of my interaction with plastic in my everyday life. We’ve all got to get on this train quickly and start changing our habits now.
Are there any other Movers & Shakers out there in your world that you think people should know about?
I respect everyone who is making an effort to ‘move and shake’ the world of sustainability. You can look at it from the perspective of people like Emma Watson, Stella McCartney and Livia Firth, all, who based on sheer following alone can, and do, have great influence on the shopping habits of millions of people.
However, if you remove the celebrity element then there are people like journalist Alden Wicker of EcoCult or blogger Natalie Kay Smith of Sustainably Chic to name but a few. That particular list can go on and on, and that’s a huge positive for our world as you get a genuine sense that sustainable fashion is gathering huge momentum, not just from the top down, but from the all-important grass roots. I’d love to have this interview again in 5 years and see how far we have progressed. Go on, let me?