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Behind the Brand: Meet the man making sunglasses to fund vital eye-care

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Pala Eyewear has some of the most on-trend optical offerings we’ve come across, so it may come as a surprise to learn that its foundations are not fashionable, but philanthropic.  

Pala’s website states: “We provide grants directly to eyecare projects in Africa. Projects might include building a new Vision Centre; or dispensary, purchasing equipment or supporting an outreach programme – all sustainable, long term solutions that facilitate eyecare, eye-tests and provision of spectacles. 

"From the funding of these projects we can calculate a ‘cost per patient’ helped, and it is that cost that you provide through buying our eyewear. This is how we square our proposition that buying a pair of sunglasses equates to a pair of spectacles to a person who needs them.” 

In short, when you buy a pair of Pala sunglasses, you contribute directly to helping a person somewhere in Africa get the eye-care they need.  

Founder John // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

As if that wasn’t enough, Pala is also doing their bit for local communities by using waste plastic for their sunglasses’ cases. Old plastic bags, discarded water sachets and more are collected, wahsed, melted, and re-purposed into plastic to be woven into cases. Local people are trained as weavers, gaining not only a skill but also a more regular source of income. 

So what came first?  The desire to help, or a love for fashion?  Founder John told The National Student how, after obtaining a degree in surveying, he found himself working in the fashion industry:

“My initial spark for the brand stemmed from a desire to do something with my life that provided me a genuine sense of purpose. I had enjoyed many years working in the corporate world, but ultimately, I became more uncomfortable with the ‘comfort’ of my job when there were growing environmental and humanity issues in world. I felt I was in a privileged position to be able to see if I could make a difference in my own small way to help tackle some of these issues.

The Farai frame // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

“Setting up my own business and putting a social cause at the heart of it was my way of doing this, giving me that purpose that I was seeking. For me it was a case of identifying a cause first rather than coming at it from a ‘fashion creation’ angle. I then had the task of assembling a cast of far more talented people around me who could help me create a credible eyewear brand and bring it to market.

“I started with finding a cause, and then retro-fitted a brand to leverage that cause. From travels around parts of Africa I had learned of the issue of lack of access to eyecare - as high as 98% in some countries, and yet a pair of spectacles can be incredibly empowering for the wearer. So eyecare was the choice, and then I decided on creating an eyewear brand to simplify the message.”

A child benefitting from Pala's outreach in trial frames // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

So what are the logistics of sustaining a fashion brand that isn’t actually built on the principles of being a fashion brand, but a social enterprise? For Pala, every step of its products’ journeys has been considered and John’s humanitarian and environmental values are of paramount importance. The final outcome may be a product to be worn, but that’s not the ultimate goal; in a fashion industry and cycle that is not at all structured to prioritise the rights and wellbeing of workers and the environment, how does John ensure his own values are maintained?

I set up Pala based on a core proposition – to minimise impact on the environment and to maximise [the] impact on people. This has always sat at the heart of our decision making so maintaining it feels a very natural. That is not to say it is easy, and there is plenty more for us to work on. For example, we would like our whole collection to be bio or recycled acetate by 2021. This is not something we could have done from the start due to limited availability of these materials in the eyewear market, but growing as a business, having more influence and pushing more on suppliers means that this is a more viable option going forwards. 

The Zuri frame // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

“In the wider fashion market, it’s really encouraging to see so many other brands prioritising wellbeing and environment in their manufacturing. It really is possible and nowadays you don’t have to search too long to find them. It’s up to us to support each other. In a world where fast fashion is based around low price, we all need to get behind those brands that founded themselves on quality and delivering a better for the future of this planet.”

It’s an admirable attitude, there’s no doubt about it, but surely delivering this better future doesn’t come without its obstacles?

“Any brand that is taking a socially responsible route will invariably find that journey harder in the short term at least. In order to support our giving programme in Africa we have always committed to providing grants right from the start rather [than] reaching profitability first. 

“In 2016 we completed the building of a vision centre in Zambia. The cost of this project was significant and we had to pay it upfront. We couldn’t simply wait until we sold enough sunglasses to fund it as it would have taken years. It was a significant outgoing for a business that is just starting out in the world. If we look at our recycled cases created by female communities in Upper East Ghana, it’s important for me that we pay these weavers more than the fair wage to help them empower themselves out of poverty. It costs me around eight times more doing it this way than if I got it machine made in China.

“[These are] just two examples that demonstrate why setting up as a socially responsible brand invariably lends itself to being more be expensive. Sustainable brands are, by virtue of investing in people and planet, more expensive to run. You have to patient as the owner of that business, stick by your values, produce a great product and hope that people will engage with our values. We have a five-year plan on simply making it to profitability as a business, so you have to learn to operate very cost effectively!”

Chinsali District Hospital in Zambia where Pala funded the eye centre // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

There’s a growing awareness for the negative impact the traditional fashion industry is having on the planet, and companies with a more sustainable approach are gaining traction and popularity as it becomes harder to ignore the negativity.  As Pala inevitably grows, how does John plan on maintaining the sense of community and philanthropy that he’s fostered thus far? 

“There is so much opportunity, and it excites me to think about what more we can do to get involved. There were so many stories that I gathered from visiting the weaving communities we work with in Ghana last year – I would love us to be able to help build them a much needed well, or supply bikes and shelters to help these communities on a deeper level, and hope we can bring these opportunities into our business model in the next few years.

“One of our main priorities right now is to see if we can create a circular economy for our sunglasses; an important development and focus for the fashion world in recent years. What can we do with old frames to prevent them going to landfill or being incinerated? Some can be re-used or are sent to Africa (through our partner Vision Aid Overseas), but many can’t be recycled in this way. We’re currently looking at solutions, so watch this space.”

The Farai frame // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

It’s a big commitment for a small brand to make, but we’ve no doubt Pala is on track to achieving its goals, many of which it would be great to see adopted by the larger, fast fashion companies that really need to start changing their ways. Are there any specific parts of Pala’s production process that John would like to see incorporated at a larger scale into these brands?

“I would love a big brand to get behind artisans and communities more, but you will find inherent problems with scaling. Fast fashion relies on quick turnaround to a trend or demand and you simply can’t scale human/artisanal production versus machine scaling. The solutions start with the need for big brands to produce less, therefore creating less overstock and, in short, waste. They need to produce better: using more sustainable materials, with less intensive and impactful methods.

“It is possible. Big brands are making a start, but it is vital to keep pushing these retailers for more transparency and further innovation. There is a lot of greenwashing in the industry and it is up to us as consumers to keep challenging them and pushing them to do better.” 

An eyetest at an outreach centre in Quiha, Ethiopia // Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

It’s clear that John is hopeful about the future of fashion, and he emphasises the influence the student population could have on this:

“I think the student population is a really crucial part of the revolution in sustainable fashion as with every passing generation the impact of climate change only increases and as a body, students have great power and energy to effect change and influence others. Take an action today, no matter how small or big, and make it a habit. You really can effect change not just positively for yourself, but for generations long after we’ve left this planet.”

Image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear

And for those inspired by what Pala is doing and may wish to get more directly involved in the fashion industry, he has some wise words of advice:

Whilst I may not have started out in the fashion industry, I have met a lot of brand owners (and team members!) that have. The common denominator across everyone I’ve interacted with is their tenacity; you need determination, drive and enthusiasm to continue on the path you’ve chosen – especially in such a fast paced, ever-evolving and high pressure industry as fashion! But it’s not essential to follow a conventional route. Best advice? Find your purpose, the things that truly make you tick, and start making work from there.”

If Pala is anything to go by, John’s advice is worth taking; their future looks very bright, so bright in fact that it’s going to require some ethical sunglasses. 

For more ethical brands and their stories, click here.

Lead image courtesy of John Pritchard at Pala Eyewear.




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