There are lots of so-called sustainable, eco-friendly sunglasses options out there, it can be bewildering. Frames made of bamboo, reclaimed wood, cotton-based acetate, recycled ocean plastic, recycled aluminum, and even old skateboards.
In this article we’ll review the 4 pairs of glasses we tested over the summer (more about why below), 3 made of recycled and eco-friendly materials and 1 pair at a highway rest stop in a state of desperation.
First, for all you busy folks out there, here is the BLUF (bottom-line up front):
- Sustainable sunglasses are expensive and in terms of material used, it really isn’t a great deal of virgin plastic being removed from society. It takes time and effort to find eco-friendly alternatives. In terms of shifting to a less carbon-intensive and wasteful lifestyle, I’d focus elsewhere for a bigger bang for your buck.
- However, there is an argument to be made about making a statement with your fashion choices, especially fashion you wear on your face!
- Of the companies I researched, I liked Proof the most (Waterhaul being a close 2nd). Mostly because they sell frames made from recycled aluminum (probably the most sustainable choice) and they will take their frames back at the end of their life and give you a hefty 40% discount on your new pair (mitigating point #1 above).
Proof’s Recycled Aluminum Sunglasses
My first pair of sunglasses were Proof’s Challis Aluminum Sunglasses. They are made of 100% recycled aluminum. This particular style (picture below) seems to be discontinued, but Proof has other pairs of recycled aluminum sunglasses like the aviator style (also pictured below).
These were quality sunglasses, relatively lightweight, and stylish. My one complaint with Proof is they do not include a hard case with your glasses, only a small cloth pouch.
Proof does ship the pair in a nice wood box that would probably make sense as a case if you carry a bag, like a book bag or large purse, every day. However, for me, the box is too large and impractical as a case. However, read on for a tip about a very innovative and eco-friendly glasses case sold by another company.
Anyway, without a case, the polarized sheen on the lenses was scratched off within a few weeks. However, the frames themselves held up well.
Regardless, I was back at the drawing board and needed a new pair of sunglasses.
Proof Sunglasses Round 2 - Cotton Acetate
My second pair of Proof sunglasses are made of cotton acetate. Basically, they look and feel like normal plastic sunglasses with the exception of little wood tips on the ends.
They are stylish, relatively lightweight sunglasses. I prefer lightweight frames. Heavier ones, like classic black Rayban Wayfarers, tend to slide down the bridge of your nose. This is especially true on a hot, steamy day here in Washington DC.
Proof markets cotton acetate as biodegradable. However, the question of whether it is really a sustainable material is complicated. This well-researched blog post from Ecocult does a great job explaining some of the potential downsides of cotton acetate.
The bottom-line is cotton acetate is likely better than virgin plastic (though I’m not sure if it takes more energy and resources to create it relative to plastic). If you really want to rock some sustainable sunglasses, your best bet is to stick with aluminum frames and ensure they go in the recycling bin when your done with them.
When In Doubt - Choose Aluminum
For your shopping choices in general, including sunglasses, buying aluminum (also steel and other metal material) is your best bet when it comes to increasing the chances of the material being recycled. Aluminum and steel are inherently valuable material, have consistent market demand, and are relatively easy to recycle.
Manufacturing recycled aluminum requires 95% less energy and produces 95% fewer greenhouse gas emissions than manufacturing virgin aluminum.
This is especially true for the aluminum versus glass choice you often face when shopping for food and drinks. The value of glass as a commodity has plummeted and many areas of the country have stopped accepting it in their recycling programs, including in the Washington DC region.
Proof is Taking Responsibility for the Afterlife
Proof has a great program where they will take back an old pair of sunglasses and give you a 40% discount! I love companies to take responsibility for the full lifecycle of their products.
What do they do with the old frames?
First they harvest the parts, recycling useful pieces or components for future repairs and other miscellaneous things. After all parts are salvaged that are fully-functioning, they recycle any obsolete frame material to a local recycling source.
For their acetate frames, most of the parts on the frames are considered biodegradable. These frames are made from sustainably-sourced cotton-based plant fiber which is compressed into an acetate (non-plastic). Along with that all wood parts break down as a natural material. For any non-biodegradable or non-recyclables, it is sent to a factory that burns it down to produce energy.
Round 3 - Sustainable Recycled Plastic Sunglasses from Waterhaul
Waterhaul uses old plastic fishing nets collected from oceans to make 100% recycled plastic. The glasses are quite attractive, come in a cool little wool pouch (pictured below with a different pair of sunglasses in them...more on that in a second), and shipped without any plastic packaging.
I bought the Fitzroy pair and I was thoroughly satisfied. The glasses come in very attractive, gray speckled frames (speckled I’m guessing from the various plastics used to make them). They were lightweight but sturdy.
I’d love to include a picture of them but unfortunately, the glasses were returned to the ocean from whence they came. While swimming in the Chesapeake Bay outside Washington DC with my kids, I dropped them in the pleasantly warm but thoroughly cloudy brackish waters.
My family’s shuffling-feet-search-party turned up zero sunglasses. I guess it's a wash (pun intended) since the plastic was in the ocean in the first place anyway. I was bummed though.
Anyway, like Proof, Waterhaul is trying to manage the full lifecycle of their products. Waterhaul gives 50% off if you return an old pair and will take them back for recycling.
Waterhaul says they want to fully account for every single piece of (recycled) plastic that they produce. Sorry Waterhaul, my fumbling fingers has short circuited your plan on this pair - hopefully one of your partners finds them in a fishing net some day!
Need A Case for Your Glasses?
Waterhaul also sells a really cool, totally sustainable and eco-friendly cork case for a pair of sunglasses.
For those of you who don’t know, cork is an amazing and eco-friendly material. Cork is stripped from cork oaks without damaging the trees and is regenerated. It is biodegradable as well.
Waterhaul’s case is an awesome design solution. It folds up very nicely into a slim little candy-bar-sized box when not in use. It pops up into a tent-like shape when you need it for the glasses.
I love this case and it solved my issue with Proof not including a hard case that was convenient to carry.
Proof vs. Waterhaul on Packaging Waste
For those of you familiar with us here at R&R, you know we hate waste, especially packaging waste. All that unnecessary plastic wrap, various plastic bubble wrap, and our most hated foe - styrofoam!
Thankfully, both companies do well on this test, though Waterhaul gets the nod. Sunglasses are pretty small products and my guess is most companies don’t use too much packaging.
That said, Waterhaul does not use any plastic to ship your glasses and everything is biodegradable and/or recyclable. I was able to compost 90% of the packaging (I removed shipping labels and such).
Waterhaul shipped the sunglasses case in a cool little envelope filled with recycled paper stuffing that was also sustainable. You can find them on Amazon here as well.
Proof did use a small amount of bubble wrap in the small cardboard shipping box. Dear Proof - we challenge you to cut the plastic and use some recycled craft paper. We can even recommend some for you - see here for 100% recycled craft paper from Amazon!
Buy a Pair of Cheap Sunglasses?
In a moment of weakness after spending way too much on two pairs of sustainable glasses I decided to abandon my principles. I am not sure if ZZ Top was playing in the car, but I took their advice and bought a pair of cheap sunglasses at a highway rest stop in Delaware.
I was 1 hour into an 8 hour drive from Washington DC to New Hampshire on a sunny July day. I needed to protect my baby blues!
Well, long story short, they lasted about a week. The weak plastic arm snapped off pretty easily. They obviously were not sustainable in any way, in fact, I wouldn’t be surprised if they were made from baby seals or polar bears to maximize the environmental degradation caused (sigh).
It turns out ZZ Top was wrong.
Ok Class, What Did We Learn?
What is the lesson? I have no idea. Buying sustainable sunglasses is definitely not cheap. Also, the myriad of choices are complicated. However, maybe you save money in the long run since the cheap ones don’t last, it is hard to say.
As I suggested above, the easiest option is to buy a pair of aluminum sunglasses. Go with Proof and it will even be recycled aluminum.
We also learned that there are some really cool companies out there trying to fill this niche of sustainable sunglasses.
Also, don’t go swimming in the Chesapeake Bay with expensive sunglasses on your head!
And finally, don’t take fashion advice from bearded rock-n-rollers...thanks for nuthin’, ZZ Top!