How Ace & Tate is transforming the eyewear industry with transparency (and how it helps them become more sustainable)

What does it take to develop a transparent, sustainable business model in a sector that is all about helping people see things better? Ace & Tate doesn’t claim to have all the answers; “We are working on it” is their tag line when it comes to operating sustainably and responsibly. But talking to Marlot Kiveron, their Sustainability Manager, was hugely clarifying for us.

Summary & Key lessons

The entrepreneurship and passion to continuously improve that Marlot radiates, is perhaps not easy to replicate. There are, however, a lot of lessons to draw from Ace & Tate’s journey so far.

You will encounter a lot of inspiration and success factors throughout the article. We share three that we felt stood out:

1.    “What else could work?”: Stay curious in challenging the status quo, keep scouting for the next improvement and… just go for it and act! A keen eye for (sometimes unconventional) partnerships goes a long way.

2.    “We are not a sustainable company”: Be transparent about your journey, both progress & impact as well as obstacles, nose-bumps and challenges. Both processes and outcomes, so that others can learn from our experiences.

3.    “I have a dream”-factor: Inspire, communicate, engage. Understand that people (employees & partners) may need some help and comfort to embrace any change. Make a point out of bringing everyone along on the journey and stay open for questions or challenges. Sponsorship of CEO/key leaders is crucial here.

So, we as eyewear companies help people see better with our products, but offering a better view of what we do and how is still challenging

Ace & Tate describes their progress as “we are working on it” and “this is a marathon, not a sprint”. But in our view, the pace is beyond a steady marathon jog: Ace & Tate is making rapid progress and running in the right direction. Which helps their business, and as an important spinoff it is starting to change an entire (previously quite traditional) industry.

For more lessons, scroll down for the article. It is structured in line with The Wearth Company’s frameworks (the Value Creation Loop and the Sustainability Visor). It consists of 7 themes: Sustainability; the Why, the What, the How, With Whom, Trade-offs and Next Horizon.a

1) Sustainability: what does it mean to Ace & Tate? And how is it relevant or useful to your business?

We consider sustainability a marathon, not a sprint. We want to take responsibility for our social and environmental impact. We strive to do this in all aspects of our business, through upstream production, in the user phase, when people want to discard their glasses, or when a store is phasing out and increasingly: in closing the loop. We want to make a positive impact during all those phases. We want to be CO2 neutral in 2030, but we are looking at all kinds of ways to measure our impact.

We’ve found that creating transparency is a great way to start taking responsibility and start making a more positive impact in the industry (see #5, with whom, ed.).

To focus our efforts, we picked CO2 emissions as the primary area to make an impact. However, we consider other elements such as biodiversity: we realise that otherwise, we might have an unintended negative impact on other sustainability components later on.

It started with the acetate – the plastic material that is the basis of our eyewear. We noticed that in one step of the production process 4 times the volume of the actual frame of raw material is lost. This triggered us to continue to look further into our supply chain and manufacturing process to understand what is actually happening. These insights are crucial to create a process that leads to a better-quality product, more efficiency, and less waste. We decided to cut out all the redundancies we encountered. This also helped us to achieve more transparency.

Once we started to communicate about our sustainable vision, we began to receive questions about this topic, which seldom happened before. It is hard to quantify what it has brought us in terms of new customers – as we were growing at a rapid pace, to begin with. What we do see is that our current audience receives our communication efforts relating to responsibility very well.

2) The Why: what triggered Ace & Tate, or you personally, to embark on a journey to become more sustainable as a company?

For Marlot personally, it all started when she started working in Sourcing & Supply chain at Ace & Tate about 5 years ago. She learnt that 80% of the base material (acetate, a cellulose-based plastic; hence the name of the company) is wasted in the production process. And saw huge potential to improve, both to become more sustainable as well as from a business perspective.

Meanwhile, our founder and CEO Mark de Lange decided that we want to go beyond a transparent price and high-quality product – he also wants to be a force for good with our products, inspired by the book by Patagonia’s founder Yvon Chouinard (“Let my people go surfing”)

Starting from this tandem, we developed our very first sustainability strategy soon afterward (read more on Ace & Tate’s page on Responsibility & Sustainability: “We are working on it.”)

3) The What: how do you create value – what differentiates you and where have you made most impact with sustainability so far?

Since Ace & Tate was founded in 2013, it has promised to offer “quality frames at transparent prices.” A big part of the differentiator: a more straightforward and transparent value chain and going direct-to-consumer. Originally online-only, since 2015 also with physical retail stores – starting in the Netherlands and now with a presence in 10 European countries (and counting).

As mentioned, Marlot’s previous role meant that the focus of improving sustainability was originally on Ace & Tate’s supply chain and (3rd party) manufacturing. More recently, both circular business models and minimising / up-cycling waste streams have come more clearly into focus.

Marlot: “We recently launched ‘Reframe’ (link) – if people return their old glasses, they receive store credit for €10. We then refurbish these glasses and give them a second life. To make this easier, we are now working with the design team on making our glasses circular. For example, we don’t use glue anymore; we add the ‘rim’ of the glasses at a later stage of the process, so they are easier to reuse. We have standardised the screws we use. We are also looking at limiting the number of colours and moving to more sustainable materials like bio- and recycled acetate. Our remaining challenge here is to recycle glasses beyond saving so that they provide a new value after the end-of-life stage. We are working on it.

“An optimal circular model is challenging in our sector due to the medical and tailor-made aspect of selling eyewear”

Marlot: “The re-value aspect becomes more and more important for us to consider. It started with reducing and -using the waste from the actual acetate.

But we are looking beyond that now: take the dummy or ‘demo’-lenses that we use in our industry to let customers try on a new pair of glasses in store. These lenses are tossed out when the real lenses are fitted. I decided to collect all these dummy lenses to see what we could do with them. First, we used this material (PMMA) to be turned into artworks with local artists in Amsterdam. After some searching and testing with partners, it proves possible to use this material as the filament for the ‘transparent cartridge’ of 3D-printers! And now, we are printing prototype glasses from our used dummy lenses. We even collect the scrap material at the manufacturer of these lenses to save more material and because there is economic value.

“…it now proves possible to use PMMA as the filament for the ‘transparent cartridge’ of 3D-printers!”

An optimal circular model is challenging in our sector due to the medical and tailor-made aspect of selling eyewear: lenses are too specific to effectively re-circulate. This is also why the well-known ‘buy one, give one’ programs can do more harm than good: although well-intended without proper eye-specific measurements, a corrective lens does not help and, in some cases, can deteriorate eyesight.

4) The How: In structuring and shaping the business, which element* is most differentiating for sustainable impact? And what have you learnt along the way? *:

Besides a committed leadership (crucial!), key aspects are metrics, organisation, and innovation.

Metrics are important. It is a steering mechanism for business & sustainability and a starting point to see where we can make the biggest impact. This also helps customers make informed decisions. For example, through our first Life-cycle Assessment a few years back, we found out that 50% of our carbon footprint was actually in our packaging. So, there was a lot we could do there with a relatively large impact.

We collect a lot of data throughout our processes – from design to assembly line. Often people ask for a simplification: one measurement or one phase. But if you isolate the problem (what works in a regular business setting), you miss out on sustainability’s complexity. Our experience is that it helps to embrace complexity: it is the only way to make an impact.

On the customer-side, we are advancing a ‘carbon label’ comparable to the energy labels and food nutrition scores people are familiar with. Because there are now so many materials used to make glasses, but which one is better, why and where is the data and proof? We see many claims of bio-based and recycled materials, but few players are fully transparent and quantitative about properties and specifications. Titanium is a durable material and scores well for carbon (especially recycled), yet there is no such thing as sustainable mining (also see #6&7 Next Horizon, ed.),

As for ‘Organisation’, it took a while to make people see sustainability as an opportunity for the business beyond a good thing to do. Despite a lot of support from the founders, this required some personal internal missionary work.

We did this through ‘impact coffees’ and store visits, which eventually sparked a lot of creativity and made the organisation embrace it. Interestingly, another aspect of ‘Organisation’ (which includes processes, ed.) has come into play relatively recently. Due to our fast growth, many procedures and ways of working were tacit rather than explicit. Our upcoming B-Corp certification is an additional reason to now ‘anchor’ this: it is an essential element of what it takes to meet their criteria.

“Our organisation? Despite a lot of support from the founders, this required some missionary work”

For us, a big part of ‘Innovation’ is an entrepreneurial mindset internally and with external partners (see examples under #3; WHAT).

5) With Whom: What are the dynamics you've encountered with stakeholders along the way?

For us, an essential part of becoming more sustainable is: “Building a collective to drive change.” Competitors joining forces on significant challenges would be valuable for everyone. Because the challenges and waste streams are very similar, it would be easier to get to (economic) scale together. We did find a couple of allies who are willing and able to collaborate, but this remains an uphill battle. Several big players in our industry are very reluctant to collaborate and are not always happy with our push for transparency.

So, we as eyewear companies help people see better with our products, but offering a better view of what we do and how is still challenging.

So, we as eyewear companies help people see better with our products, but offering a better view of what we do and how is still challenging.

This works in our favour: not only do our sustainability efforts ‘pay off’ economically (e.g., reducing waste, recruiting top talent, value from waste streams). Our transparent approach reinforces our reputation and, because this is still uncommon in the sector, is differentiating us from the competition.

As for our customers: interestingly, they were not asking for sustainable products (except for vegan covers) when we started this. However, this has shifted in recent years: a growing segment of our audience sees our sustainability efforts as necessary.

“…a growing segment of our audience sees our sustainability efforts as necessary”

6) Trade-offs: do you encounter trade-offs in balancing the 4-Ps (Planet; People; Profit; Participation) - and what are they?

Yes, we encounter trade-offs daily. The most important one: making sure that for every business decision that Ace & Tate takes, our responsibility for people and the environment is considered. After a few years of continually highlighting how important it is to make sustainability part of the core business, this is now up and running for almost all decisions. Plus, consciously making the trade-offs between different aspects of sustainability, e.g., virgin material use versus carbon emissions.

Another trade-off relates to our ongoing growth. When I joined back in 2015, Ace & Tate consisted of about a dozen people, and we were just opening our first physical stores. By now, we have about 70 stores in 10 countries. This phase and size of the company come with a larger reach, footprint, and potential impact (see also #4 HOW for relation to B-Corp certification). We are now a bit more careful about what we share, when and with who. The trade-off? To make sure that we stay transparent in our endeavors while catering to the needs of an ever-growing group of stakeholders. The way we are going about this is to draft detailed stakeholder maps to be both consistent and still tailor our messaging to different stakeholder groups.

7) Next Horizon: what are your future sustainability ambitions and ways to make even more impact?

As mentioned, one milestone on the horizon is achieving B-Corp status; amongst other things, this will help ‘anchor’ our sustainability practices. Other than that, there are several strategic issues and existing trade-offs for which we are figuring out our next steps:

  • Scaling Reframe and getting ready for the next step of a ‘circular glasses’ business model. Mindful of the challenges of a medical product mentioned earlier.

Interviewers: Willem Bijleveld & Casper ten KateThe Wearth Company & Collective. Part of the Wearth Sustainable Pioneers & Front-runner series, with a.o. Ørsted, Verstegen, Yoni and Van Straten Medical. See more publications on The Wearth Company’s LI page and Willem & Casper’s publication pages – and on our imminently launching website

Photos and visuals courtesy of: Ace & & Tim Buiting (portraits)

  • Solving the (mined) materials challenge, What is ‘best’ from a critical sustainability standpoint, so not only carbon. Bio-based, (recycled) titanium; we want to learn and measure the impact on different dimensions to charter our product development roadmap. For instance: for sufficiently rigorous temples (or ‘legs’) of the glasses, it is currently nearly impossible not to use metals.
  • Further developing our Stakeholder map, making it efficient to use and effective for different audiences while maintaining our drive for transparency and impact.