Pala Founder John Pritchard shares the story behind his conscious eyewear brand and the business of giving back.
When did you launch?
Pala launched in Spring 2016. As an idea it probably started 6 or 7 years prior to that, so I guess that’s quite a long gestation period! Like most start-up businesses you often need to work another fulltime job to keep everything afloat financially until the time comes to cast off the ropes. It simply meant that it was a case of taking it slowly at the beginning which is no bad thing.
What inspired you to launch the business?
My motivation was a desire to give my life a genuine sense of purpose. My job, enjoyable as it was, didn’t benefit anyone beyond me and my immediate family. Looking ahead, I didn’t want to one day retire feeling that I had only worked for my own gain when there is so much inequality in the world. I wanted to make a tangible difference to the lives of others, so setting up a business with a social cause at its heart was my way of achieving this. As far as PALA is concerned, it was a case of identifying a cause first rather than product.
Earlier visits to Africa and some chance conversations alerted me to the fact that 10% of the world’s population are unable to access eye care, and this is more acute in certain parts of Africa. Having identified my cause, the next step was creating the PALA eyewear brand to support it. It’s given me ‘purpose’ in spades and I’m enjoying every minute of it!
What are your sustainable priorities?
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 to these goals. My ambition is to ensure that where possible, as many touchpoints of the business have a sustainability story, whether that’s through the materials we use or the businesses we partner with to help effect change.
How do they manifest themselves in your business approach and your offer?
A pair of spectacles is a massively effective poverty alleviating tool, since it enables the wearer to read, write and work. Therefore, a key early priority was to find a partner to facilitate the giving process that would help create change on the ground in Africa. We chose to work with Vision Aid Overseas, one of the leading eye care charities working across Africa and aligned with the United Nation’s Global Sustainable Development Goals. Through them PALA provides grants directly into projects to provide the infrastructure and equipment needed to facilitate eye examinations and the distribution of spectacles.
We also work with weaving communities in Ghana to make our glasses cases, providing a wage well above the fair wage for the weavers. Our ambition is to support them in lifting their community out of poverty in the long term. Encouragingly, as PALA grows, we create opportunities for others to learn the skills and earn an income, perhaps even for the first time.
In terms of the materials we use in our products, it is a passion of mine to use sustainable materials where and when we can. From this Autumn we are adding recycled acetate to our collection and some bio-acetate options for our SS19 collection. Our glasses cases are uniquely made from recycled plastic bags and packaging, while in our own packaging and point of sale, we either use recycled or FSC approved materials.
How has your eco strategy developed as the business has grown?
When you launch a company founded on ethical and environmental principles, it’s important to recognise that this is a constant evolution rather than something you can achieve right from the start. For example, often the scale of the business can be a blocker to eco-options. Whether it’s biodegradable plastic mailer bags or the bio-acetate for some of our frames, there are MOQ’s (minimum order quantities) in place that simply don’t work for a small business. As you scale, these options start to open up.
I think that providing we are transparent about where we are in our journey and where we want to go, then observers can remain informed of our strategy and ask any questions, which of course we will answer.
How challenging is it to maintain your eco principles?
There are certainly challenges. Going ‘eco’ often means making the more expensive choice and all decisions have to be weighed against your sales margins, otherwise the business may never exit at all!
An illustration is our recent decision to use an eco-friendly protective mailer bag for our sunglasses deliveries. It seemed wrong for a PALA customer’s first contact with us to be a plastic bag through a letterbox! We’ve been searching for a solution for some time and we’ve finally found one, a recycled and recyclable padded mailer bag. The cost however is seven times more than the old solution. I believe it’s a necessary cost to absorb for a better environment, and hopefully, if more brands begin using this option, the greater scale may enable the producer to reduce the cost.
Another recent example is our decision to offset carbon emissions. It sounds simple, but when you get into the detail it gets trickier. I based our offset on all business air miles, from the freight of goods or travel by team members for tradeshows or filming in Africa. We also add an extra pound towards offsetting for every delivery we dispatch. However, we can never claim to be carbon neutral. What about the materials supplied to our eyewear factory? What about the vehicles that deliver materials for our weavers? And while £1 on delivery might cover the CO2 emission for a UK based destination, it certainly won’t cover an order to Australia. Aspiring to being more ‘eco’ throws up a number of these conundrums, so it’s about dealing with them the way you think best and talking with others to find solutions together. After all we are all working towards this common goal.
Do you feel pressure from your customers to be more eco?
In truth, not really. We’ve had a good response from customers and I think that goes back to our desire to be transparent. We know we are not perfect by any means, but I hope that people see us trying our best and that being more ‘eco’ is a journey rather than something a company can achieve right from the start, particularly when you are part of a global supply chain.
On our ‘About Us’ page, we invite people to talk with us and let us know if they’ve heard of something that might be better than what we have currently. We appreciate this feedback as we can’t pretend to have our finger on the pulse of all the innovation going on in the world of sustainability.
How have you reacted to that pressure in terms of business development?
We haven’t really felt that pressure, rather people I have met along the way have been positive about what we’re trying to achieve. I think the reason for this is that eco choices for consumer products are still reasonably limited, so there’s support for those who are trying to break into industries where perhaps there is less eco innovation.
What advice would you give to anyone hoping to launch a sustainable business?
Gosh, I could go on here, but I’ll keep it short! My top piece of advice is that whatever your sustainable business is, you need to be passionate about the product or service you are creating. There is no magic wand to lead you from start-up to internationally acclaimed brand overnight. It takes a long time and a lot of hard work. However, if you are passionate about what you are doing, that will maintain your focus throughout the growth of your business.
I would also suggest that if you try and tick all the ‘eco’ boxes right from the start, you have to be careful to ensure it doesn’t take away your focus from producing a product that delivers to customers in terms of ‘on point’ styling and price. Sunglasses are a good illustration. I would love to think all PALA customers are buying for the sustainability principles of the business, but I suspect that this is a small, but growing part of our purchaser base. We have to be mindful of that and hence why for example not all our styles are bio-acetate due to the limited choice available which would compromise seasonal trends.
My last recommendation is to reach out to people and ask for help. Whatever the industry you are in, working towards ‘sustainability’ is a unifying action and accordingly you will often find people generous with their time.
Which other sustainable businesses have inspired you?
In terms of the big brands, Patagonia and Toms are two got my cogs whirring initially, but there are loads of smaller brands that deserve championing too. Sneaker/trainer company Veja produces environmentally friendly footwear, and their attention to detail and adherence to sustainable and ethical practices is quite incredible. It’s worth looking at that detail on their website. I also like Reformation, a cult brand from the USA that again is very transparent about their progress and intentions, while also producing great clothes for women. I’ve met and talked to several people from the fashion and non-fashion world about their businesses and their ambitions, and whether those are ethical practices, sustainability or simply engendering a culture of positive action within the business – think reusable cups, team litter picks etc, we should all be supporting each other as ultimately, we’re all in this together.