Viewpoint: Eco in the detail

Francesca Blackmore looks under the hood of sustainability in optical practice

One of the core values of my practice is our commitment to sustainability and since our very first day in business, we have always been as eco-friendly as we thought possible. We enjoy identifying easy new ways to reduce the practice’s environmental footprint, measuring the impact of the changes over time, and sharing our results on social media.

One sustainable issue that we have come up against in the past is greenwashing, which is when a company or organisation will adopt a marketing spin that deceptively uses green phrasing to persuade us that a product is environmentally friendly.

Years ago, we had our first brush with greenwashing when we took on a frame range ‘made from recycled plastics’ and later found that the company was not very eco-friendly and that only a very small percentage of the plastic used in this range was actually recycled.

The devil was in the detail and we took the marketing at face value instead of asking more questions. Lessons were learned and nowadays we carefully check the eco credentials of products (and the companies they come from) before telling our patients that a certain product is an environmentally friendly choice.

I also read an article recently that said China released 11.4 billion etric tons of carbon dioxide emissions in 2022 – making it by far the world’s largest polluter that year – and I have developed a real issue with suppliers who tout an eco-friendly range within their offering when the rest of their ranges are manufactured in factories in China with little thought to their environmental impact.

Even if you disregard that and take an eco range at face value, I always end up wondering just how eco-friendly those ranges really are? For instance, when supposedly ‘eco-friendly’ frames have been delivered to us over the years, they have often still arrived in plastic bags.

Most of the bags claim to be recyclable but, like most plastics, they’re not really easily recyclable and it often annoys me that the word ‘recyclable’ is used at all. It gives the impression that you’re making a green choice, but few people seem to know that often, plastic products with a ‘recyclable’ stamp can’t actually be recycled.

Also, the whole process of recycling is not completely free from carbon emissions when you think about the fuel used in collection lorries and then the energy taken to process it. Therefore, I think, rather than trusting in recycling, ultimately the real green choices for packaging should be reuse, so less of it is produced in the first place or if possible, not to produce it at all.

Some suppliers have sent frames in ‘compostable’ packaging, yet we have composters, and most of this packaging won’t degrade in them. Over the years I have learned that sometimes ‘compostable’ or ‘biodegradable’ actually means ‘will only degrade if disposed of into an industrial composting facility’.

I love to read about a supplier managing to get to net zero or becoming a B Corp, but I also love to read about other, more simple, and still fantastic eco-friendly initiatives. I don’t doubt most suppliers are doing whatever they can to reduce their environmental impact, but practices need to commit to doing the same.

For those practices who decide they want to go further, there are some schemes they can sign up to in a bid to become more eco-friendly. Some will even give a certificate at the end so you can display your eco-friendly credentials.

Unfortunately, I’ve found some of the schemes tend to be an exercise in ticking boxes – often requiring a lot of admin time be spent in showing proof, ultimately advising changes that take a fair bit of work.

In my opinion, these changes don’t yield as many eco-friendly benefits as a simple commitment towards reducing waste and consumption. Furthermore, most of the changes aren’t tailored to an optical practice so even if you complete all the actions and get the highest possible score, there’s little point in patting yourself on the back as so many opportunities to be more eco-friendly are still being missed.

My ultimate aim for my practice would be zero waste. This means we would have managed to refuse, reduce, reuse and recycle in such a way that nothing would end up in landfill, incinerators or in the ocean. I try to live a zero-waste lifestyle in my home so I guess it was only natural that I would do the same with my business.

Optics definitely is a naturally wasteful sector but heading towards a zero-waste practice isn’t actually very difficult. It just takes some commitment to making lots of small changes that add up to a much bigger difference and aside from feeling good about being environmentally friendly, in my experience, most eco-friendly initiatives save money.

Ultimately, we could all be doing more so what I would love to see is a forum where we can all share changes that we’ve made, offering simple, eco-friendly advice and steps towards zero waste that are specific to optical practices. Maybe I should create such a thing.

  • Francesca Blackmore is owner and practice manager of Pearce & Blackmore Opticians in the Cardiff area.