You can’t escape from plastic. It’s everywhere, from the clothes we wear to the food we buy in the supermarket. Even though there are ways to cut down your plastic waste and swaps you can make to reduce your consumption, it’s impossible to avoid it completely. However, there’s one area where you might not have even considered the plastic problem: eyewear. Although spectacles and sunglasses frames are usually made from a plant-based material called cellulose acetate, the processes involved renders it virtually non-biodegradable. Lenses, too, are made from a plastic polymer called CR-39, which is – you guessed it – also non-biodegradable.
Tom Broughton, founder of Cubitts
To tackle the waste sadly inherent to his industry, Tom Broughton, the founder of Cubitts, has decided to do things differently. The brand is launching its Cubitts Redux initiative, which will be ongoing and see the company commit to producing high-quality, long-lasting frames, encouraging repair over replacement, reducing unnecessary packaging, reusing offcuts from the production process to create new things, and donating all recycled frames to the Kwale Eye Centre in Kenya.
To launch this project, Cubitts has made ten one-off frames from different waste materials, including potatoes, sheep’s wool, corn husks, chopping boards, plastic packaging, human hair, mushrooms, yoghurt pots, CDs, and cornstarch. The frames are all crafted by hand in Cubitts’s King’s Cross workshop, and each material is currently being tested for its suitability as an alternative to cellulose acetate. The one that works the best will eventually be turned into a new range for the brand.
Wanting to find out more about Cubitts Redux, I sat down with the brand’s founder Tom Broughton, to discuss sustainability, consumption and making glasses out of some seriously weird stuff.
Why did you start the Cubitts Redux project?
Most people assume that once their frames are broken, they go into landfill – try going into most opticians and asking them to repair a frame, and witness the incredulity on their face, to demonstrate this. And while we’ve always offered repairs to help counteract this, and favoured renewal over replacement, we wanted to go a step further and demonstrate that not only can broken spectacles be saved from the tip, but that the materials found in a tip can become new spectacles. By doing this, we hope to start an ongoing campaign to find more sustainable alternatives to cellulose acetate, the most commonly used material for frames.
Why is sustainability important to Cubitts?
I’m not sure it’s important to Cubitts; rather it’s important and relevant to everyone. While we’re not proclaiming to be at the forefront of sustainability, we’re looking to do our bit, as all modern and progressive organisations should be doing. And we believe circularity is the most relevant aspiration for now. It’s really important this isn’t just lip service to a marketing trend, but a concerted effort to do better.
Which waste material was most challenging to turn into frames?
Mycelium (the vegetative root system of mushrooms) was pretty tricky, as it’s very weak and grows itself. But while it’s probably not a commercial alternative to cellulose acetate, it’s a fascinating nod to a different form of manufacturing – additive production (otherwise known as 3D printing) which has little to no waste.
If you’re encouraging repair over replacement, won’t that impact your business?
In the short term, undoubtedly. But in the medium term, I don’t think so. We’re not in a rush. And in the long term, it’s all pretty irrelevant if we have a global environmental catastrophe and social collapse.
What do you say to groups like Extinction Rebellion who say the fashion industry isn’t and can never be sustainable?
I think any industry that’s based on superfluous consumption is going to struggle to be truly sustainable, unless we fundamentally reconsider materiality and production methods. But just because something might never be sustainable, doesn’t mean you shouldn’t strive to reduce its impact.
What’s Cubitts’s vision for its sustainability in the longer term?
Do our small bit to encourage considerate consumption. This involves extending the lives of the things that we own, reducing waste, and providing ways to recycle those objects we no longer have a use for. Alongside that, we’ll continue to research new materials and production methods.