In recent years fashion has strived towards a more environmentally friendly form of itself. But COVID has forced its hand, making us look more profoundly and with more urgency at the challenges of seasonal collections, fast fashion and supply chains. One brand was navigating these issues pre-COVID, accomplishing a purely circular model, serving as an example of what future fashion could look like. And it all started with a 7-year-old talking over a family dinner table in Australia.
At the tender age of 7, Harry asked his father how he could make a difference in the plastic waste issue. Young, he may have been, but his intentions were deadly serious. Such clarity and awareness at this age is a reminder not to discredit our children’s perception of the environmental challenges we face.
The sun is always shining in Oz. So, it seemed an obvious choice to look to sustainable sunglasses for a solution to the plastic issue. Through investigation, Harry and his family began to realise that one recycled plastic bottle could produce one pair of sunnies and there began the inception of Good Citizens. Launched this year, amid the beginnings of a pandemic, it has been a challenging time for many businesses. Where conversely, we have been forced to look at the way we live, we have also had to desist on other environmental practices. And despite these challenges Good Citizens intentions have paid back, with recognition coming from across the globe.
We asked Nick Robinson, Co-Founder (and Harry’s proud dad), about the family’s take on the launch of Good Citizens under the current climate. It’s a frank and detailed look at the challenges companies face when assessing their design, manufacturing and supply chains in the endeavour to be a more sustainable brand.
Congratulations on the brand, which combines a high-end design aesthetic with a transparent, sustainable footprint. What was the inspiration and motivation behind it?
You could say that my 7 and 9-year-old kids made me do it! Two and a half years ago, they were learning about the environment and climate change at school and coming home very concerned. Harry, in particular, was becoming increasingly upset about the massive pile of plastic waste building up around the world.
He asked me if there was anything we could do to help. At first, I didn’t think much of it, but it got me thinking. Maybe we could actually do something to help.
One of the biggest waste issues globally is single-use plastic bottles, so I began researching whether recycled PET could be used for products. It seemed to me that recycled PET is mainly used to make more packaging, but I couldn’t understand why manufacturers were making products with new plastic when there was a pile of discarded plastic that could be used.
Could we build a business around the premise of ‘untrashing our planet’? Could we turn trash into something good? Well, the answer is yes!
We take discarded single-use plastic bottles and turn them into sunglasses. The frame is made from 100% recycled plastic, including the specially designed hinge. There are no metal components and no other materials mixed in, so they are recycled and recyclable. The modular design also makes them fixable and therefore even better for the planet.
We wanted to show that it is possible to recycle waste into beautifully designed and desirable products.
As a project which involved all the family, how was the journey from concept to launch?
It’s been a hell of a ride! It’s taken over two years of research, testing and tweaking. We jokingly call it our time of ‘trial and terror’! If I’m really honest, it’s driven us to the edge. I’ve been known to sit in my car crying in a layby on the way back from the toolmakers because they’ve said they can’t fix an issue. And then to make matters worse, Whitney Houston came on the radio, and I wondered what on earth I was doing. Lol.
But we’ve also had incredible highs. We’ve had out of the blue calls from fashion royalty ringing to offer encouragement. Moments like that make you realise you’re on to something and they keep you going.
It’s hard to switch off when you’re working with your family. We update the kids on what’s happening over dinner each night, so it’s definitely not 9-5.
However, the flip side is that involving the kids grounds you. You have to choose which of the problems to tell them about, so it doesn’t become too overwhelming for them. It also makes you celebrate the wins more, so they find the experience enjoyable too. At the ripe old age of nine, Harry has become rather philosophical about the journey. He will often pipe up when someone is talking about their own business with his words of wisdom. It’s hilarious because he’s actually frighteningly insightful!
While most of fashion continues to follow a “take, make, waste” business model, you have successfully created a wholly circular one. Could you talk us through that circular model and how you maintain the integrity of the supply chain?
Our plastic bottles are from roadside recycling bin collections around Australia. Instead of the bottles going to landfill, they are sent for cleaning and processing. Our rPET supplier in Melbourne uses a group in Thailand and two local Australian companies to clean the bottles and remove the lids and collars. They use their longstanding, trusted relationships with these companies to provide us with cleaned, uncontaminated, 100% recycled plastic flakes.
These flakes are then processed into 100% recycled PET pellets in Melbourne. The pellets are then driven to our factory in Sydney where we turn them into sunglasses.
A transparent supply chain was vital to us from the outset. We were determined to make our products in Australia, so we would have complete visibility of the whole process. We know every person that touches our products by name from the recycled plastic supplier to the machine operators, lens cutters to the courier drivers. We assemble the glasses ourselves, even the kids help.
And being 100% recyclable means you can either send them back to us to recycle or pop them in your curb side recycling bin at the end of life.
We’re also working with the kids to design a little gift using our offcuts that will go in the box with the glasses.
As well as being 100% recycled and 100% recyclable, the sunglasses are also super stylish and timeless. How vital to the sustainability ethos are that classic style and long term wearability?
It was incredibly important that people would feel proud to wear our glasses. Often eco products can be undesirable, and people feel compelled to buy them because of their shared values rather than because they are beautiful.
We wanted our sunglasses to look great and feel premium. We launched with two classic styles that have stood the test of time in three colours – lemonade, cola and aqua – a nod to their origins.
We’ve also made them modular so people can mix and match as we bring out more colours and styles. In addition, it means that they are repairable so rather than throw the whole pair away if a part breaks, you can replace it.
We’ve added a distinctive design feature to our hinge, and because we give each person that buys a pair a citizen number, the hinge acts as a visual signifier. Citizens can spot each other 20 metres away, and it sparks a discussion.
Good Citizens is a brand with an environmental conscience, and you’ve already made a tangible contribution to removing plastic from our oceans. Perhaps you could tell us what’s been removed and how you’ve done it?
As well as the bottle that goes into each pair, we remove a kilo of plastic waste from the ocean for every pair we sell. We do this through our NGO partners.
The pandemic has highlighted the hypocrisy of many brands who promote themselves as sustainable and conscious. Do you feel that more needs to be done to educate and inform the public about “greenwashing”?
It’s a really contentious issue. There’s a lot of greenwashing when it comes to products using recycled materials; some are very liberal with the truth saying their product is recycled when it only contains a small percentage of recycled materials.
We wanted our products to be truly 100% recycled and 100% recyclable. It would have been so easy to add in some virgin plastic or another material to get around the production issues we faced, but we stuck with 100% recycled PET and found a way to make it work.
And that’s the problem. Working with recycled materials is more complicated, and it’s more expensive, so it’s hardly surprising some companies choose to take the easy route. The issue is there is no official body policing the claims that brands make. It’s really easy to throw in a little bit of recycled material with new material and call it recycled. No one is going to check upon them, and so they get away with it.
We vote with our wallets, so it’s up to us to reward brands that are transparent and accountable.
Although Australia seems to have negotiated it more successfully than some other nations, how have COVID and lockdown impacted Good Citizens?
We officially opened up for sales on 9 April, just as the world was going into lockdown, so it wasn’t really the fanfare we’d planned for. People were scared about their futures so of the 1500 people we had on our list waiting to buy, only a small percentage bought. That was disappointing of course, but we were still stoked that people bought at all during such an uncertain time. Every sale was a win.
While other kids were being home-schooled, our kids were learning to dispatch and assemble sunglasses. It was actually a special time for us as a family.
Production wasn’t a problem for us as we manufacture in Sydney, not in China; however, the biggest issue was that planes stopped flying. We could see our parcels would get as far as say Germany and then they would just stay there for weeks on end.
I woke up one morning towards the end of May and realised I could hear an aircraft in the distance. That was a weirdly happy moment as it meant that things were starting to shift again. And sure enough, soon after we got emails from loads of customers excited to receive their sunnies.
Are there any celebrities or public figures that you, or your children Harry and Archie, would like to see wearing your sunglasses?
Pharrell Williams is one. He’s a great champion for using commerce for Good with his brand Bionic. It takes marine waste and turns it into thread that can be used for making clothes. Through its collaborations with massive brands, it’s helping to change the dialogue about the future of fashion.
Harry is really inspired by Lionel Messi. Not just because he’s one of the world’s greatest footballers, but also because he admires his values. When Harry was about seven, he read about Messi staying with the club that gave him his first break, rather than moving to another club despite being offered a lot more money. That’s stuck with Harry as a life lesson.
But in all seriousness, it’s about general good citizens wearing them with pride. We’re less bothered about their profile than we are about their values and what they’re doing. We’re speaking to a few explorers and environmentalists as they grasp the potential impact our brand could have on changing consumer behaviour.
How would you like to see Good Citizens develop, both as a brand and as a force for environmental good, as we navigate our way through the rest of 2020?
Everything we do is about untrashing the planet. We never set out to be a sunglasses business or to take on the sunglasses industry. Our mission is to tackle the plastic waste issue. The more we do, the more we sell, the more impact we will have in changing behaviour and untrashing the planet.
2020 has been a terrible year for single-use waste; people couldn’t use their reusable coffee cups in cafes, take away food in plastic containers increased, not to mention face masks and gloves.
We believe that one bottle makes one pair is a really powerful message. We are chipping away at the plastic waste, as well as encouraging people to think twice about buying a plastic bottle in the first place. Customers have reached out to say that buying our glasses has really made them think about what their clothes are made of.
That’s the main driver for us; to affect change and do it in style.
One of the enduring challenges brands face in achieving sustainability is the creation of a product that not only adheres to an environmental ethos, but that is beautifully designed and viable. Good Citizens does this and more, not only creating one pair from one bottle but also pulling a further 1 kg of harmful plastic from the ocean, for every pair sold. And it just goes to serve how powerful deep values are, like taking the time to sit together and chat over dinner, and what those chats can achieve. So, if you like beautiful, considered design and craftsmanship, be a Good Citizen and buy your pair here: