Fast Company

Eco Specs: The Greenest Glasses on the Planet

Growing up in Italy's "Silicon Valley of eyewear,," Alessandro Lanaro had a dream of making a big splash in spectacles in America. Today his company, Modo, is making the most socially responsible eyeglasses on the planet.

From the very beginning, Modo had plenty of Italian chic, as Lanaro negotiated licensing deals with hot designers: Derek Lam, Jason Wu, Philip Lim, Seven for All Mankind, and Puma. And he quickly created a business with a diversified portfolio of sellers, from Neiman's to Wal-Mart.

But having grown up in the gorgeous countryside around Cortina, (home of the 1956 Olympics, and site of the movie "For Your Eyes Only"), Lanaro was eager to design a product that could make a difference beyond making wearers look hip. "We love nature," he says, waxing nostalgic for that "magical place in the Dolomites" that he called home before moving to New York.

So he began in the most obvious place: a product based on sustainability. Using high quality recycled plastic was pretty easy, but finding the appropriate steel was more of a challenge. Eventually, he ferreted out certain steel mills that made high quality recycled stainless that allowed MODO to use the highest level of recycled content possible in the frames in their Eco (Earth Conscious Optics) line.

To prove the line's authenticity, Lanaro sought validation from the Underwriters Laboratory (UL), the outfit that certifies electronics. It took 8 months, and innumerable audits of various lots of frames, but they prevailed, becoming the first consumer company in the world to receive an Environmental Claims Validation (ECV) on recycled content. Some 95% of Eco's frames are made of recycled materials.

"It was expensive, time-consuming -- and worth every penny," Lanaro told us.

But that wasn't enough. He figured if he was going to spend money on marketing, he should make the most of it. So the company partnered with Trees for the Future, an NGO that plants trees in Africa and Southeast Asia. Trees for the Future plants a tree for every frame that Modo sells. The company currently has a leading position on a tree-planting project in Cameroon, and by the end of 2010, it will have planted half a million trees based on sales from Modo's Eco collection. Because Modo is spending more than 1% of its revenues on this project, they've been invited to join Patagonia founder Yvon Chouinard's 1% for the Planet organization.

Then there was the matter of packaging. "A necessary evil," Lanaro says. "No way around it. But we wanted to use it to do something great."

Eco Modo's boxes are pretty simple, even a little raw, particularly for a stylish brand. A corrugated box, with simple type. But inside is an envelope that encourages customers to send their old frames to One Sight, an organization that sends opthamologists to Africa and Southeast Asia to provide eyecare to people who otherwise would have no access to a doctor. Donated frames are measured to determine their prescription, and given to people whose eyes most closely match that need.

"It might not be a 100% match," says Lanaro, "but even 90% is a miracle for craftsmen who couldn't work because they can't see, or children who can't learn." Besides, he says, it's a great way to prolong the life of a product for a good cause.

"Our products are not biodegradable," he says. "That's not our story. But we wanted to make a product that was durable and at the end of one cycle of use, it could begin another lifecycle."

Now Lanaro has one more mission: he'd like to connect the donors of the frames with the people who are currently using them. One Sight is developing a system where donors could register and get running updates on the journey their glasses take: "Your glasses just boarded a plane for Mozambique!"

Connecting to actual individuals may be a little harder than just tracking shipping, however. But if Modo could pull it off, it would be cool.

"We'd like to create customer engagement by making them part of the story," Lanaro says.

Even better, this story has a happy business ending as well. Lanaro started out wanted to make a collection that looked great. "The common denominator is design," he says. And he wanted to price it well. All Eco frames are $139, a surprisingly affordable price made possible by the scale of products sold through Wal-Mart (Modo determines distribution based on style rather than price, so you're likely to see different frames at a hip boutique in Soho than you would at a Wal-Mart in Nashville.)

The response has been dramatic. "We've had an unbelievable reaction, from W Hotels to Wal-Mart," Lanaro says. "Our customers have become our best ambassadors, and retailers who support us are seeing amazing numbers of referrals."

Lanaro's next goal: to share the love. He's pushing to install One Sight collection boxes in all independent optical stores, urging customers to recycle their frames regardless of brand.

Along the way, Modo's mission has become a bit of a game-changer in the industry. "This was not just about a new hinge," Lanaro says. "It's a conceptual innovation. One day all frames should be done this way. We're happy to be leading the charge. "

[Images, courtesy of Modo]

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