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The Interview: John Pritchard, Founder, Pala Eyewear

Sadiyah Ismailjee
05 February 2020

Pala Eyewear is a purpose driven ethical eyewear brand, launched in 2016 by John Pritchard. This ethical eyewear brand puts people and the planet before profit. Pala Eyewear not only creates stylish sunglasses but also aims to eradicate poverty through funding grants to eye care projects in Africa.

Pala focuses on incorporating ethical and sustainable techniques in its production process. Founder, John Pritchard tell us more:

Could you tell us a little bit about your background?

Before founding Pala, I spent the majority of my life with my head in the clouds… okay, well not literally, but working on creative solutions for brands across digital platforms. It was really enjoyable work, yet it didn’t provide the fulfilment I was after – there was a missing ingredient in that I felt my work didn’t provide enough ‘purpose’. I wasn’t offering any truly meaningful impact through my work; we’ve only got a short time on this planet and I wanted to challenge myself to do something positive. Something that would make a difference not just in my own life, but for others too.

The culmination of this thinking resulted in the launch of Pala in 2016. It took form as a purpose driven eyewear brand that would balance style with sustainability.

Did you identify a gap in the market?

For me it was a case of identifying a cause first rather than coming at is from an eyewear angle. Having become aware of lack of access to eyecare across Africa during my travels, I recognised the seed of a cause that I could get behind. Shockingly, 10% percent of the world’s population are unable to get access to eye care and yet a pair of spectacles is recognised as the number one most effective tool to fight poverty – it empowers the wearer by enabling them to read, learn and work. Simple, yet so very so effective.

Unusually perhaps, my initial motivation for creating an eyewear brand was to act as the vehicle for delivering change in eyecare in Africa. Blake Mycoskie had used those same principles with TOMs and their shoe giving programme provides a blueprint for this model in fashion. Simply, we would sell eyewear and provide grants to eyecare projects in Africa.

Now we’re bedding down into the market it is becoming increasingly clear that there is an increasing need for there to be more sustainable options for customers, we provide an option for those people who are wanting more to their purchase than simply a nice pair of frames on their face.

Pala Eyewear

What is your brand identity/USP?

As a brand driven by purpose, our mission is to produce high quality, long-lasting eyewear that minimises impact on the planet and maximises impact on people. Our new collection that launches in mid-March is designed for those who acknowledge the need for a better future, appreciate the world we live in and embrace the adventure of exploring it. We want to get everyone outside!

We take a unique approach to fashion by creating a range of sunglasses that support life-changing vision projects in Africa for every pair sold. We also work with weaving communities in Upper East Ghana that make our cases from recycled plastic waste that would otherwise be destined to landfill. For the weavers we work closely with, we provide what is termed locally as a ‘progressive wage’ aimed to help them empower themselves out of poverty - an important element of our brand.

In addition, we are continuing to innovate. All our packaging is recycled or FSC approved, but arguably the biggest change for 2020 is that our entire collection uses bio-acetate. Normal acetate is a polymer made out of wood pulp and cotton which is biodegradable already, however, in regular sunglasses, plasticisers are then added containing harmful chemicals. With the recent innovation of biodegradable plasticisers, the entire material becomes biodegradable. This isn’t a USP necessarily, but certainly connects with our brand identity and mission to minimising our impact on the planet.

When did you launch and what was the initial response?

We launched in the summer of 2016. We had some decent PR and response because I think that we were bringing a new story to the eyewear market with our ethical stance and earned some early momentum. It’s keeping that momentum which is the challenge. Like a lot of start-ups, we had a very limited marketing budget and therefore had to be very careful with our spend and how to capitalise on that early interest. We experimented with a number of different routes and channels, some worked, some didn’t. It’s all part of the fun of discovery. You’re always learning!

What's your favourite piece? 

That is a tough one. I think the Pendo frame is a standout style. I see it as one that will endure within our collection for years to come referencing a classic square frame style, but with some subtle detailing that brings its own unique identity. It’s proved to be incredibly popular for men and women alike, so much so that I am launching this style in two new colourways for this coming season.

What does being sustainable/ethical mean to you and your brand?

It means everything to me, so far as I set Pala up with ethical foundations right at our core. It’s making a better decision for planet and people at the opportunity cost. To do that, it means putting purpose before profit. That brings its own issues and pressures, but I genuinely believe that if you want to be a sustainable brand you have to start the best you can be and look to make continuous positive changes as you grow.

As a team, we make all our decisions through the lens of whether it is the best decision for planet and/or people, which in itself rolls down from the UN’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals. This isn’t just reflected in our decisions about the product we create, it’s the packaging, the partners we choose, even the people we interview for our journal. It really does permeate every part of our business.

I think the continued evolution of BCorp movement is such an important development for businesses, large and small, and will become the future currency in which businesses will do business with each other. As important, it will give clarity and confidence to know that they are buying from a company that is invested in being a ‘business for good’.

Pala Eyewear

So far, what are some of the key challenges you have faced as a sustainable/ethical eyewear brand?

Being sustainable, or rather becoming more sustainable often means taking the more expensive decision, whether that be around product materials, packaging, business practices or the grants we provide to the projects in Africa. If you are taking this purpose-led approach, by its very nature it is not going to be the most cost-effective way of running a business and this puts financial constraints on other parts of the business such as marketing and growing the team.

As a brand we have to be able to compete on every front. Simply being a sustainable brand and appealing to ‘sustainable shoppers’ isn’t enough to survive. There aren’t enough people shopping sustainably (commonly held to be less than 1%) to provide sufficient demand within those circles. We have to appeal and therefore compete with the mainstream brands too and we don’t have the budgets to compete against their massive marketing spend.

What is the future for Pala?

There is so much in the planning right now. For 2020 we are looking to become one of the first eyewear brands to be become a BCorp. It’s going to be a lot of hard work and achieving that accreditation won’t be easy, but I love a challenge! I’m also looking at making the business more circular this year and having advanced discussions around that. It would be great if at some point in the future we could be putting less frames into the system than we have taken out!

We also have a couple of projects running that the moment, one is raising funds for a school screening programme in Ethiopia and the other is to build two wells for the weaving communities we work with in Ethiopia. You can read about those here!

What advice would you give to someone starting up a fashion business?

I’ll break this down to three pieces that I think are really important to acknowledge before going on the journey of starting up a brand.

  1. If you think you have a great idea for a fashion product or service, look to bring that idea to market as a minimum viable product. I can’t stress enough importance on testing your idea, learning and re-testing and so on. It will ensure that you don’t financially over commit whilst enabling you to understand where your customers are, their appetite for your product and whether that market is big enough for you to bring your innovation and ideas to it. Speak to as many people you know who will give constructive, non-biased feedback.
  2. You have to expect to give everything to your business. This means huge investments of time; more than you ever think you’ll need. You have to be ready for that and be able to manage the associated pressures that this could place on life out of work. It the ultimate test of work-life balance!
  3. Be patient. Becoming a successful business takes a lot time, a lot more than you think.

That would be my core three. If you have the mindset and the passion, then I think absolutely you should go out there and pit your idea against the rest of the world. For all the hard labours of starting up a business, it is no doubt the most exciting and rewarding thing I have ever done!

Read our feature on Eight Ethical Eyewear Brands Worth Watching here.

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