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September 06, 2019 8 min read

Pala is on a mission. A mission to put an end to poverty, to protect the planet and to enable all people to enjoy peace and prosperity. They’ve started by putting this mission at the heart of everything the brand does.

We asked John, Pala’s founder, all about journey behind starting Pala, what influences him, and creating a positive impact through business.

 

What influenced you to start Pala Eyewear?

My initial spark for Pala stemmed from a desire to put more purpose in the work that I was doing. Prior to starting up I had always worked within the comfortable world of corporate, but it wasn’t enough. Earlier travels had seen me visit a number of countries across Africa and I had developed a real affinity for the people, cultures and the stunning geography that I experienced. I knew I had a starting point there, and when I became aware of the issue around the lack of eyecare (Africa has 73% more blind and visually impaired people than any other region in the world) that I knew I had discovered my ‘purpose’.

A pair of spectacles is cited as one of the most economically efficient tools you can provide someone in terms of empowerment, whether that being given the ability to read, write or perform a work task. It was then that the *cough* simple task of retrofitting an eyewear to help leverage that cause began.

What was the process of starting a sustainable sunglass company like?

 

Well, it was a long process! As an idea it probably started 4 years prior to when we launched in 2016, so from idea to physical product there was a lot of pre-work going in the background. Like most start-up businesses you often need to work another full time job to keep everything afloat financially until the time comes to take the plunge. You then have all the normal challenges of starting a business, sustainable or not. We had our fair share with trademark disputes, stolen stock, unforeseen supply chain delays and always trying to negotiate improved minimum order quantities with our suppliers.

However, with a sustainable business you have the added layer of looking at the provenance of the elements that make up your product and all associated materials right down to the packaging. It’s always more expensive and often harder to find the right solutions, but without I say without hesitation, the right path to pursue. The encouraging thing is that in the 6 years or so from when I first started sourcing for Pala, the choice of ‘eco’ options have grown significantly and items such as biodegradable mailers and bio-acetate materials for eyewear frames have come on significantly.

A key piece of our starting up has been the positioning of our branding and by association, the marketing. It’s fair to say that we’ve moved on quite a lot from our first iteration when we first launched, and as we move into 2020 with our new collection I feel we are so much closer to my brand vision than ever before. In short, the collection will be designed for those who acknowledge the need for a better future, appreciate the world we live in, and embrace the adventure of exploring it. It’s taken a while to get there, but I certainly don’t think we are alone in taking our time to find our position in the market.

In terms of the marketing we have been quite in terms of ‘paid for’ activity. I’ve always taken the view that we would rather invest our time in creating great content that is eminently shareable and bring people into our world and the stories that come with it. The eyewear industry is a huge, huge industry and if we had tried to fight for eyeballs on all the familiar marketing platforms we would have run out of budget pretty sharpish.

Could you tell us a little more about the work Pala does to tackle the issue eyecare?

A key early priority was to find a partner to facilitate the giving process that would help create change on the ground in Africa. We chose to work with Vision Aid Overseas, one of the leading eye care charities working across Africa and aligned with the United Nation’s Global Sustainable Development Goals. Through our partnership we provide grants directly into projects to provide the infrastructure and equipment needed to facilitate eye examinations and the distribution of spectacles. In 2017 we build a vision centre in Zambia in Chinsali that serves a region of more than 75,000 people. Prior to that there was no facility to have you eyes tested. Incredible when you think how easy it is for us to simply walk down the high street and find 2 or 3 within the space of a few minutes.

I continue to align Pala to these types of opportunity; it might be specialist equipment, building a dispensary or sponsoring an outreach programme. What is important is that we communicate our progress back to our customers - after all, it is they that are funding these changes.

We are shortly going to embark on a school programme in Ethiopia where we will be the sponsor behind a comprehensive school screening program. This will include community mobilisation, training teachers and community health workers to screen students; refractions; referrals and glasses.

What has been your most satisfying moment with Pala?

For me it has to be visits to the countries we work in. I went to Ghana at the end of last year to meet the weavers that create our cases. It was amazing meeting these talented people, they so welcoming into their community. At the end of each of the communities would perform their own song and dance celebration – it was such a positive experience (until I was forced to get involved with the dance much to their great amusement!) Whilst out there I was introduced to the Chief of the Vea Tanseko community. We were told of the cataracts in his eyes and as a consequence, how sensitive they had been for years and years. I had a spare pair of Palas and gave them to him to try on. Instantly reduce glare improved his world immeasurably and he was delighted!

How did you get involved with Care4Basket?

One of those chance encounters. Someone knowing someone knowing someone and that person coincidentally only living about 20 mins drive from where I live in Brighton. ‘That person’ is Jib Hagan who runs and NGO in Ghana that support weaving communities in Bolgatanga. I had heard how he had successfully experimented in using recycled plastic for the baskets and so we experimented some more and worked out how we could create cases for too. I would love to point your readers to this short film that shows Jib’s passion for his work and how by using the recycled plastic it is a solution to a problem caused by climate change.
 

In selecting the materials for your sunglasses what factors are most important to you?

We use acetate for our frames which is cotton based, but evidently has plasticisers added as part of the production process. This is probably used by 90% of all high-end eyewear brands as it’s the most versatile material and is available in pretty much limitless colourways. We launched with this in our first season, but since then I have looked to see where we could be more eco with our materials. This season we used some recycled acetates (from the manufacturing process) in the collection and experiment with bio-acetate for the first time (so no harmful chemical used). The issue up until now has been that there has not been enough choice in bio-based acetate to use throughout an entire collection, but the great news is that pressure from manufacturers has meant that the choice has expanded significantly, so much so that for 2020 the entire collection will be bio-based acetate.

What piece of advice would you give to people who want to become entrepreneurs in the sustainable fashion industry?

When you ‘go it alone’ I think there is some trepidation that you are just that - alone in the world with your laptop and ideas. It can therefore feel overwhelming and perhaps put you off taking those first steps. However, what I found right from the start was that there is a lot more support and resource out there than you might expect, that you can tap into and you should look to take advantage of it.

As ethical businesses, whatever our individual sustainability pillars, we all have one thing in common - which is a shared vision of a better planet. Consequently, I have found other brands, stockists, influencers and platforms inherently more invested in helping you out. So use the network!

I’ll just sneak in another piece of advice which is to be prepared for the long haul. Whilst there is a lot of talk about sustainable fashion, people still aren’t necessarily shopping sustainable fashion (less than 0.5% in the UK), and those that already ethically minded are buying less – as should be the case, one t-shirt that will last years instead of three. Therefore, as a brand you have to make sure you appeal to the mainstream too and for them to love your product regardless of whether it is sustainable or not.

What is the most important thing you want Pala customers to understand about the company?

I want customers to understand that we are a constant work in progress. I look to align Pala to the UN ‘s 17 Sustainable Development Goals as much as possible, and I’m just at the beginning of our journey to becoming a B Corp.

However, we’re still a long way from where I want the company to be in terms of achieving our goals and to that end I make sure that we are entirely transparent about our business and people can read that on the website. There will always be more we can do in the world of sustainability and I would argue that not all the solutions are maybe here right now, however with continued innovation going on around the world, I will continue to search so that we can improve.

How do you describe the Pala Sunglass style? And what is the best occasion to wear them?

A well-timed question. Until recently we have always been very much focused on the visual identity for the brand. However, what we hadn’t done was considered the identity of a Pala sunglass ‘style’. We had a very good brainstorm session in the Spring around this and the outcome was that we want to move away from ‘fashion forward’ pieces. It jarred with our view on sustainability by producing eyewear that might only be in fashion for a few seasons. Therefore, we have moved to more timeless pieces which you will see in come through in 2020.If I were to summarise it would be as follows…

The Pala collection 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. The ultimate travel companion, our long-lasting frames endure the seasons and enable you to see further through crystal clear, UVA protective lenses. Each style takes a classic, familiar sunglasses design and updates it with a contemporary finish. Wearable, durable and ready to get you outdoors.  

What is your favorite pair of Pala Sunglasses?

Ooh, a tough one!If it were me personally then I like the NEO shape. I have a pair with prescription lenses and for me it’s just a really comfortable fit and in good shape for my face. However, if I was to point to my favourite in the collection then it would be the Farai Pink. Quite out there as a style, and it felt like a bit of a risk at the time when we decided to go with it, but it has sold really well for us and I think they look great – a very popular one with Instagrammers!

What is your favorite book? Or What book about running a sustainable business has inspired you the most?

Okay, there’s Mr Fussy, Little Miss Sunshine and Mr Tickle… you could pick any of those three - but you asked for a business book. I would probably say the one I have just read called, ‘How Brands Become Icons’ by Douglas B. Holt. It is not a sustainability book per-se, but it provides inspiration great inspiration on how to ensure your brand stand out from the crowd. With my ambition for making Pala the most sustainable eyewear brand in the market, it has given me lots of input for mapping out where and how we can evolve.

 

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