A Quick Primer on Options for Eco-Friendly Eyewear

woman wearing sunglasses -options eco-friendly eyewear

People who wear glasses, strive to be environmentally conscious and want to look good, too, have a range of options when it comes to sustainable glasses. 

Some, however, are more sustainable than others. And given that companies will often charge more for a “greener” product, you want to make sure you’re getting what you think you’re paying for.

This post will walk you through some of your options for eco-friendly eyewear, whether that's classic styles, sunglasses for large heads, or any of your eyewear needs. We’ll also give you some factors to consider as you’re shopping. Let’s start with materials.

Eco-Friendly Frames

Frames for glasses are conventionally made from petroleum-based plastics, which are a nightmare, from a sustainability perspective. Plastics are energy-intensive to produce, difficult to recycle and impossible to remove from the environment when they break down into microplastics.

Fortunately, innovative companies around the world are producing frames for glasses and fashionable sunglasses from some pretty neat alternative materials. It’s possible to find frames made from pretty far out things like coffee grounds and flax, but we’ll focus on some more common materials and give you a sense of their pros and cons.

Plant-Based Resins

Plant-based resins, also called bio-resins and vegetal resins, are alternatives to the petroleum-based resins typically found in eyewear. Usually made from castor beans, plant-based resins come from renewable sources and take much less energy to extract and process than petroleum-based resins do.

Plant-based resins are in widespread use by companies with an interest in sustainable practices. This material is durable, flexible and functions much like traditional plastics, so it enables manufacturers to offer the same range of styles and colours as they usually would. 

It’s common for companies to use plant-based resins only as a percentage of the final product and to still use petroleum-based resins for the rest, so if you wanted frames that were 100% free of fossil fuels, this wouldn’t be the option for you.


Acetate is what’s known as a semi-synthetic material. It’s made from cellulose (typically wood pulp or cotton), but then combined with certain chemicals and processed into various forms. It can be spun into fabrics or moulded into accessories like jewelry or frames for glasses.

As a material for eyewear, it has some cool advantages, in that it’s hypoallergenic and easier to fit to people’s faces because its thermoplastic qualities make it bendable when heated. It can be processed into a variety of colours and patterns, although its most famous in its tortoiseshell form.

Alden Wicker at EcoCult does a fantastic deep dive into the environmental benefits and drawbacks of this material. They note that the bio-acetate itself is typically only one ingredient among many in a pair of acetate frames, and that the other ingredients can be pretty toxic. 

As Wicker says, it’s a “chemically intensive” material to make, and the jury’s out on whether it’s actually biodegradable. On the plus side, however, acetate probably did a lot to save the Hawksbill sea turtles from extinction.  

Stainless Steel

Steel is considered an environmentally-friendly material mainly on the basis of its recyclability. It doesn’t lose integrity in the recycling process, so it can be used and re-used countless times without breaking down.

On the down side, steel is very energy-intensive, both in the original extraction process and in the recycling. If you’re the kind of person who’s into slow fashion and likes to have one pair of glasses for years, however, this might be a great option. Steel frames are durable, lightweight and classic enough to ride out the trends.


Bamboo frames are lightweight, strong and probably more versatile than you think. While you won’t get the wide range of colours and patterns that plastics offer, bamboo can be finished in different hues and created in any style.

Bamboo itself is a renewable resource that even has an edge over wood. It can be harvested without killing the plant and regrows so quickly that it’s ready to harvest again in only a few years.

Not every company harvests sustainably, however, so it’s worth investigating where the bamboo comes from and how it was produced. The downside to bamboo, from a sustainability perspective, is that it only grows in some regions of the world, so even though it’s incredibly light, transportation emissions could be huge, depending on where you are.

A Note on Lenses

sunglasses on concrete - options eco-friendly eyewear

When you have a choice between plastic and glass lenses, glass would be the way to go, with a few caveats. 

Glass, like plastic, is water-intensive and energy-intensive to produce, although glass can be reused and recycled almost indefinitely. It’s derived from sand instead of fossil fuels, although it should be noted that sand is also a non-renewable resource and sand mining comes with its own set of problems. 

Unlike plastic, glass won’t leach toxic chemicals into the environment as it decomposes and doesn’t build up in aquatic ecosystems and wildlife like plastic does. 

The greenest option here, if you can find it, would be lenses made from recycled glass. They avoid the problems related to new resource extraction and keep useful materials out of the landfill.

Eco-Friendly Practices

Materials are a key part of a product’s green credentials, but the way that product is made has a huge impact on that product’s sustainability, too. 

To really figure out if a company is making their glasses sustainably, however, we need to do some research on that company. Greenwashing (the practice of saying something is environmentally friendly when it’s patently not) is everywhere these days, and it mostly falls on us to figure out if a product is as eco-friendly as its makers claim.

Fortunately, research can be as easy as doing a little digging on a company’s website. Look for companies that pay attention to energy efficiency, water use, emissions and waste management in their manufacturing processes. If a company is doing well in any of these areas, they will probably be shouting it out on their website. 

Always look for specific evidence of sustainable practices (that a production line is powered by 70% renewable energy, for example), rather than general claims (like a line of “green” sunglasses).

Bonus points if the company uses renewable energy to power their plants, creates ethical working conditions for their employees, refuses animal products, works to lower the emissions associated with shipping, recycles their water and uses recycled, compostable or reusable packaging.

We hope this helps you narrow down your choices for eco-friendly eyewear and find a pair that’s as sustainable as they are beautiful.

Written by: Anne Elliot

Feature image: Godisable Jacob; Image 1: Asim Alnamat