The First Circular Economy Eyewear from Flint

Genusee

1. No Poverty 8. Decent Work and Economic Growth 9. Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure 12. Responsible Consumption and Production 16. Peace, Justice and Strong Institutions

Overview

Genusee is the first circular economy eyeglass company. It reduces the plastic bottle waste in Flint, Michigan while creating jobs for a stronger community.

Authors

Alexandra Criscuolo

Alexandra Criscuolo

Tony Hoyt

Tony Hoyt

Savannah Parsons

Savannah Parsons

School

Bard MBA in Sustainability

Bard MBA in Sustainability

Professor

Kristina Kohl

Kristina Kohl

Innovation

Genusee takes approximately 15 discarded water bottles from Flint and makes them into a pair of glasses. Once a customer is finished using that pair of glasses, Genusee offers to take them back and issue a credit to the customer to use on a new purchase. This allows Genusee to upcycle the old glasses into the material stream to create new glasses.

Genusee meets SDG 12, Responsible Consumption and Production, by its use of recycled plastic to make glasses, as well as its circular eyewear supply chain. It also meets SDGs 1 (No Poverty), 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth), 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure), and 16 (Peace, Justice, and Strong Institutions).

The First Circular Economy Eyewear from Flint

Flint children collecting their daily allowance of bottled water

Inspiration

The story of the inspiration behind Genusee dates back to VanOverbeke’s days as a stylist and designer. Throughout her career, VanOverbeke became “frustrated with the state of the fashion industry, how unsustainable it was environmentally, and [saw] issues with social injustice.” She decided to take some time off and moved to India. She volunteered for an organization called My Choices, which worked with women suffering from domestic abuse by teaching them skills to help them gain financial independence. According to VanOverbeke, “this was a big turning point in how [she] actually wanted to use her skill set and background in fashion to do good in the world.”

When she returned to the US, VanOverbeke moved to Michigan to volunteer with the Red Cross in Flint during the water crisis. While working in Flint, VanOverbeke saw first-hand the surplus of plastic that was coming into the city, and realized that Flint was not only suffering a water crisis, but also a plastic crisis. Since she did not have a background in water, VanOverbeke “started to think about what they could make with the material stream that could be a product of purpose or need.” VanOverbeke partnered with Jack Burns, a friend from college, and a plastic engineer to brainstorm a fashion and design product for which there was market demand. The end result was to design and create eyewear. Meanwhile, to stay true her mission of making a positive impact in Flint, VanOverbeke decided to reach out to her family and community members directly. She wanted to understand what the community needed in order to thrive. This led to the creation of Genusee.

Overall impact

For every pair of eyewear, 15 plastic water bottles are upcycled. Since the business started, the company has upcycled 16,000 single use plastic bottles. It takes 450 years for a single use plastic water bottle to decompose in a landfill. Genusee is diverting plastic bottle waste from landfills and continuing to keep the used plastic in its material stream through upcycling. As mentioned earlier, Genusee buys back glasses from its customers at the end of the product’s life, turns the plastic into small pellets, and upcycles those plastic pellets back into the material stream to create new glasses. Although some people donate thier used glasses, only 7% of those donated are reusable. Most are still thrown away. By making new glasses from the recycled material, Genusee avoides this problem.

With the company located in Flint, Michigan, Genusee has been focused on creating local jobs, specifically for what they call returning citizens, people coming out of incarceration or who have been unemployed for a long time. Each job they create has an exponential impact. For example, if a mother has a steady income and can provice for her kids, they will do better in school, be well fed, and will prepare themselves for a better future.

Genusee also invests in its community in other ways. The main partnership is with the Flint Kids Fund, which is part of the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. This fund supports kids and families who have been affected by lead poisoning throughout the water crisis by tracking their health over the long term for any related issues as well as providing education about things like nutrition. Genusee has raised about $8,000 for the fund so far. It has also sponsored a community public mural with the Flint Public Art Project and planted over 300 trees on Arbor Day, with plans for more tree planting this upcoming Arbor Day!

Business benefit

Genusee, a certified B Corp, operates on a B2C model, focusing on producing prescription glass frames and sunglasses. The company currently employs a handful of people from the Flint community to handle the manufacturing. For example the sewing of the polish bags that the glasses come with is currently performed by Flint residents at a center that provides employment training for women. The manufacturing process is streamlined, so that the learning curve for new employees is shorter and the opportunity for cross-training is easier.

Genusee’s mission and goal of providing living wage jobs to people in an underserved population is connected to SDG 1 (No Poverty) and SDG 8 (Decent Work and Economic Growth). The innovation ofits material sourcing and its closed loop system to extend the life of its products supports SDG 9 (Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure) and SDG 12 (Responsible Consumption and Production).

Genusee has a lot of potential to grow. According to the Vision Council of America, approximately 64% of Americans wear eyeglasses, ample demand. Genusee’s goal is to grow its product lines by expanding to other styles and possibly include other product categories.

In addition to expanding its collection, Genusee is focusing on growing and scaling its manufacturing capabilities so that it can expand to contract manufacturing and licensing for other eyewear companies. Genusee wants to expand into this B2B model because, according to VanOverbeke, “we don’t want to just be a sustainable eyewear company, but we want to make the eyewear industry more sustainable as a whole.”

Social and environmental benefit

Given the relatively young age of the company, Genusee is already demonstrating results in terms of social and environmental benefits. As mentioned above, one of its social benefits is job creation, specifically for returning citizens. Genusee aims to create living wage jobs that people can be trained to perform. “There’s exponential impact in being able to create jobs, even for one person,” VanOverbeke explained. She described the example of a single mom, who by having a job can create a more secure environment for her children, thus allowing her children to focus on school and excel in their own endeavors. In addition to job creation, Genusee has strong ties to the city of Flint, MI and focuses on giving back through partnerships with charities such as the aforementioned Flint Kids Fund. With these social benefits in mind, Genusee is working towards SDG 1, No Poverty, SDG 8, Decent Work and Economic Growth, and SDG 13, Sustainable Cities and Communities. Job creation and investment in the community create decent work and will contribute to economic growth and lower poverty levels over time. Genusee jobs promote an inclusive society and sustainable development in the Flint area, and provide access to justice for all while building an effective, accountable, inclusive business.

As for the environmental benefit, Genusee is providing a solution to the problem of an overabundance of single-use plastic waste in Flint. So far, the company has upcycled more that 16,000 single-use plastic water bottles which would otherwise be strewn about the streets or tossed in a landfill.

Interview

Ali Rose VanOverbeke, Co-Founder, Genusee

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Genusee

Genusee

Flint, Michigan, US

Business Website: https://genusee.com/

Year Founded: 2018

Number of Employees: 2 to 10

Genusee is an eyewear brand co-founded by Ali Rose VanOverbeke and Jack Burns. The stylish eyeglass frames are made from single-use plastic bottles used in Flint, Michigan because of the water crisis. Genusee is the first circular economy eyewear brand, buying its glasses back from customers once they are finished with them, then upcycling the used plastic back into the material stream to create new glasses. The company has also created living wage jobs in Flint, which VanOverbeke had identified as one of the biggest needs in the community.