Good Citizens Eyewear’s Nik Robinson tells WARC Asia Editor Rica Facundo why sustainability is at the core of his company’s products and how brands can inject personality and storytelling with 100% recycled products and packaging.

This article is part of a Spotlight series on sustainability in Australia. Read more

WARC: Tell us about Good Citizens and what is the sustainability problem that the brand is trying to solve?

Nik Robinson: We wanted to prove that there is worth in trash. After doing some research, we identified that one of the biggest problems in the world is single-use plastic. Our objectives were then two-fold. Firstly, how can we find a new home for single-use plastic? Secondly, how can we educate people to actually stop using it?

After we identified the problem we wanted to solve, the next thing we did was pretty unusual. We asked ourselves what is an everyday product that people want to use and explored how we can reuse plastic to create that product. It was a bit of a Willy Wonka process to put those two elements together and come up with eyewear frames. A lot of people on the planet also need sun protection and prescription glasses.

So sustainability is at the absolute core of the product. We were lucky that we could start from a blank piece of paper which is not the case for legacy brands. Our customers understand that and it comes across very authentically that we are working towards untrashing the planet.

Can you explain your approach to creating 100% recycled packaging. Why was this an important aspect of the brand’s sustainability approach and what were some challenges?

When we were planning our packaging, I gave our kids (who get a say in the decisions we make) an option between a really expensive but fancy box that costs $3 and a 100% recycled brown box with one colour ink and it cost $0.50. If they chose the brown box, they could save $2.50 and the brand could use that money towards pulling plastic out the ocean and removing carbon from the atmosphere.

This sums up our approach to our packaging. It is a standard brown box - we even assessed how much ink we should use on the box, including minimising the point size of the text so that we could reduce our ink usage. It’s the little details that matter.

We’ve encountered some challenges given the seasonality in Sydney. For example, due to recent humidity, the fibres were beginning to warp a little because the material was adapting to the moisture. But what’s interesting is that customers simply embraced these quirks because they understand what we’re trying to achieve.

How can brands still inject their personality into recycled packaging?

Brands can get creative in how they use the recycled packaging to tell the brand story. The copy inside our box says, “Drunk, toss, collected, washed, dried, flakes, squashed, heated, squeezed, moulded, cooled, assembled, polished, unboxed yours. To go from a bottle to your new sunnies, there has been quite a journey. We hope you enjoy wearing them in your sunny corner of the world.”

And when customers take out the cloth, it just says “looking good”. So while the packaging is quite basic, there's some personality injected to the packaging. We’ve translated our story onto the box. It’s classic direct marketing that validates the consumer’s choice and makes them feel good about their purchase.

Did the brand have a hard time educating and encouraging this kind of consumption behaviour among consumers?

I was watching an unboxing video on YouTube that showed the person going through nine boxes just to get to the product in a velvet case inside of a plastic bag. Someone commented, “What a bloody waste of time to go through all of that just to see the pair of glasses that sit in a velvet case.” You could read the anger and frustration of the customer.

People have the opposite reaction to our box. They actually tell us that they love our “lo fi box”. All the box has to do is get it from our workshop in Sydney to any location the customer is at. We even explained the money we saved from the fancy box to the lo fi box with the text “This fancy box, let’s be honest. Who needs over the top packaging? Instead, we have spent your money on removing more plastic from the ocean. That's much better”.

Being good for the planet is one important product claim but are there others that are equally important for selling to your customers? Should sustainability messaging always be front and centre of marketing efforts, especially now with the cost of living significantly increasing?

We have predominantly leaned on the fact that we're a sustainable brand but we’re not hanging our hat on just sustainability. There are three areas to our brand – beautiful design, sustainability and accessibility.

Let’s take a look at the spirit of a good citizen. A good citizen just does the right thing and won’t mark up a pair of glasses 200-300%. We want people to go “Oh, but for $130-140, made in Sydney and made of recycled material with Carl Zeiss Vision lenses, I’ll give it a go.”

However, the pricing has been a challenge to get right. When we priced it at $99, people had this perception they were bad quality because they were cheap. So we changed the lenses and redesigned the glasses. We don’t want pity buys, we want people to buy the product because it looks good. We have to also win it in the style game. It’s an extremely competitive market. First and foremost, people want to look good and feel cool.

Your glasses feature modular designs, which means that the product can be fixed by the customer. Why was this an important feature to have?

A big problem created an awesome solution. And the big problem was how to use just one material – a single-use plastic bottle and nothing else – to make a frame, make it repairable and then recyclable at end of life too. A byproduct of that challenge is that all the parts click together in seconds and are fixable at home. The test was, if one of my kids can fix it , then a customer can fix it at home.

If all the parts are repairable and interchangeable, then let's play with colour and make the design modular. Let's make it a fashion accessory. Most products that are recycled are black so that they can cover all the bad bits. We chose to do bright colours. It’s the details that matter.

We had some clever marketing friends who told us that we shouldn’t talk about the repairability USP because that puts in people’s minds that it’s going to break. But I don’t think that’s true. Imagine buying a car and thinking that you will never have to get it repaired. If cars are repairable, why can't glasses be?

Our design philosophy is inbuilt joy. Our visual signifier is a little hinge system in our glasses that enables it to be repairable but also highly visible. It allows customers to signal to the world that they care and are connected with another “good citizen” because of it. It’s really powerful for a brand to enable and cultivate that kind of connection and community. Now we get brands across various categories approaching us to enquire about this design process.

What are some other effective tactics in changing consumer perception that there’s worth in trash?

The fact that someone wants to mend and customise it means that they’ve got a connection to this product. They don’t want to just throw it away. It’s a way of creating a bond with the pair of sunnies. There's nothing wrong with the humble drinks bottle. But there's a problem when it's just left on the side of the road. And we want to inspire the fact that with some good design thinking, you can actually turn something that's an absolute bloody nightmare into something quite beautiful.

Lastly, how would you sum up your approach to building that trust consumers have in your brand? Any advice to brands?

People tend to support people who are a bit crazy and doing something interesting. We’re definitely a bit crazy as a team of a small family trying to naively take this challenge on. So we've been really honest and just told everybody how hard it is. We’ve told everybody about the failures and those failures just connected because people want you to win.

And the second reason for telling people how hard it is, is so people question when other people claim they're doing something. Have they really gone to the same level as us or did they just order their product from a factory or a sweatshop and stick their logo on it?