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Through A New Lense
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Through A New Lense

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We sat down to chat with the founder of Pala Eyewear, John Pritchard, to discuss the challenges of a sustainable start-up, being a social enterprise and incorporating innovative materials to a highly desirable line.

Tell us a little about how the company was born?

The 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 countries within Africa on a number of occasions and I had developed a real affinity for the people and cultures that I experienced.

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) everything was put into perspective, I knew that I had my ‘purpose’.

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

 

What were the biggest challenges setting up the business?

There are invariably a whole spread of challenges in starting up an independent business, but I’ll save you the essay and keep it to a succinct three.

Arguably the most obvious one is finance and cashflow. Launching a sustainable business takes time and patience. You therefore need to think of your business as a 5-year project to profitability. You may need to side-by-side with an existing job to help with the cashflow or be fortunate and find an investor or some very lovely family and friends.

By the very nature of sustainable production - small batch orders, lower impact practices, and working with artisans - means we’re not businesses that can scale to an insatiable demand. We have to take time to build, earn a reputation, then re-evaluate how we scale without causing imbalance in the system. That’s tricky to achieve!

Time. I always come back to this one, perhaps because I’m have a tendency to be more right-brain ‘creative’ at the expense of being left-brain organised. No matter how you dress it up, running your own business will suck a lot of time out of you. Conventional working hours no longer apply, and your social life diminishes rapidly. You need to have absolute discipline; work in ‘time segments’, visit your email at the start of the day, end of the day and not in between, go to be early and wake up early – will power has all but vanished come the evening. Make time for exercise and all the benefits of mental health that come with that, and certainly make time for family, or get lucky and find a time machine (still looking incidentally).

Where do you find/seek inspiration?

I am inspired by all those independent brands and boutiques out there who have that same purpose in looking to create change according to the sustainable goals they have set themselves. Meeting people who are driven by passion, who are innovating and challenging the norms is truly uplifting. The pendulum for sustainable fashion is no doubt swinging in our favour, but it will take time, lots of energy and sacrifices to achieve it. I tip my cap to all those who are involved in this overall mission to create a better future for people and planet.

 

How does Pala continue to balance ethics and making a desirable product?

Ever since the conception of Pala, we have always worked on the basis of ‘minimising impact on the planet and maximising impact on people’ and that has always influenced our thoughts around product. I think our cases are a good, erm… ‘case’ in point.

We minimise our environmental impact through using recycled plastic, and maximise our human impact through empowering the weavers who make them.

The cases are quirky and distinct, some a little wobbly at time, but all beautifully handmade by artisans who are proud to known that there hard work is being appreciated across the world. It might not be the slick design to fit into a clutch handbag, but I think these cases have an altogether different interpretation of ‘desirability’.

Is it difficult to find creative solutions while maintaining a sustainable business model?

‘Yes’ and ‘no’. ‘Yes’ in the sense that it can mean having to make compromises. For example, from 2020 we are only working with bio-acetate going forwards as a brand – it’s still a relatively new material to be working with in the industry which means there are not necessarily the colours palettes available to us for our frames. It’s a small sacrifice in the greater scheme of things and we continue to push suppliers to create more options which can only be good for the industry as a whole.

However, in general, I think we are always pushing on innovating as a brand and this does necessitate frequent creative application. The team here regularly brainstorm ideas for the future direction of the business; this might be around circularity, the type of content we want to align with or the partners we work with. These are all elements that incorporate a level of creativity that will help push us forward as a business.

 

What are you most concerned about in our current climate?

Apologies if this may sound obvious, but for me it really is the use of plastic, and my concern is that it all feels a little knee jerk and a little too late. Whilst we as brands and boutiques can look to promote alternative solutions at the grass roots level, it’s really governments that need to be applying the pressure far more incisively on not just high street fashion, but all facets of where we as consumers interact with plastic and how dispose of it. Enough words, more action. 

What is on the horizon for Pala Eyewear?

We’ve just finished planning our 2020 collection and I’m really excited by the fact that we have manage to create the whole collection based on bio-acetate, so no harmful chemicals.

We’re also looking at trying to progress our credentials on circularity and seeing if there is a solution we can work with frames at the end of their life. I hope this is something we can develop in due course.

 

Give us one piece of advice you’d like to have been told as a young start-up?

Be patient and make sure you are passionate about you brand. Sustainable fashion is a slow growth business, particularly when the focus is on purpose and not profit. You have to hunker down for the long term and let your brand grow organically. The way that people consume their content now is proliferated across so many platforms that you don’t get brands that become an overnight success. If you’re in it for a quick buck, then this industry is not for you. If you have passion and the belief that comes with it, that’s by far your best asset and it will see you through.

 

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