We were interviewed by Optometry Australia about sustainability following presenting to a special interest group. Below is the full interview and a link to the one Optometry Australia has posted.
In March 2021, optometrist Ellen Zhang and her partner Kyle Armstrong opened their optometry practice in Clayton, Victoria: Ellen Zhang Optometry. With a keen focus on both patient care and sustainability, they set out to create a sustainable business that puts climate action front and centre.
Ellen is the sole optometrist in the clinic. She sees all the patients and also takes care of bookkeeping, ordering and clinic management. Kyle, who studied industrial design at RMIT and is a multidisciplinary designer, runs the marketing, design and communications aspect of the company, including social media, web design, point-of-sale design and brand strategy and execution.
Sustainability in optometry
You have set up a sustainability focussed optometry clinic – what made you take this step?
It’s an area of focus that is sorely needed and one that we think does not receive enough legitimate consideration and effort. Sustainability has become a business model, and companies today recognise that if a product appears sustainable, it will sell. This attitude is what we wanted to address and rectify within our business model. We wanted to create a business that strongly considers its environmental footprint and reduce harm in whatever way possible.
When did your practice open?
The Practice opened in March 2021 and was only open for a few days. The lockdowns affected us a few times last year, which hindered how often we were open and how many patients we could see. The clinic has just hit its 1 year anniversary.
What sets your business apart from others, particularly when it comes to sustainability?
As previously mentioned, we’ve observed many other companies use sustainability as a marketing tool, rather than a legitimate effort towards more ethical approaches. It is often more than not, a tacked on component of a business, as opposed to being an integral part of a businesses ethos and methodology.
Whilst environmental sustainability is certainly one of our focuses, we apply the word ‘sustainable’ throughout all aspects of our business, from sustainable waste management, sustainable sales practices, and a sustainable working culture. We have set ourselves apart by choosing to revolve our business around ethically based practices, which considers all areas of a business, not just in areas patients can see. From our observations we have seen growing trends in businesses, based around excessive sales practices, which often leads to reduced patient care and environmental consideration. Our business disregards this focus in favor of a more empathetic approach, which considers everyone and everything involved, from how we source materials and products, to how we consider others, like patients and employees.
What challenges have you faced?
The biggest challenge was sitting down and planning everything. There is not a lot of information all collated into a pretty document for us to read and follow. We had to do a lot of research into the industry, like recycling techniques, material availability, transport and logistics and how that all contributes to climate change. Based on our research, we had to make what we thought was the best decision about all our business procedures going forth. We don’t believe we have everything right, so we are still researching, still improving and considering new things as we go. There are always more documentaries, more videos, more papers to read that are coming out all the time.
Was anything surprisingly easy?
Maintaining our enthusiasm has been surprisingly a breeze, as we are very passionate about this topic.
Have you received positive feedback from patients?
So far we have received positive feedback from patients about our mission and being able to provide an alternative or highlight sustainability as an issue in optometry. Being able to make patients aware of their decisions and their own impact is as important as our own actions within the clinic. It’s about changing habits over time, not just in our industry but in our entire lives. It’s no use being sustainable with our glasses purchases but continuing to be unsustainable about every other purchase we make at home.
What are your roles in the business?
Ellen is the sole optometrist in the clinic, I see all the patients, help manage their eye conditions and perform their eye tests. I also run the admin part of the business, so all the fun accounting, bookkeeping, ordering and clinic management.
Kyle runs the marketing, design and communication aspect of the company, from social media posts, web design, POS design and brand strategy and execution.
Do you think there is an appetite in the Australian optometry sector for more sustainable approaches?
Definitely, we believe there are others like ourselves who want to do better for the environment, especially with recognition of climate change and our huge impact on the Earth. Whilst there is an interest in sustainability, we commonly see other practices being unsure on where to focus their efforts and what legitimate actions they can take. It is difficult to take first steps when there are no guidelines or recommendations to follow. It can understandably be quite daunting wondering if a drastic change within the business could have adverse effects. We aim to lead by example, displaying best practices throughout our company to show others that becoming more sustainable is possible and very achievable, for small scale and large scale businesses. Any small part we can do will help, better than not doing anything at all.
What are some first steps that OA members can take?
Some simple steps in a clinic that could be done is to consider everything you do and the resources it uses, the impact it has on others and the afterlife of the product.
For example, a simple but usually frequent process required is printing. Most in house printing requires disposable ink cartridges, which are designed by the printing companies to become obsolete after the first few uses, to encourage repeat sales. In Australia more than 25 million ink cartridges end up in landfills each year, which can take between 400-1000 years to decompose - and that’s if it even ends up in landfill. Although refillable ink cartridges used to be the norm, most companies aren’t aware they could invest in printers which can utilize a refillable ink tank, which prints for much longer and uses less ink. This means that a company could opt for a plant-based ink, spend much less money on ink / cartridges and produce much less waste as a result.
But that’s assuming you absolutely need something printed. Does it even need to be printed in the first place? Can it be seen or sent digitally by email or online faxed? And if it needs to be printed, what are you going to print it on? Spare paper around the clinic, virgin white paper, recycled paper, bleached and treated paper? Can it be printed smaller or with anything else to utilize the front and back of the paper to the best of its ability (sheet yield)? Can you reuse the piece of paper for anything else like animal bedding? If you’re using cartridges, what will happen to the ink cartridge when it's empty? Where did you buy the ink cartridge? What materials make up the ink cartridge? How are ink cartridges even manufactured? People may choose to ignore these questions and issues as it’s much easier to go with what's familiar, quick and convenient rather than taking extra considerations.
Some other first steps clinics could employ may include:
Replace lighting fixtures with low-energy LED’s: pretty obvious, but a simple and effective way to reduce emissions and save some money.
Packing orders & transport logistics: avoid using plastic packing materials, tapes and virgin materials. Opt for alternatives such as paper wrap, water activated tape, recycled papers & cardboards. Consider who you’re shipping with, how do they contribute to reducing emissions? For example, Sendle supposedly offset their emissions so that they’re at least carbon neutral, which is a start. Also consider how far the package has to travel? International? Outer state? Within the state? Can patients pick up instead of delivery to reduce overall resources?
Clinic furniture: if new furniture is needed, consider what materials the furniture is made from. Try searching for sustainable furniture alternatives as opposed to generic options that opt for recycled materials. Avoid wood composite materials such as: MDF and chipboard, and opt for materials such as responsibly sourced untreated lumber hardwoods and softwoods, bamboo and recycled timber. Try to avoid resins, paints, and complex finishes & coatings, unless the lifetime of the product is substantial to compensate. Opt for cottons and natural fibres as opposed to petroleum based synthetic fibres like polyester, otherwise at least opt for recycled polyester. Consider how to responsibly dispose of any existing furniture, whether that may be through donation, or disassembled / recycled.
Product sourcing: opt for sustainably sourced eyewear options that consider the least amount of resources to acquire. This could mean where the frames are sourced from, are they from overseas, local? For example, if it’s from England to Australia that’s at least 1.8 tonnes of CO2 for the plane trip alone to get it here and that doesn’t include on ground logistics - how will you offset that? This also means how the manufacturer of the glasses procure the materials required to make it. This could mean opting for recycled materials as opposed to virgin and avoiding petroleum-based plastics. Plant based plastics are still plastic and act very similar to plastic once created and whilst the oil component is removed, many other harmful components still exist. Therefore, we recommend pushing for more recycled materials like metals and timber where possible. We also understand there are currently not as many companies making sustainable eyewear compared to normal eyewear, meaning it may be difficult to source adequate stock or variety for certain retail spaces. In this event, we recommend you provide as many sustainable options as possible and slowly transition overtime as more options become available to the market.
Switching to ethically sustainable electricity providers, banks, super & appliances: looking into the services we use to run our businesses is important, as they are an integral aspect of a company that needs to be sustained, usually for the duration of a business. This means, not supporting energy companies that invest into fossil fuels, land clearing and corrupt behaviour.
Finally, appliances. To start, reducing or replacing gas appliances and systems with electrical alternatives is a good change to make within any building or home as it removes our reliance on natural gas fracking and distribution. Additionally, gas appliances can be harmful to the air quality within closed spaces indoors, meaning removing these systems is overall better for our health. Besides gas appliances, taking care to turn off switches and appliances when they’re not in use, can be an effective step to save on the power bill and emissions.
Install solar panels to offset power usage: pretty straight forward, but still an effective means to offset your energy usage even further, if a company is able to invest.
What is your advice to optometrists and patients on avoiding ‘greenwashing’?
As mentioned previously, the word ‘sustainability’ has become a business model and a marketing tool. It’s now unfortunately a buzzword, riddled with ambiguity from its constant misuse. Unfortunately, this means that most modern marketing campaigns today are increasingly manipulative. Everyone wants to ‘do good’ and ‘play their part’ in reducing emissions and saving the planet, therefore making it difficult for most people to identify nefarious behaviour or tactics. So what do you do? In today's marketplace we can not afford to take everything at face value. We need to look at what a company or system is contributing to, what they claim to offer, their message, their ‘voice’, their core values, their marketing language. What are they selling, and do their claims stand up to scrutiny if you were to investigate further. It’s a skill that requires practice and a healthy level of scepticism and maybe even some cynicism towards individuals' behaviours and desires when considering their business ventures. Do they care more about money? Or others? If you’re curious and haven’t been able to find any information on their website, we say send them an email or call and ask directly.
What are your next steps?
Our next steps are continuing to improve the business, find more ways to be sustainable, and always reflecting on what could be done better. We don’t want to become complacent in what we do. We also have a goal of guiding others, be it optometrists, patients, other businesses or government officials, to do more for this Earth. We want to be an example and reliable source of information to others, and we want to change the perception that it is “too hard” or not doable.
Although we are in optometry only, we believe our ideology and procedures can be applied universally across all industries.
- Climate Town Youtube Channel
- IAPB - Climate Action Work Group ‘Guide for environmentally sustainable practices in the eye health sector’
- Documentary ‘Plastic China’ (2016)
- Documentary ‘Trashed’ (2012)
- Documentary ‘Life on Our Planet David Attenborough’ (2020) If you would like more resources please reach out, we have plenty more.
If you would like to read our interview published by Optometry Australia, then click
the link below.