By Barnaby De Hoedt
When you think about the potential hemp has to solve the world’s plastic and waste crisis, you probably don’t immediately think of eyewear as an area where it can make a big difference. But eyewear is a €100bn-plus industry. That’s an awful lot of fossil fuel being turned into frames for glasses and sunglasses every year.
Hemp Eyewear, based in Edinburgh, Scotland, has set out to start changing that with the world’s first line of hemp sunglasses. We spoke to its founder Sam Whitten – also known on Instagram as @hempdesignguy – about the company’s, well, eye-catching products.
UKCSC: Sunglasses are perhaps one of the more unexpected products to come out of the hemp scene. Why did you decide to turn this area? What’s your previous experience as a designer? Are you working on any other hemp-based products other than sunglasses?
Sam: In my final year of studying product design I discovered plastic pollution after researching environmental issues in 2014 and I thought how crazy it is that no one knows about this. The Great Pacific garbage patch is an area 12 times the size of the UK (4 times the size of Texas) and it’s full of floating plastic. Then I asked the question, “What is the most sustainable material on earth?”. The answer was industrial hemp in almost every category. So I developed a technology which turns organic hemp into solid material which can be used as a plastics alternative for many applications. After analysing markets, I found eyewear to be a multi billion dollar industry which mostly used plastic frames. There was also a trend where some brands were making cheap bamboo and wooden frames which all looked the same. So that’s when I put the two together and created the world’s first hemp sunglasses.
I had no experience as a professional designer until founding Hemp Eyewear. Now we have a manufacturing facility and the ability to prototype almost any product made from hemp. I’m focused on the eyewear for now, although we are currently prototyping ‘Product 2’ which launches next year. I can’t say what it is yet but I think on the marketing side it could go viral.
What sort of reactions have you had to the sunglasses?
The reaction has been incredible. After posting photos online we have had a lot of media attention and everyone is always so intrigued about the eyewear properties and how they are made. One of the biggest surprises for people is picking up the frames and realising just how light and strong they are. The technology really is incredible and perfect for eyewear.
Tell us a bit about the manufacturing process. Where do you get your hemp from?
Every frame takes three weeks to manufacture and we do batch production. Our hemp comes from France and Germany. We process it in Scotland and complete 100% of the manufacture in our workshop. We have skilled craftsmen our handcraft each frame by hand using traditional artisanal techniques. Our eyewear is made from hemp fibre and a specialist water binder system which only produces steam as the by product. It’s as clean as it gets.
You’ve been running a Kickstarter – what were the aims and how can people continue to support you? What happens next? How can people get hold of a pair of sunglasses?
We reached our target of £8,000 on just the second day of the campaign. Our Kickstarter campaign is still live and we have been getting a lot of attention for the video and the image content on the page. Our handmade frames will retail for £180 but they are only £79 for an early bird price which is a fantastic price for a unique and handcrafted pair of sunglasses. We will keep pushing the promotion for the next month and try and grow our passionate community of Hemp Eyewear backers. All of our backers so far love the fact that the sunglasses are made from hemp and also just how different they are from anything else.
What are your hopes for the hemp industry in general?
My hopes are that we see more and more designers using hemp in their products, whether that be in product design, fashion, architecture. Everyone in the hemp industry has the same dream pretty much. We all want a more sustainable and healthy planet using hemp as the main resource. So by educating and innovating in every industry using hemp is how I see us making an impact. That is certainly my mission using hemp in product design.