Climate change, plastic in the oceans, conservation, responsible consumption... Whether as consumers, businesses or organizations, we are increasingly being asked to consider our use of resources and our environmental footprint. What does this mean for the eye care industry? How do we respond when patients and wearers ask where and how lenses and frames are made? A look at the production of prescription and stock lenses at ZEISS shows what is possible today and what the future will bring.
Article first published: December 2019
Last update: October 2023
It goes without saying that legal requirements and compliance regulations are observed. Issues such as child labor, fine dust and carcinogenic substances, which are widely discussed in public, do not play a role in lens production. Nevertheless, eyecare companies must be prepared to address the overall environmental footprint and take responsibility for our shared future.
Many millions of lenses are produced each year, from stock lenses and sunglasses to customized prescription lenses. Not surprisingly, the resulting use of materials, energy and water has a significant impact on the environmental footprint of lenses. With millions of lenses leaving manufacturing plants in the Americas, Asia and Europe, even a few grams per lens can quickly add up.
With the introduction of freeform technology in 2000, eyeglass lens manufacturing took a giant leap forward thanks to fundamentally new innovations - a transformation comparable to the shift from the internal combustion engine to the electric motor. For example, grinding and polishing times were reduced from 30 minutes to just over a minute and a half. The use of much less water for grinding and polishing has resulted in significantly lower energy and water consumption. Anyone who has seen a traditional spindle and a modern free-form cell has a very clear idea of how much things have changed. The goal now is to fully realize the potential for greener and safer lens manufacturing - not by taking one big leap forward, but by taking many small steps that add up to significant progress.
At ZEISS Vision Care, more than 300 initiatives at all locations worldwide have been brought together under the slogan "Green, Safe, Responsible" to promote more environmentally friendly production and logistics. Greater safety means improving occupational health, for example by further reducing the use of potentially hazardous chemicals or designing workplaces accordingly.
As a foundation-owned company, corporate social responsibility has played a special role since the 19th century, when Ernst Abbe established the Carl Zeiss Foundation as the sole owner of ZEISS in 1898. Commitment to sustainability is therefore anchored in our company's heritage, it is a clear expectation of the sole shareholder and it meets the expectations of today's customers.
Customers, patients and partners ask us time and time again – with good reason – how all of the company's employees actually put this responsibility into practice.
ZEISS relies on the collective effect of many small and large steps. The ZEISS Group's annual sustainability report provides information on achievements and goals. For 2022/23, it is reported that - compared to fiscal year 2018/19 and in relation to value added - carbon dioxide emissions have been reduced by 70%, energy consumption by 14% and waste by 29%.
At ZEISS Vision Care, we have been contribution to ZEISS's sustainability achievements since 2017 through our "Green, safe, responsible" initiative, which consists of more than 300 individual activities at each site and throughout our value chain.
For example, the new standardized packaging for semi-finished lenses has saved 68 tons of paper per year since 2018. That's the equivalent of cutting down 1,600 trees. And as a positive side effect, the company needs 2.1 tons less dye because it is no longer needed to print the packaging. Together with its industrial suppliers, ZEISS is working to significantly improve the ecobalance of its packaging in the future.
The elimination of the standard plastic cups used to protect the semi-finished lenses has contributed to ZEISS Vision Care's efforts to be even more environmentally friendly by saving 260 tons of plastic every year. This is the equivalent of 13 million plastic bags, the production of which would have required 650,000 liters of oil.
In eyeglass lens manufacturing, water is primarily used for cooling and cleaning during the manufacturing process. Water treatment - cleaning, filtration of plastic residues and microparticles, neutralization of cleaning water - is standard in modern lens manufacturing. Of course the water is treated and cleaned after being used in production. At the same time, ZEISS Vision Care continues to work on further reducing its water consumption needs. In 2022/23, we implemented water conservation measures that save 132.5 million liters per year - enough drinking water for more than 130,000 people.
With 100% green energy, we avoid 100,000 tons of carbon dioxide emissions annually, and through energy efficiency projects, we will save 5.8 GWh in 2022/23 alone - equivalent to the energy consumption of 18,000 households in Germany. And 4,200 tons of waste were recycled last fiscal year - it would take 152 standard shipping containers to transport that amount.
More sea freight instead of air cargo, the inclusion of sustainability topics in contracts with suppliers, "dry" grinding ... there is no shortage of ideas and concrete projects for the future. This is another instance where teamwork has proved essential and effective.
The use of plastics was and remains a challenge for the environmentally conscious production of plastic lenses. Semi-finished lenses used to be comparatively thick, which meant more monomers were needed. ZEISS' redesigned semi-finished lenses are up to 65% thinner and often weigh less than half as much, significantly reducing the amount of plastic required for each lens. A change like this requires the involvement of optical designers, technology and manufacturing specialists, IT, logistics personnel and other experts to enable the implementation within a complex production network without any disruptions for customers.
It is also possible to reuse the plastic left over after the lens is molded. Polycarbonate can be melted down and used to make castings, while the pellets of other materials like CR39 that cannot be melted down are increasingly being reused in other industries.
All initiatives at ZEISS Vision Care directly involve hundreds of employees. Ultimately, they enable Vision Care to do its part to help the ZEISS Group's reach its ambitious sustainability goals. The specific reduction targets to be achieved are clearly defined: zero CO2 emissions in our activities by 2025, less energy consumption, a significant reduction in water consumption and in waste accumulation, more circular economy, more value to society.
Climate change, the plastic polluting the world's oceans, environmental and species protection, a commitment to responsible consumption and securing jobs and supply chains – with "Green, Safe, Responsible," ZEISS Vision Care is successfully working on demonstrating corporate responsibility day after day. The goals of the Carl Zeiss Foundation, founded by Ernst Abbe in 1889 and still the sole owner of Carl Zeiss AG and SCHOTT AG, are reflected directly in the individual strategic business units at ZEISS.
Social engagement has been part of Ernst Abbe's living legacy for over 130 years. Today, one of the most pressing social challenges facing the eye care industry is the fact that millions of people in developing and emerging economies do not have access to eye and vision care.
ZEISS Vision Care pursues various approaches to improve the availability of eye care worldwide and supports major initiatives such as the Christoffel Mission for the Blind, Optometry Giving Sight and the Free Lunch Fund, as well as local projects.
With the Aloka Vision Programme, ZEISS has established a program for eye and vision care in rural India and other SAARC countries. Every month, up to 80,000 people have their vision checked for the first time and, if necessary, receive glasses or eye care. The social business model was developed in partnership with local and regional NGOs and foundations, eye clinics and optometry colleges, and is implemented by a dedicated team of optometrists based in Bengaluru. The Aloka Vision program focuses on local, sustainable care: ZEISS optometrists support local organizations in establishing basic eye care services. The profits from the sale of glasses benefit the local partners.
Here, sustainability means tackling the causes that limit the availability of eye care. This includes setting up local structures for basic treatment, training and education, as well as establishing business models that enable our partners to generate stable income. However, even initiatives such as the Aloka Vision Program do not reach all target groups. For disadvantaged children, such as orphans, children from slums or children of migrant workers, free eye care is the most important way to reach them. In cooperation with the charity organization Miracle of Sight, ZEISS employees get directly involved, collect donations and organize programs that help to make good vision available to everyone.
Granted, not many people ask this question. (And yes, they do.) But it is only a matter of time before environmental and social awareness becomes a more common factor for consumers to consider before purchasing a pair of eyewear. Frames made from recycled plastic or biodegradable organic materials such as wood are becoming increasingly popular. And, as with any business, corporate citizenship and sustainability are not just nice to say, but part of the business strategy for eyewear manufacturers.
It is time to more proactively communicate the industry's broad commitment. This will encourage all those who are committed to green, reliable and responsible eye care, serve as an answer to the increasing number of questions from customers, partners and talents about the special commitment to the future, and ultimately prove to be an indispensable criterion for consumers who value responsible suppliers when purchasing eyewear. ZEISS supports Earth Day, World Sight Day and frequently organizes workshops and events on sustainability topics to contribute to this goal. In order to work for a sustainable future, to protect the climate and nature and to add value to society, in order to contribute to the UN's Sustainable Development Goals, we need all hands on deck. ZEISS is responding to this call.
ZEISS is an internationally leading technology enterprise operating in the fields of optics and optoelectronics. In the previous fiscal year, the ZEISS Group generated annual revenue totaling 8.8 billion euros in its four segments Semiconductor Manufacturing Technology, Industrial Quality & Research, Medical Technology and Consumer Markets (status: 30 September 2022).
For its customers, ZEISS develops, produces and distributes highly innovative solutions for industrial metrology and quality assurance, microscopy solutions for the life sciences and materials research, and medical technology solutions for diagnostics and treatment in ophthalmology and microsurgery. The name ZEISS is also synonymous with the world's leading lithography optics, which are used by the chip industry to manufacture semiconductor components. There is global demand for trendsetting ZEISS brand products such as eyeglass lenses, camera lenses and binoculars.
With a portfolio aligned with future growth areas like digitalization, healthcare and Smart Production and a strong brand, ZEISS is shaping the future of technology and constantly advancing the world of optics and related fields with its solutions. The company's significant, sustainable investments in research and development lay the foundation for the success and continued expansion of ZEISS' technology and market leadership. ZEISS invests 13 percent of its revenue in research and development – this high level of expenditure has a long tradition at ZEISS and is also an investment in the future.
With over 38,000 employees, ZEISS is active globally in almost 50 countries with around 30 production sites, 60 sales and service companies and 27 research and development facilities (status: 30 September 2022). Founded in 1846 in Jena, the company is headquartered in Oberkochen, Germany. The Carl Zeiss Foundation, one of the largest foundations in Germany committed to the promotion of science, is the sole owner of the holding company, Carl Zeiss AG.
Further information at www.zeiss.com
ZEISS Vision Care is one of the world's leading manufacturers of eyeglass lenses and ophthalmic instruments. The unit is allocated to the Consumer Markets segment and develops and produces offerings for the entire eyeglass value chain that are distributed globally under the ZEISS brand.