With Genusee Eyewear, Ali Rose VanOverbeke aims to disrupt the industry and solve a local crisis.
You might have noticed the cool sunglasses Laurie David was wearing in this Bluedot Martha’s Vineyard story Geoff Currier wrote about her all-electric Nissan Leaf. There’s a good sustainability story behind those glasses.
Driving around Flint, Michigan, in a box truck as a volunteer for the Red Cross during the water crisis, Detroit native Ali Rose VanOverbeke looked around her at the cases upon cases of water bottles and realized something: She had never seen this much plastic in one place. Where would it all end up? In the days that followed, VanOverbeke got her answer — she saw piles of plastic-filled trash bags strewn on the streets.
“At the time I knew I wanted to do something in Flint,” VanOverbeke said. “I don’t know how to solve a water crisis but I’m a designer and I know how to make things.” This revelation paved the way for Genusee, the sustainable eyewear company that VanOverbeke founded in 2018. Genusee glasses are made from recycled plastic water bottles in Flint. The company prides itself on supporting fair, local labor, and creating a circular economy to reduce environmental impact.
VanOverbeke was already working in the fashion industry when she noticed its harmful impact on the environment. She went to Parsons School of Design and worked as a stylist and designer in New York City for nearly 10 years. At Parsons, she began learning about sustainable fashion. During a fellowship at Living Arts, a non-profit that brings art education to Detroit youth, VanOverbeke says, “I fell in love with the idea of using design and fashion as a form of collaboration with underserved communities.” From there, VanOverbeke worked at Lane Bryant, where she loved the company’s mission of inclusive fashion. But it was there that VanOverbeke witnessed just how wasteful the fashion industry is.
Disenchanted with the industry where she had spent 10 years, VanOverbeke took some time off and traveled to India to work with an NGO called My Choices Foundation that equipped women in domestic abuse situations with sewing skills. VanOverbeke knew she wanted to use fashion for good like she saw it played out there.
She returned home for a two-week Christmas visit, fully intending to tell her family she was moving to India permanently. This visit, however, was when she encountered the Flint water crisis. VanOverbeke realized that she could do so much close to home.
“It needed to be a product of purpose and need,” VanOverbeke thought when brainstorming business ideas. “As a designer, I left my corporate job because I was sick of making what felt like more stuff that people don’t need.” She chose glasses, which serve both a medical and aesthetic purpose.
On top of this, VanOverbeke saw that the eyewear industry needed some disruption, as most eyewear is designed for a linear economy. Glasses are commonly made from cellulose acetate in a reductive process. The frame is carved out from a block of acetate, and the vast majority of the material winds up in the landfill.
Genusee, however, aims to create a circular economy. On top of frames being made from recycled plastic — each pair of glasses upcycles 15 water bottles — the company has instituted a buyback program, encouraging customers to give their glasses additional lives. About 15% of customers have participated in the buyback program so far, which VanOverbeke sees as a lot given how new the company is. She expects that number to increase to 30-40% after the next style is released and has set the long-term goal of reaching 80-90% participation in a circular economy. Genusee currently has one frame style — Roeper — but hopes to launch a second in 2022.
When Genusee first launched in 2018, they hired exclusively returning citizens, which refers to those who were formerly incarcerated. Now the employees come from a variety of backgrounds, but the company still focuses on hiring people who are generally overlooked or discriminated against in the hiring process.
Recent shifts in consumer habits give VanOverbeke hope for the future. She believes that the pandemic sped up the transition, with shoppers becoming more aware of the local impact of their purchases. VanOverbeke hopes that circular economies will have a ripple effect, with more industries prioritizing impact-based and sustainable production as consumer values change. And regarding Genusee’s role in the process, VanOverbeke notes, “I don’t think we’re the solution, but I think we’re able to be part of a larger solution and collective of changemakers.”