Creating Socially Conscious Style: Neil Blumenthal

Neil Blumenthal has brought designer-quality prescription glasses to the masses and built a company worth $500 million while maintaining a commitment to zero carbon footprint and offering eye care for the developing world

Neil Blumenthal launches Warby Parker

Warby Parker is the online prescription glasses company that has disrupted the big-firm-dominated eyewear sector.

The company came into being when Neil Blumenthal, a Wharton MBA student, realised that it was nearly impossible to find stylishly-designed yet reasonably-priced prescription glasses. He also spotted that the establishment retailers were ignoring the most important medium in the modern world: the internet.

His idea didn’t even make it to the final round of the Wharton Business Plan Competition. But Blumenthal persisted, and along with three fellow students he raised $200,000 in funding and launched Warby Parker in 2010.

Creating affordable and thoughtful retail

The eyewear industry is dominated by a very small number of Italian companies that have pushed sale prices high – designer glasses retail at around $500 –, kept manufacturing costs low, and have reaped huge profits from the consumers who have no other choice. Warby Parker sells high-fashion, hipster eyewear at $95.

The company, which is able to keep its prices low by selling online and running only seven brick-and-mortar shops, also offers a “Home Try-On” service that sends potential customers five pairs of glasses to try on for free. It is affordable and thoughtful retail.

The concept works: Warby Parker has now sold over a million pairs of glasses and has a valuation of $500 million. Growth has been fast and phenomenal, reaching its first year sales’ goal three weeks after launch and developing waiting lists 20,000 people long. By the end of 2013, the company raised $60 million from investors including Thrive Capital, and the company’s funding total now stands at a huge $116 million. Warby Parker has become a powerful player in the luxury eyewear.

Giving Back

But style and price is only one half of Warby Parker’s success. Following the trend set by TOMS – the non-profit shoe brand which famously gives a free pair of shoes to developing country communities for each pair bought – Warby Parker has a “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” programme. But unlike TOMS which gives shoes away for free, therefore creating dependency, economic stagnation, and putting local businesses at risk of going out of business, Warby Parker offers a longer-term solution. “Buy a Pair, Give a Pair” aims to really stimulate social change and empower people in developing countries by creating actual opportunity and jobs. A portion of sales from glasses sold goes to non-profit partners who then train men and women to conduct eye exams, spread eye health awareness, educate communities, and sell eyewear at affordable prices.

Almost one billion people worldwide lack access to glasses which limits their ability to learn or work. It is also estimated that uncorrected vision problems result in a global economic loss of over $200 billion per year. In 2014 Warby Parker announced that it had distributed more than a million pairs of glasses to those in need.

Warby Parker is also committed to net zero carbon footprint: it measures greenhouse gas emissions from its operations and buys carbon offsets to maintain its carbon neutrality. And the company also has its overseas factories approved by Verite which certifies labour practices.

This has been enough to award the company with a B Corp status, which only adds to its hipster credentials, and cements Blumenthal’s Warby Parker as a hip and modern socially conscious business.

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