Interview: Giving Back through Ethical Business with Baz van Cranenburgh, Bambooka

Baz van Cranenburgh is co founder of ethical sunglasses manufacturer Bambooka which generates income for two African charities, PEPE and Vision Aid Overseas.

What inspired you to start making sunglasses?

We all try to ‘give back’ and have our favourite charities and good causes, don’t we? My wife Ruth and I had been supporting PEPE (People Empowered Preserved Earth) financially for a while because we like their philosophy and approach and scope – small, yet incredibly big in concept. I came across a pair of bamboo sunglasses online, which back in 2008/ 2009 was unheard off. This remarkable pair of handmade bamboo eyewear, together with my background with Bausch & Lomb, the originators of Ray-Ban, got us thinking about a new way of fundraising: could we perhaps, instead of asking people for money, sell bamboo sunglasses and donate the proceeds to PEPE?

The original idea came purely from our desire to replace our charitable financial contributions of a couple of thousand pounds per year, with a more sustainable and a more novel way of fund raising.

The idea started to take hold and we found a group of like minded people who were happy to put their shoulders under the project and give us the benefit of their time and expertise. All people involved work on a voluntary basis, so not only are we a non profit, we are a non profit run by volunteers. The whole project is propelled forward by people’s positive energy and passion for the product and especially of course, the causes.

How did you choose the charities you donate to?

As mentioned, PEPE has been dear to our hearts even from before the time Bambooka started. PEPE’s prime objective is to do away with the need for aid. This is ambitious, of course and on a global scale, is a long way off. But on a small scale much more is possible. This is why PEPE supports a small community in the Eastern Cape region of South Africa called Amasame. There they promote and establish life skills, training and education which develop personal and community independence. It all starts by focusing on people’s self esteem and confidence especially in areas of food security, homestead construction and water hygiene, all through a bottom up approach.

We’re lucky to have support from all across the globe, from like minded people, celebrities, businesses and organisations who want to see people put before profit.

Although PEPE’s aims and mission are clearly very good, its relevance to sunglasses is less obvious. To help shop owners and opticians at the point of sale, we added a second charitable beneficiary to the project, which marked the beginning of our relationship with Vision Aid Overseas. We came to an arrangement that for every pair of Bambooka eyewear we sell, we make a donation to VAO that is sufficient for them to give someone in Africa an eye test and vision correction.

How do you manage costs to ensure enough money gets to them?

The beauty of the Bambooka project is that it is a small scale, voluntary project. This means our overheads are pretty much zero. Our main costs are the cost of goods but we spend no money on what typically are the highest overhead costs: people and buildings.

After covering the cost of raw materials, manufacture and distribution, the money we generate from sales of Bambooka shades is invested into providing education and opportunity.

We rent no offices and run the business from our attic rooms. We pay no salaries and are extremely prudent about incurring any costs that aren’t strictly necessary. This also answers an often asked question: why aren’t we Fair Trade certified. Obtaining this Fair Trade badge is well beyond our means and in my view not the best use of our limited resources. Perhaps the more important question is: Are we fairly traded? The answer to that in my opinion is ‘yes’.

How can consumers know that the charities actually get their money?

The answer to this question is relatively simple: contact PEPE and Vision Aid Overseas and ask. The latter is a somewhat larger charity, of which Bambooka is one of many partners. PEPE is much smaller and Bambooka is one of only a few donor partners, and David Philips, PEPE’s co founder is also part of the Bambooka team.

Where are your glasses made?

Our sunglasses are made in China. The reason for this is that they are made of giant bamboo, in our case Moso bamboo, aka Mao bamboo or Phyllostachys edulis. Bamboo is technically speaking a grass and as such is hollow. Unlike wood, from which you can carve any shape from a solid piece, to make something of bamboo, one needs to have sufficient wall thickness in order to have enough material to be able to carve out the shape of a pair of glasses. This bamboo grows in abundance in the Chinese mountains and is replaced naturally by phenomenally fast natural regrowth, eliminating any concerns regarding deforestation.

We’re all about sustainable growth, for people and planet.

Due to the largely machine free manufacturing process, in conjunction with the bamboo’s incredibly fast growth and resulting carbon absorption, it is likely, albeit hard to prove, that our bamboo frames have a negative carbon footprint at the end of their production line in China.

Who makes them?

We use two Original Equipment Manufacturers, both with an eco centered positioning and company mission. These companies reassure us that their practices and conduct are ethical but we have not visited them personally, primarily for the reasons explained above.

What materials are used other than bamboo and are they non toxic?

In addition to the bamboo, we use a few tiny metal parts (hinge and screws), eco friendly paints and the lens materials. The paints are of a non toxic, eco friendly nature but it would go beyond the scope of my expertise to give you the exact technical formulas. What we can reassure the public or our customers of is that, should they have any concerns, we can send them a sample of our paints to be tested at environmental laboratories of their choosing to obtain certifications of their high environmental standards.

Bamboo is far more environmentally friendly to refine than plastic or metal are and when it’s harvested, the waste products are biodegradable.

The lens materials are a more difficult arena. The lenses are chosen primarily for their optical properties and durability. The most common resin we use is CR39, which is transparent in the visible spectrum and is almost completely opaque in the ultraviolet range. It has high abrasion resistance, in fact the highest abrasion/ scratch resistance of any uncoated optical plastic.

Bambooka eyewear goes as far as it reasonably can given its scope, avoiding unnecessary use of chemicals and negative environmental impact, looking at the product and supply chain holistically.

We also use thinner polarised resins, again primarily chosen for their optical qualities, in particular its UV blocking qualities and the polarisation of visible light, taking away glare and reducing reflection. Invariably, the manufacture of optical lenses involves the use of some chemical components to achieve the optical qualities our customers require and at present I am not aware of any way around that.

Are they vegan?

I am personally not all that familiar with vegan standards but guided by the Vegan Society, I understand that the main requirements in order to meet the vegan standard relate to the use of animals, animal sourced ingredients and animal testing. We can confidently say that we do meet those animal related criteria and if that would make us vegan, we’d be quite happy with that.

What does the future hold for Bambooka?

Time will tell! Some people ask us, “Why don’t you scale it up and become a big brand of sunglasses?” We could, if we wanted to – we have stylish products, the brand, we have a working website, stockists and customers. Basically we have all the key ingredients on a small scale but then you have to ask, why would we do that? Do we want to become another Ray-Ban or Oakley? Why would we want to? To make more money? No, our objective has always been modest: we seek to raise a few thousand pounds for charities that do good. We achieve that with passion and positive energy but without the pressures and stress of big business. Without the need for investors and shareholders, expecting a return on their money and without impacting the environment. If we will grow, which seems likely, we will grow organically, bottom up, driven by people’s goodwill.

Unlike the bamboo from which our products are made, we will grow slowly!