It should come as no surprise that a world-known, sport-focused sunglass brand is based in Colorado. Founded in Moab by Michael and Wink Jackson, Zeal Optics moved to Boulder in the early 2000s and is leading the sunglass industry in sustainability and social outreach efforts.
The Jacksons were avid outdoor adventurers, and at the end of the 20th century, they founded Zeal Optics to fill a need for function optics in their own lives. Zeal became a tech-driven sunglass company under the couple, designed for the more intense mountain sports. The move to Boulder allowed the company to improve distribution without sacrificing the outdoor test lab of mountains that also surrounded Moab.
“Zeal, by definition, is passion,” explained Mike Lewis, director of marketing. “We’re focused on impassioned people that lead an outdoor lifestyle and we want to make optics to suit their needs, to exceed their needs for whatever their passion is.” The brand designs their glasses to function for both the extreme adventurer and the casual explorer alike. Their styles appeal to a wide audience, and are sold by REI and Topo Designs, as well as small boutiques like Dona Forta and eye care clinics.
“We’re always trying to experience amazing places and if we’re not protecting those places, we’re not protecting our brand, we’re not protecting our reason for being, we’re not protecting our true passion,” Lewis explained. To protect and sustain the environment, Zeal Optics supports a number of organizations. In February, they joined 1% for the Planet. “With that we’ve dedicated 1% of our gross sales to organizations that are focused on sustainability,” he commented. They also support the National Forest Foundation and Project 5480 by helping to reforest areas stripped by wildfires and other natural disasters, as well as Protect Our Winters to lobby for more action against climate change.
But the Zeal Optics team also recognizes, Lewis explained, that “if people don’t understand the environment, they’re not going to want to protect it.” So Zeal supports organizations like More Than Just Me and Epic Experience to give outdoor opportunities to individuals who may not otherwise be able to experience the wilderness. SOS Outreach, known as the Snowboard Outreach Society, aligns with Zeal’s values Lewis commented, because they “[work] with inner city youth to get them out skiing and snowboarding in the winter, mountain biking and hiking in the summer, and creating career paths for them in the outdoor industry.”
Zeal Optics does more for the planet than align with environmental organizations and help people experience outdoor sports. In 2010, Maui Jim bought the company and gave Zeal Optics a clearer pathway to sustainability. They began to focus on obtaining sustainable materials for their glasses rather than simply prioritizing technology and functional glasses. Maui Jim’s large network gave Zeal access to their supply chain, as well as partners in the bioplastics industry.
With a shift of leadership, Lewis explained, Zeal realized the “opportunity that we have as a brand to reduce our footprint,” and re-envisioned their goal as an outdoor brand. Today, all of Zeal’s sunglasses are made from plant-based materials. Using castor-based bioplastic not only limits the planet’s plastic pollution, but also reduces land and water usage for non-food crops. The castor plant requires little maintenance and grows well in between food crops in spaces that couldn’t be otherwise utilized. This castor-based plastic also contains fewer impurities than petroleum-based plastics, making the wearer’s sight clearer.
The ownership also gives Zeal an opportunity to reduce production waste. Maui Jim created the first zero waste production lab in the world. When prescription lenses are made, they start as a plastic puck that is filed down to match the needed prescription. Most production facilities sweep those plastic shavings into the landfill. Maui Jim’s producers collect the excess shavings and work with consumer goods manufacturers to reutilize the materials in items like alarm clocks.
Though Zeal Optics’ sustainability efforts have improved immensely in the last nine years with Maui Jim’s help, they are constantly searching for even more ways to increase sustainability. Using a newer, plant-based plastic means there is still a lot to discover in terms of functionality and waste disposal. Zeal is researching how to best dispose of their sunglasses once they reach the end of their lifetime. They are also looking into switching over their ski goggles to plant-based plastic – a challenge so far due to bioplastic’s limited functionality in the extreme cold. And though the sunglasses are already sustainable in comparison to other brands, Zeal is constantly searching to find additional ways to drastically reduce their environmental footprint.
For right now though, Zeal Optics is happy to be a world leader in the industry as a Colorado brand. With the influence of Maui Jim’s name, Zeal Optics’ popularity is growing rapidly around the world in countries “where the cache of Colorado carries so much weight,” Lewis explained – including Australia, Scandinavia, India and England. He added, “we’re incredibly proud to be a Colorado-based brand.”
Zeal Optics is located at 1230 Spruce St., Boulder and is open 10 a.m.- 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 12 – 5 p.m. on Sunday. More information on Zeal Optics’ social and environmental outreach community is here.
All photography is courtesy of Zeal Optics.