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business models, strategies and technologies

Eyewear from Flint, Michigan – from refuse to responsibility

Genusee is an eyewear company on a plastic-busting mission little to do with eyewear.

From thing to purpose and process

I worked as a copywriter for eyewear clients for many years. The vast majority of eyewear companies use core messaging centred around various derivatives of looks –  coolness,  design, fashion-following, taste, kudos et al.

New American eyewear company Genusee seems to be on a different track – sufficiently so to actually include the gen/recycling word in the company name. This kinda’ locks the company into this meme, and won’t let customers forget this particular part of their corporate mission any time soon. In mid-2018 the company was (apparently successfully) campaigning on both Indiegogo and Kickstarter to launch its new production. The thing to note is that this eyewear is made in Flint, Michigan – and herein doth lie quite a tale.

The Flint claim to fame

According to a June 2018 report from 24/7 Wall Street, based on U.S. Census data, Flint holds the dubious honour of being the USA’s second-worst city to live in. This inauspicious merit is based on metrics about crime, demography, economy, education, environment, health, housing, infrastructure and leisure – and also on property prices, poverty and unemployment rates, the availability of public transport and the air quality. So in Flint’s case, it’s quite a litany of urban woes.

Sadly, Flint also has another claim to fame. The Flint Water Crisis was a saga of epic ineptitude and cost-cutting mismanagement in local government on the verge of bankruptcy. It began in 2014 when the drinking water source for the city was changed, to save money. This led to more than 100,000 residents being exposed to health-hazard-high levels of lead in their drinking water, due to inadequate water treatment. In January 2016, a federal state of emergency was declared, and Flint residents were ordered to use only bottled or filtered water for drinking, cooking, cleaning and bathing. By early 2017, the water quality had seemingly returned to acceptable levels; however, residents were instructed to continue using bottled or filtered water until all the lead pipes causing many of the problems have been replaced, which is not expected to be completed until 2020.

This meant that people have been relying solely on bottled water for everything, since April 2014. And at the height of the crisis, the city was using 20 million plastic bottles of water a day. At that rate, it would have taken fewer than 2 months for 1 billion plastic bottles to be dumped in the city. Post-use, many of these bottles have been collected for recycling, re-processed, and then resold outside of the city, but this also means outside companies have been benefiting from the Flint disaster – while the city certainly hasn’t.

The Genusee angle

Genusee uses some of the b/millions of single-use plastic water bottles that stem from the Flint Water Crisis (yes, it gets capitalised!) to make eyewear. This startup’s mission is apparently to do good for people and planet by reducing this localised plastic waste, creating living-wage jobs, encouraging a circular economy, and giving back 1% of its profits to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint. Quite a list of benevolence and benefits for a business to live up to.

From recycling to value, from general to local

The idea behind Genusee isn’t just about being able to recycle materials. Genusee wants to upcycle single-use plastic into products that have more value and purpose. They reckon each eyewear frame means they can upcycle 15 of the Flint rPET water bottles.

The point here is that it’s about localised plastic waste (which Flint has in abundance), avoiding the use of resources to transport waste and products back and forth. Genusee also says the company is bringing a new manufacturing legacy to the city by turning the surplus of plastic waste caused by the man-made water crisis into a closed-loop ecosystem for Genusee eyewear products, and creating living-wage jobs.

So the Genusee angle isn’t just about recycling, but designing products and systems from the onset of ideation to be a closed loop. As a result, they’re (apparently) willing to take responsibility for the whole product life cycle, with an eyewear buyback programme that aims to at least put a dent in the world’s current take–make–dispose linear economy.

And for each new subscription to the company’s website/newsletter, they also reckon on planting one tree.


One of the more interesting – and also unclear – things about Genusee is that they’re actually more about the plastic than about the eyewear, with their follow-on product seeming to be a multi-use plastic container.

By focusing on the manufacturing/material/mission, rather than the personalisation narrative of eyewear fashion, the Genusee production model plumps down on one particular arc of the design conundrum. You can still only buy what they want to sell you, however wonderful and environmentally responsible the Genusee behind-the-window diligence may be.

The Flint Water Crisis is (hopefully) gonna get resolved somehow, sometime – and this ultimately traditional manufacturing relationship with the customer therefore seems to have only a limited service life. But if you look beyond the eyewear to the business model that supports it, there may be more of a rosy road ahead. The eyewear aspirations are really only a temporary manifestation.