Sustainability Villains In The New Economy

Image: Julie Joppien on Unsplash

Of the number of consumer companies that have changed the way Indians shop, among the most transformational must be Lenskart. This online eyewear retailer disrupted the high-margin eyewear business by centralizing production in a high-tech factory — subsequently putting thousands of mom-and-pop optician shops out of business. Expanding into branded eyewear, the company has decimated the market, leaving only the high-end eyewear retailers standing. The Company’s premium priced sub-brand with products “inspired” by designs from global labels is now threatening those still viable.

I have been a Lenskart customer since mid-2014, having bought four pairs of glasses from them. Of these two pairs are currently in service. Last week, after a routine visit to the optometrist, I discovered that my prescription has changed. I walked in to a nearby Lenskart store and was able to have the lenses on one pair of glasses replaced for INR 500. A few days later, when I wanted to get the lenses on my backup pair replaced, Lenskart told me that the price of lens replacement was now INR 1,000, and that there was no INR 500 option anymore.

Somewhat annoyed, I phoned Lenskart’s helpline and was greeted with a recorded message that that said that they were not taking any calls due to a “systems upgrade”. Now concerned, I tweeted the company and received a call from a lady who identified herself as “Mona”.

Now Mona was very patient in listening to me about the entire issue, but failed to explain why the lens change package that I earlier got for INR 500 was now unavailable. She speculated that the lens packages were tied to frame prices — which was a non sequitur — as lenses themselves are available in wide ranges depending on prescription, brand, and coatings. She ultimately responded with a very terse and condescending email about Lenskart’s inestimable grace in approving a 25% discount on the fee.

Nowhere in my interaction did Lenskart sufficiently explain why I wouldn’t be able to get my lenses replaced for INR 500 as previously — leaving serious doubts about transparency and ethics in dealing with their customers. What’s more, Lenskart’s website offers TWO pairs of eyeglasses for INR 999 — INR 499.50 per pair. This suggests that a lens replacement for INR 500 or even INR 300 is conceivable.

Through this pricing model — as confirmed by the lady at the store I visited — Lenskart has made it preferable for its clients to buy new spectacles rather than “upcycle” old ones. This is unethical because Lenskart has transformed prescription glasses from a bland medical device to a fashion accessory for middle-income Indian consumers. Spectacles users who went through life with one pair of glasses today have multiple pairs. Businesses that deals in products with ecological burdens — plastics, glass, and metals salts for instance — MUST have sustainability as a central value.

Perhaps this tactic is driven the ever present pressure for Private Equity backed businesses to show sales growth. It’s obviously more attractive for Lenskart to say that they sold 20 million pairs of glasses than for them to say that they sold 10 million pairs and changed lenses on 10 million frames, due to the possibility that margins on lens changes would be lower.

Lenskart’s investors include PremjiInvest — the family office of Indian billionaire Azim Premji and the International Finance Corporation (World Bank Group). The hypocrisy is staggering. On one hand Premji’s status as one of India’s top philanthropists is the frequent subject of viral content on the other hand, his wealth is derived in part from investment in businesses that pay scant regard to sustainability. The World Bank waxes eloquent about sustainability, but turns a blind eye to it’s portfolio company. If these so called “socially responsible investors” fail to “walk the talk” then what can we expect from the purely mercenary investors?

Now Indian consumers are not known for their sensitivity to sustainability, and in this market, pricing always trumps environmental responsibility. In Lenskart’s case, having already cornered the domestic eyewear industry, it helps if it decides to be a good citizen and incentivizes sustainability among its consumers.