Genusee’s sustainable eyewear is made from recycled plastic water bottles in Flint, Michigan. Flint’s water crisis created a surge in plastic waste as residents turned to bottled water for all their needs. Ali founded Genusee to turn that tragedy into fashionable eyewear that provides jobs, upcycles water bottles, and supports local businesses in their supply chain. To shop their collection of prescription glasses, readers, and sunglasses, click here.
How did you come up with the idea of turning plastic waste into eyewear?
I’m from Michigan originally, and then worked as a designer and stylist in New York City for ten years. Working in mass market retail allowed me to see how unsustainable the fashion industry is and I knew it didn’t align with my personal values. I volunteered in India with an NGO, where I had a lightbulb moment that I can use design to empower individuals and communities. I came back to Michigan in the peak of the Flint water crisis and started working with the Red Cross. I didn’t know how to solve a water crisis but I do know how to make things, so I decided to be of service through design and make an impact right in my home state. I asked a lot of locals about what they needed and everyone had the same answer: jobs. I thought, “How can we use this single waste plastic surplus in a way that creates jobs?” and the idea for Genusee was born.
What are some of the implications of the Flint water crisis that your community is still experiencing all these years later?
For many parts of the community, the water crisis is not over. At this point it’s not just a Flint water crisis but an American water crisis. The outdated infrastructure in low-income communities, which are often communities of color, leads to water contamination. In Flint, lead poisoning affected an entire generation of kids. Lead is a neurotoxin that can cause behavioral and neurological issues that will impact these kids for the rest of their lives. The major way to combat lead poisoning is through nutrition, but Flint is a food desert and a huge portion of the population doesn't have access to healthy foods or transportation to get to grocery stores. The water crisis is a huge part of the story, but there are much larger systemic issues at play.
Can you tell us a little bit about your production process?
Genusee is a frame manufacturer. Each frame is made from 15 water bottles and creates local jobs. The bottles are first picked up by a recycler, cleaned up, and sent to a processor. They are then turned into pellets, which we use to mold into the frames. In the post-processing segment, they are buffed, hand-finished, and assembled. The lenses are added last.
Where do you hope to take Genusee in the future?
We’re a Flint-focused business and we want to make as much impact in the community as possible. My favorite part of Genusee has been building our team that will be able to leave a strong legacy in the community. This business started out of wanting to make an individual impact on people and the planet, and we haven’t lost sight of that. To help ensure another crisis like this doesn’t happen again, it’s important to elect politicians who genuinely care about their communities, use your voice, advocate for change, and support black and minority-owned businesses that already exist in communities like Flint.