Good Deeds

Warby Parker Celebrates Its Millionth Pair of Glasses Donated to People in Need

The startup also trains people to give eye exams in impoverished areas.
Some of the million glasses, presumably. (Photo via Warby Parker)

Some of the million glasses, presumably. (Photo via Warby Parker)

Warby Parker is known for its cheap-but-chic prescription eyewear and youthful, fun projects like its recent collaboration with supermodel Karlie Kloss.

But the company also has a major philanthropic streak. In fact, today they’re celebrating the fact that they’ve donated more than a million pairs of glasses to people in need.

Similar to the footwear company Tom’s, Warby Parker donates a pair of glasses for every one that their customers purchase. The company also goes beyond donation by supporting charities like VisionSpring, which trains entrepreneurs in developing countries to perform eye exams and distribute the glasses.

“So our donations not only help people get the glasses they need, but also create jobs and create the economic incentive for these entrepreneurs to provide glasses over the long term,” cofounder Neil Blumenthal told Betabeat.

Warby Parker tallies up the number of prescription glasses and shades they’ve sold, then they make a donation to Vision Spring or one of their other nonprofit partners for that amount of eyewear. The partners have trained 18,000 men and omen to give eye exams, and they’ve distributed glasses in 36 countries.

“One of the big challenges of giving away stuff for free is [sustainability],” Mr. Blumenthal said. “If you just gave a pair of glasses away for free, what would happen if a person lost the glasses or broke them or their prescription changed?”

Mr. Blumenthal worked with Vision Spring during his gap time between college and business school, he said. “Thy’re on the ground with entrepreneurs directly or through other local nonprofits,” he said. “It’s a way to sort of create that distribution and provide access in a sustainable way.”

When he and his cofounders, David Gilboa, Jeffrey Raider and Andrew Hunt, devised the idea for Warby Parker in betweeen classes at the Wharton Business School computer lab, they knew they wanted to take the typical price of glasses from $500 to something more like $95 by selling online instead of renting store space. But they also wanted to help the 700 million people around the world who don’t have access to glasses even though they need them, he said.

“What matters is whether or not a person … can now see and be more productive and contribute more to their community,” Mr. Blumenthal said. “So before we launched and when Warby Parker was just an idea, we decided to commit to distributing a pair for every pair we sold.”

The founders took inspiration from companies like Patagonia, Ben and Jerry’s and Method.

“We just wanted to build a company that could scale, could be profitable, could do good in the world — without charging a premium for it,” he said. “We thought that was a powerful idea and something worth dedicating our lives to.”

Younger millennials are known (by marketers, at least) for being more socially minded. We asked Mr. Blumenthal if he thinks that’s helped usher Warby Parker to success.

“I don’t think [our social mission] is the number-one reason why people buy from us — but I do think it’s a major driver in our ability to recruit and retain top talent,” he said. “I think more than ever, people want to work at a company that does good in the world.”

Next, Warby Parker will focus on “hitting the next million much faster,” he said. “At the end of the day, a million pairs of glasses, a million people served, is still just a drop in the bucket when you look at the 700 million people who don’t have access to glasses. This is a milestone, but it’s only the very first step of a long journey.”

Follow Molly Mulshine on Twitter or via RSS. mmulshine@observer.com