How the co-founder of Genusee Eyewear transformed Flint’s recycled water bottles into stylish glasses and sunglasses that give back.
By Hannah Owen
Photography by Derrick Martinez
Millions of water bottles were delivered to homes during the Flint water crisis. But where did the bottles go once residents drank them? That was a question Metro Detroit native Ali Rose VanOverbeke wanted an answer to.
VanOverbeke, 29, recalls she was shocked when she learned Flint was experiencing a water crisis. “I’m a Michigan native,” she says. “I lived and worked in New York in the fashion industry for over 10 years and was back during the holidays to visit family and heard about what was going on with the water crisis, and I instantly knew that I needed to volunteer.”
VanOverbeke volunteered with the American Red Cross in early 2016 to deliver bottled water to Flint residents. Although they were necessary for providing safe water, the plastic water bottles were causing what VanOverbeke calls “a localized environmental crisis.”
According to Purdue University, between 31 and 100 million water bottles were thrown away in the first three weeks of the Flint water crisis. VanOverbeke thought the plastic could be turned into something beneficial for the community.
“I don’t know how to solve the water crisis,” she says, “but I have a background in design, and I know how to make things.” She came up with the idea to start Genusee, a Flint company that turns recycled, single-use water bottles into sustainable eyeglasses and sunglasses.
VanOverbeke says Genusee’s main goals are to give back to Flint, “reduce the localized plastic waste, create jobs — living wage jobs — that anyone can be trained to do, as well as encourage a circular economy.”
With every eyewear purchase, Genusee upcycles 15 recycled water bottles. VanOverbeke explains she traced where Flint’s water bottles went. “They get picked up by a recycler and then sent to a processor,” she says. “Typically, what happens is that material then gets sold on the market out of the state, out of the country; other people were benefiting off of the fact that Flint was forced to use plastic water bottles.”
When she discovered this, she bought a large supply and brought it back to Flint, using the plastic to create jobs. The e-commerce site launched this past Thanksgiving after the company raised over $74,000 from a Kickstarter campaign.
VanOverbeke says Genusee strives to keep everything as local as possible. “We have co-rented space from an optical lab that already existed here in Flint, so they do all our lenses, but on our side, our entire supply chain is within an 80-mile radius of Flint,” she says. The exceptions are the hinges from Italy and polishing material from North Carolina.
The polishing bags are made of 50 percent recycled water bottles. “They’re sewn locally here on the north end of Flint at a place called the N.E.W. Life Center, where they train women with sewing skills,” VanOverbeke says.
She emphasizes that giving back to Flint is more than just donating funds, although the company does give 1 percent to the Community Foundation of Greater Flint, which supports the Flint Kids Fund and Flint Promise that gives scholarships to high school graduates.
“It’s not just about being able to throw money into a charity,” VanOverbeke says. “…Our main focus is how do we make a localized, environmental impact as well as be able to create jobs in the community.”
Genusee has worked with Flint’s M.A.D.E. Institute, which provides skills training and jobs for formerly incarcerated individuals. “That’s specifically the population that we hire from,” VanOverbeke says.
Thanks to M.A.D.E, Sequoia Meeks is a Genusee employee. The Flint resident does a number of jobs, from tumbling and buffing frames for glasses to assembling packages. “I just love it,” Meeks says.
VanOverbeke stresses the importance of Genusee being a “circular economy eyewear brand.” She says Genusee buys back old glasses from customers, giving them credit toward their next pair. (Eyewear starts at $99 at genusee.com.) The materials from the old pair are then recycled and reused.
“Right now we live in a linear economy of buy, use, landfill,” VanOverbeke explains, “and the future has to become circular, or we’re not going to have a planet to live on. Circular economies are important because they’re regenerative; they preserve material resources and value at every part of the supply chain.”
Besides supporting the local economy, the company strives to uplift the community. VanOverbeke says they’ve planted over 300 trees in Genesee County with the Genesee Conservation District, funded a mural through Flint Public Art Project and hosted a fundraiser in Chicago that raised over $8,000 for the Flint Kids Fund. “And we’re just getting started,” she says.
Remembering how actions have an impact on others, as well as the planet, is paramount for VanOverbeke. “Our motto with starting the company has been ‘be the change you want to see,’ and for me personally, that really means just showing up in my everyday life,” she says. “There’s opportunity every day for us to use our lives as a platform for making change.”