Founded by Melbourne-based Optometrists, Lauren and John, and launched to the world earlier this year, Mari & Clay is a modern eyewear label crafting timeless classics out of plant-based, biodegradable materials.
Mari & Clay’s capsule eyewear collection, The River Collection, pays homage to Australian waterways and consists of four classic frames available in four colourways; Black, Caramel, Sand, and Tortoiseshell. The frames are designed in Melbourne with durable, long-lasting wear in mind.
While most sunglasses are commonly made of acetate, Mari & Clay frames are made from its plant-based cousin, bio-acetate, which is biodegradable. Mari & Clay’s bio-acetate is sourced from Italy and is derived from responsibly harvested cottonseed and wood pulp. Bio- acetate limits the use of fossil fuels by replacing the harmful phthalate-based plasticisers used in acetate with organic additives.
We were lucky enough to chat with Mari & Clay founders, Lauren Chang and John Chen about their life, business, and their focus on sustainability.
Who is behind Mari & Clay?
J: My name is John, I am the co-founder of Mari & Clay. I am a practising optometrist for the past seven years, and I have been working in the optical industry for ten years. In my spare time, I enjoy running and reading. My favourite activity at the moment is spending time with my seven-month-old boy.
L: I’m Lauren and I am the other co-founder of Mari & Clay. I am an optometrist, an artist, and a businesswoman. Like John, I have been working as an optometrist for more than seven years. During these years, I also studied visual arts and graphic design on the side because it is my personal passion. John and I studied together at university, we’ve been friends for more than 10 years and now we are in this business together.
What are your roles within the business?
J: I am in charge of Operations and Customer Service, mostly behind the scene stuff. My job is to make sure the company runs smoothly, and the customers receive their sunglasses in a timely manner. I prepare and post the orders, and look after the after-sales service as well. Customers will see my handwritten card when they receive the sunglasses.
L: I look after all the visual and creative side of the business, such as designing the sunglasses, the website, and planning for photoshoots. I also look after the branding and marketing aspects of the business – so I’m the person behind what you see on our socials!
What does a normal day in both of your lives look like?
J: My day usually starts with a baby hitting me (or my wife) at about 4 am, after a few restless hours in bed, I then unwillingly reach my arm out to the other side of the bed to wake up my wife so she can prepare the morning feed. I normally go for a morning run if I am not too sleep-deprived. For the rest of day, I will either be at my full-time job or do business planning. The end of the day is a routine for the baby to go to sleep and some downtime for ourselves!
L: My day starts off with a walk with my two dogs, followed by breakfast and coffee. Then I jump straight into work. I usually have my whole week’s schedule planned over the weekend prior. Everyday consists of different types of work, some days I’m planning a photoshoot, some days I’m planning for social media content, some days I’m just brainstorming new ideas. When I’m done for the day, I will do some yoga or dancing to relax. I’m an early sleeper – I try to be in bed by 10 pm and get some reading done before I call it a day. This is a normal day for me during lockdown!
Why is sustainability important to you?
J: Sustainability always reminds me of the song “Circle of Life”. It is about how to preserve nature for future generations, so they will be able to enjoy all the wonders in the world we have now. It’s devastating for me to see the human impact on the environment globally, from the coral bleaching in Cairns, to the receding glacier in Iceland. I still remember the drought during my high school year, the water level of all the dams in Victoria was in the newspaper every day, and displayed as a news ticker on every major channel. The bushfire last year also reinforced my belief that there is no waiting in the fight for a better planet, and making the conscious choices is the first step everyone can take!
L: I grew up in New Zealand and spent a lot of time outdoors as a kid. Climbing trees and running around rivers barefoot were my favourite activities. So I’ve always been really fond of nature. As I became older, and started to travel to bigger cities around the world, I saw a lot of rubbish building up in places that should otherwise be clean and beautiful. You’d almost always find trash in the ocean and on the beach. I started to educate myself around the topic of sustainability through documentaries, books, and podcasts and realised there are plenty of things we can do as individuals to reduce our own environmental impact. That is why sustainability has become a really important aspect in my life.
What sustainable steps does Mari & Clay take to have a positive impact on the world?
J: Mari & Clay’s sustainable effort focuses on the end-to-end solution, so rather than looking solely at the material we use, we try to create a system that caters for all aspects of the product journey. From the material, delivery, packaging, to the spectacle recycling program and the lifetime warranty, our belief lays in every step. Our mailer can be reused for another parcel, our packing boxes are made locally from mostly recycled material, the tape and document sleeve on the mailer are landfill biodegradable and our storage facility is powered by solar energy. We encourage our customers to think before they buy, repairing the sunglasses before buying a new pair, recycling before throwing them in the bin. We also partner with One Tree Planted and commit to planting one tree for every purchase!
L: As John mentioned, we implement sustainable practices at every step of our business. It is at the core of our decision making process. When presented with different options, we always try our best to make the decision that is better for the environment, often even if it costs us more. I believe it is also important to communicate to customers about how they can make the most out of their eyewear. By learning to look after your things well to begin with, reduces the chance one would need to buy new things and throw away old ones.
What was the process of starting Mari & Clay like?
J: It was a bit like taking a long, windy drive but with a guided GPS. We were very fortunate to have a business mentor, he guided us to write a business plan in the first 6 months. The most difficult part was to find the right supplier and make sure we get the products we want. It took us almost 7 months from getting the samples to the actual products.
L: It was very exciting and challenging at the same time. We spent a lot of time, in the beginning, doing research, writing a business plan, and getting feedback from friends on our ideas. It also involved trying to learn many things in a short period of time. Coming from a health professional background, we both didn’t have any experience in marketing a new brand. So I invested in a lot of time trying to learn as much as I can. Luckily there are plenty of valuable resources online and I’ve had some great helping hands from friends.
What advice would you give to others who are looking at starting their own business?
J: It’s all about planning at the start! If you have an idea, write them down and start planning. Market research will give you insight about the feasibility of the business, budgeting will help you prepare for the capital and forecasting will give you goals to work towards.
L: Ask lots of questions and don’t be afraid to reach out to people! I always gain nuggets of wisdom just from having conversations with others. Also, I recommend making it clear what your core values are and why you do what you do – and align everything you do from there.