2015 Michigan Tech Magazine: Issue 1

Throwing Shade

By Allison Mills

A Michigan Tech undergraduate student teams up with a University of Michigan student to create a sleeker, savvier, more sustainable pair of shades.

(From left to right) Hiawatha: 1st Element's Iconic original. Manu: Similar to the Hiawatha in shape, but with a bold, black hue. Clairvaux: Modern style with a rich, medium-dark finish.
(From left to right) Hiawatha: 1st Element's Iconic original. Manu: Similar to the Hiawatha in shape, but with a bold, black hue. Clairvaux: Modern style with a rich, medium-dark finish.

Bamboo isn't just for pandas. As an industrial material, it can be used for everything from t-shirts to floor planks to kitchen spoons. Versatile and fast growing, the thick grass has broadened the horizons of sustainable material options—and now it's throwing shade on the sunglasses industry.

If you're searching for a sophisticated, sustainable pair of shades, look no further than Michigan Tech. Second-year Tech student Adam Weber and his high school friend Matthew Anderson, a University of Michigan student, have begun a budding new bamboo sunglasses company called 1st Element—right out of Weber's residence hall room.

Their designs are sleek and every pair is unique—the variation in bamboo texture looks like a soft etching and the product names nod to famous forests around the world. With brightly colored reflective lenses and earth-toned frames, the sunglasses evoke both hippie nostalgia and hipster coolness.

1st Element Logo
1st Element Logo

"When you buy a pair of 1st Element sunglasses, you're not buying frames made with petroleum-based plastics or an extensive metal process," Weber says, explaining how he and Anderson focused on minimizing costs without diminishing their environmental commitments. The key is bamboo itself: Mature plants can grow three feet in a day, making it a quickly replenished resource. But 1st Element didn't stop at the frames, Weber is quick to point out. "For every ten pairs we sell, we will have donated enough money to Conservation International to save one acre of land."

Along with donating a portion of their profits, Weber and Anderson sought to cut down the cost of their products. In fact, the $120- $150 price tag of bamboo sunglasses is what prompted them to found 1st Element. Now, the duo has knocked the price down to $75 per pair.

The sunglasses are also hypoallergenic and less sensitive to temperature fluxes (just think about how your metal frames feel in July or January). "Bamboo is a very porous material," Weber adds. " So, if you drop your sunglasses in the lake, they'll be floating there for you."

Lazy floating, however, is not a phrase Weber and Anderson get to use for themselves. Starting a values-driven business in college is no easy feat. As co-founders, Weber and Anderson have worked hard to earn several start-up grants, along with running a successful Kickstarter campaign and overseeing a team of students to help with the business.

Adam Weber

Weber admits the work is challenging, but he says juggling 1st Element, plus another job and schoolwork, is worth it.

"Michigan Tech really emphasizes working on teams," he says. With 1st Element, he gets to collaborate every day. "I'm able to work with students from all different degree programs all over Michigan."

Weber and Anderson plan to continue running the business while finishing school. They had set a goal of selling 100 frames by the end of 2015; to date, they've sold about 150, a success of their Kickstarter campaign. Once they have a stable business model, they hope to add a unique Upper Peninsula-inspired line of maple and hickory sunglasses to their collection. Until then, the crew will keep rocking the bamboo frames—just watch out for hungry pandas.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university, home to more than 7,000 students from 60 countries around the world. Founded in 1885, the University offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, and social sciences. Our beautiful campus in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula overlooks the Keweenaw Waterway and is just a few miles from Lake Superior.