Meet The Manufacturer Top 100 2019 Exemplars – 18: Sam Whitten

The Manufacturer Top 100 is a project that showcases the most dynamic leaders, young pioneers and unsung heroes working in UK manufacturing, all of which have been nominated by their peers.

Among the Top 100, however, our judging panel chose 20 individuals for special recognition. We call them ‘Exemplars’ – those who have exemplified remarkable leadership, daring or innovation within their respective field, and who set the direction of travel as we head into the new decade.

Sam Whitten, Managing Director, Hemp Eyewear Limited

Sam Whitten Managing Director, Hemp Eyewear LimitedIt was seeing pictures of the “great pacific garbage patch”, an area of floating plastic dumped in the Pacific Ocean 12-times the size of the UK, that set Sam Whitten on course to be a sustainability entrepreneur.

He was just 22, fresh out of the international product design programme at the University of Glasgow, when he founded Hemp Eyewear, and launched the world’s first hemp-made line of sunglasses.

“As a society we need to stop using harmful plastic materials, and industrial hemp is the most sustainable, eco-friendly and diverse material on earth. Sunglasses have been a trend in wooden and bamboo eyewear for the past 15 years. I thought it would be cool to add hemp to that, so I created the world’s first hemp sunglasses.”

From small beginnings in Coventry, he has spent the past five years developing a manufacturing facility and design studio. Sam said his biggest challenge to date has been to acquire funding for Hemp Eyewear and gaining commercial confidence from potential investors.

“We’ve raised a lot of money through grants, business awards and crowd funding, but not really via sales on our eCommerce store. It was really hard to gain funding for that very reason.

“We’ve been talking to equity firms, but if you don’t have traction in terms of sales then you’re not an attractive proposition for them – you’re too risky.”

He says his next test is to devise a campaign and price point for his product that reflects its intrinsic value and persuades consumers and sponsors alike to view Hemp Eyewear as a unique investment.

“Some consumers care about sustainability, but there’s a certain price they’re willing to pay,” he said. “The market is so saturated in eyewear that you can get a sustainable frame for about £25. But it’s not that sustainable, it’s a horrible frame and its mass produced in China. We now have to find what makes our product desirable, beyond the sustainable or unique hemp factor.”

Celebrating seven years of inspirational industry leaders

The Manufacturer Top 100 Logo 2019 - For Use in Slider BarLaunched in 2014, The Manufacturer Top 100 publicly recognises the most dynamic leaders and innovators in manufacturing.

Published by The Manufacturer, in partnership with Cranfield University, one of the country’s top centres of business education, the project is helping to dispel widely-held myths that vibrant manufacturing in the UK is a thing of the past.

Click here to make your nomination for The Manufacturer Top 100 2020, and to download a copy of the 2019 publication.

There’s no question Sam’s product is eminently saleable. He’s created a fashion item that has universal desirability without the universal harms much of the fashion industry is guilty of.

Now the young designer is courting endorsements from comedic character actor Woody Harrelson by naming a model in his Hemp Eyewear collection after him.

“‘I want Woody!‘ The whole point was to try and open up a dialogue with him or his people. He’s a hemp fan so I’m sure he’s going to love what we’re doing.”


In their own words

What is your favourite engineered/manufactured product?

Anything which is truly unique. I love the Be.e by Van.Eko. It’s a hemp scooter that uses eco-energy. They share similar values to us, and the quality of the build looks fantastic.

Please give one interesting fact about yourself that not many people know

I love sharks and one of my goals in the next five to 10 years is to swim with them.

If you weren’t in manufacturing what would be your dream job?

I’ve always thought it would be great to be a wildlife photographer. Animals are amazing and being able to travel the world filming them would be a dream.


The Manufacturer Top 100 is produced in partnership with Cranfield University – one of the country’s top centres of business education, and low-cost talent partner, Trust Hunter Ltd (Hunter).