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Oscar Wylee’s philanthropic claims are called into question; wrongdoing denied

Doubts have surfaced over conflicting and unsubstantiated marketing claims made by Australian optical chain Oscar Wylee related to its philanthropic work.

The company operates 49 stores and prominently displays a number of corporate social responsibility (CSR) statents on its website, social media pages, and visual marketing merchandise pertaining to its support of charitable causes.

Through its “I Care for Eyecare” initiative, Oscar Wylee variously claims it donated; a pair of spectacles for every pair purchased; a portion of income generated from each purchase towards the provision of affordable eyecare; or a portion of annual proceeds to south-east Asian communities.

Further claims have also appeared in the media since Oscar Wylee was founded in 2013. These include, but are not limited to; making a monthly donation to non-profit organisations “commensurate to the cost of sourcing all the glasses sold in the past month”; and funding eye surgery education and training for two volunteers who work for a Cambodian eye clinic.

Central to these claims are supposed partnerships with the Australian charity Sight For All, as well as Rose Charities in Cambodia.

Insight contacted each charity about Oscar Wylee and does not dispute the company’s advertised relationship with Sight For All. However, claims of support for Rose Cambodia appear to be exaggerated, and in a number of instances wrong.

Rose Cambodia

A central component of Oscar Wylee’s “I Care For Eyecare” section on its website is a 2013 promotional video featuring company co-founder Mr Michael Lim on a trip to Cambodia. It discusses how Oscar Wylee  helps out through “the performance of eye tests, distribution of glasses, performance of cataract surgeries and training of eye doctors.”

The video also discusses how Oscar Wylee – which first began as an online-only retailer, has chosen to “help out … smaller, dedicated and transparent charities” in order to “see exactly where the funds are going and how we’re affecting the lives of people”. It also features film footage from the Rose Cambodia eye clinic and an interview with its founder, Dr Hang Vra.

In addition, Oscar Wylee’s YouTube channel, which also hosts the marketing video, had previously stated that it had “partnered with Rose Charities which helps build sustainable eyecare programs in Cambodia.”

However, when contacted, multiple representatives from Rose Charities did not immediately recall a relationship with Oscar Wylee and were confused by claims of a partnership.

Further research into the charity’s records found the company had made three donations, the most recent being five years ago, totalling $4,000. It had also provided approximately 100 frames.

Oscar Wylee did not answer Insight’s questions related to the apparent discrepancies between its advertised “partnership” and the contribution it had actually made, however it did quickly rove the claim from its YouTube channel the following day.

Representatives from Rose Cambodia, and its affiliate Rose Charities New Zealand, have strongly denied any form of current or ongoing relationship with Oscar Wylee, such as the one previously referred to on its website and YouTube channel.

Furthermore, Mr Mike Webber, a Trustee of Rose NZ and retired optometrist who is actively involved with the Rose Eye Clinic in Cambodia, denies that Oscar Wylee has funded any part of the training of any eye surgeon – the total costs of which amount to around US$21,000 or that it provided 1,000 frames to the charity, as claimed by Lim in a 2014 interview.

Tellingly, Webber refuted any form of relationship with Oscar Wylee outside of the aforementioned 2013 and 2014 donations totalling $4,000 and 100 frames.

“On no account has [Rose Cambodia affiliate] Rose NZ ever considered Oscar Wylee to be a partner at any stage in our program of assistance to Rose Eye Clinic in Cambodia over the past 15 years,” he said.

“After 2014 Rose NZ received no further input in funds or frames from Oscar Wylee. In fact we had no further contact with th from that time onwards. So Rose Charities NZ and Rose Eye Clinic in Cambodia think it is highly inappropriate to indicate any form of partnership at any time with us.

“If Oscar Wylee, in their marketing, are in any way promoting some sort of partnership in any form with Rose Charities NZ or Rose Eye Clinic in Cambodia, apart from the gift of a small amount of funds and frames in 2013 and 2014, then it is untrue, misleading, and inappropriate.”

Also on Oscar Wylee’s “I Care for Eyecare” page is yet another claim that the company is paying for a different volunteer, an “optometrist” named Lim (no relation to Michael Lim) to become an eye surgeon.

This claim is made alongside a picture of a vehicle with Rose NZ signage, for which Oscar Wylee made no contribution towards. The page states: “A man with a vision, Lim is an optometrist who has been working at the Rose clinic ever since he graduated from optometry school. He works for free, conducting 80–100 eye tests a day – even going out with mobile eyecare units to rural parts of Phnom Penh so that nobody in need is forgotten.”

Oscar Wylee then claims to be “doing what we can to support him, and so are you because with the I Care initiative, you help provide someone in need access to affordable eyecare – maybe even to one of Lim’s patients.”

However Dr Vra advises that the website is wrong: “It is not Mr Lim it is Mr Khut Seakleng our ex-staff, who came to work with us in 2012 as an ophthalmic nurse, and then we sent him to refractive training in 2014 with Rose Charities Cambodia money not by Oscar Wylee.”

Seakleng left the organisation in 2016.

Insight repeatedly attempted to clarify Oscar Wylee’s philanthropic and CSR claims, but was initially stonewalled until the company’s managent was informed that the publication of a story would proceed regardless. It was only then that Ms Gracie Yan, Oscar Wylee’s general manager, responded by denying charges of misrepresentation and insisting the company was proud of its “charitable heritage”.

However, the evidence supplied in response to the enquiries predominantly focused on the company’s relationship with the Australian charity, Sight For All, and only confirmed the $4,000 donation to Rose Cambodia along with an intention to supply some frames.

Also, Yan’s explanation of the marketing video and the company’s claim of a partnership with Rose Cambodia did not address or refute the seingly tenuous nature of the benevolent relationship.

“At the time, the company supported the team [company owners] on a prolonged trip to Cambodia to deliver frames to vision impaired children,” Yan wrote.

“The video on our website serves as an otional and visceral rinder of that trip and is core to our ‘I Care for Eyecare’ mission.”

Website changed overnight

More importantly, Yan did not respond to further requests for clarification related to Oscar Wylee’s claims concerning Rose Cambodia along with the pledge to donate a pair of spectacles for every sale. Interestingly, however, following Insight’s enquiries the company’s website and social media pages were changed overnight to rove any inference to either of these claims.

Screenshots of the marketing claims had been captured prior to contacting Yan, who, when asked to explain the reason why the website and social media pages had suddenly changed or been roved wrote, “The previous managent is no longer involved with Oscar Wylee. We are reviewing and changing the old marketing materials left by prior managent.”

Yan’s Linkedin profile states she joined Oscar Wylee four years ago, in 2015.

A pair for a pair

Yan’s main defence of Oscar Wylee’s philanthropic activities rested on the company’s donation of more than $30,000 and 3,000 pairs of frames to Sight For All as part of World Sight Day in 2017. However, when questioned whether that meant Oscar Wylee had only sold 3,000 frames across its entire store network for this 12-month period – in accordance with its one-for-one claim – Yan again declined to respond.

Likewise, she did not say whether the financial and product donations were dependent on sales – as inferred by its 2017 messaging surrounding World Sight Day – or capped at a predetermined figure. Yan also declined to confirm the value of the 2018 donation, and whether this differed from previous years.

In addition, Sight For All’s executive officer Ms Judy Hatswell elected not to assist with enquiries regarding Oscar Wylee’s donations over the years.

There are many outstanding issues concerning Oscar Wylee’s long-standing claims about its philanthropic endeavours, in particular, whether the claim of donating one pair for every pair sold was a fair and accurate representation. The one-for-one donation claim dates back many years (until its recent roval following Insight’s investigation).

Oscar Wylee is yet to provide any evidence to substantiate the one pair for every pair sold assertion, however, sales across its 49-store network would surely have resulted in tens of thousands of frames in the past year alone.

For example, it’s reasonable to assume that sales of only 1,000 frames per store per year, would amount to 50,000 frames in 2018 on a one-for-one donation.

If this were the case, one wonders why such a large philanthropic gesture has not been actively promoted to the wider community given the company’s effort to advertise and promote its other philanthropic activities.

Yan’s ail pointed to a change of managent confirming that Oscar Wylee’s co-founders Michael Lim and John Teoh are no longer at the company. ASIC records state that Michael Lim resigned as a director in Decber 2015 while John Teoh resigned in February 2018. The current directors are John’s brothers Bob and Jack.