Sustainability is the topic of the hour. But how committed is the watch industry to ethical and environmental responsibility? We explore a number of interesting solutions in this feature from the Watchtime archives.
First, the good news: When you buy a high-quality mechanical wristwatch, you’re also investing in a sustainable product. Longevity is one of the main virtues of traditional watchmaking, which has never had quick consumption in mind, but has always aimed to achieve an enduring quality ideal for generations. This idea is aptly expressed by Patek Philippe’s memorable slogan: “Indeed you never own Patek Philippe. You take care of it for the next generation. Undoubtedly, there is more to this ad than just a clever marketing idea. A perusal of the catalogs of major auction houses reveals long life cycles that high-quality watches can claim for themselves. Almost everyone knows someone who proudly wears a still-functioning mechanical wristwatch that once belonged to their grandfather, father or uncle.
Does this mean that everything is literally “in the green field” when it comes to mechanical watches? It’s good to think so. But controversial debates about environmental and humanitarian abuses in the gold mining industry prove that not all that is gold is good. There is also the issue of the environmental footprints left by the day-to-day work of the watch industry. Watch brands must take a stand on these and similar concerns. One thing is certain: in an era of increasing demand for affordable and environmentally responsible products, consumers are setting higher standards. And those standards are especially high for companies in the luxury industry. After all, desirable items like high-quality watches are not essential items for survival, but luxuries that add joy to life. And nowadays the consumer has the determination not to harm other people or the environment – and thus future generations – with his purchase.
RJC: Consistent Standards
Efforts for sustainability in the watch industry were already in place long before students took to the streets to fight for the future of the planet. Responsible Jewelery Council (RJC) was established in 2005. Its objective is to establish responsible standards for the entire jewelery supply chain, i.e. from extraction of raw materials, through their processing, to retailing of goods. Fair working conditions and other ethical aspects are as much a part of these standards as environmentally responsible action. A whole series of watch brands have received certification from the RJC in recent years. IWC, A. Lange & Söhne and Cartier are just a few of the big-name brands that adhere to the RJC’s “Code of Practices”. Swatch Group’s own gold foundry is also certified by the RJC and can seamlessly monitor ethical conditions along with Swatch Group’s overall gold consumption.
RJC certification is undoubtedly a good basis for a sustainable corporate culture. But much remains to be done in terms of extracting gold under environmentally and socially acceptable conditions. Chopard proves this. In the years since Chopard began its “Journey to Sustainable Luxury” in 2013, the company has become a pioneer of sustainability in the world of jewelry and watches. In collaboration with the Eco-Age consultancy firm, Chopard has undertaken a number of initiatives to be ethically fair to workers and ecologically responsible for the environment, particularly in the field of gold and gem extraction.
In the summer of 2018, Chopard released a public report that rightfully caused a stir. Since then, the company has exclusively used Chopard’s words as “ethical gold”. Chopard defines the term in two ways. First, it applies to precious metals purchased from suppliers certified by the RJC. Chopard’s second category of “ethical gold” is unusual: the watch and jewelry brand has also become active in the gold mining sector. In collaboration with the Colombia-based Alliance for Responsible Mining (ARM), Chopard invests in small, artisanal mines in Latin America. On the one hand, Chopard supports these mines on their way to earning FairMined certifications. Chopard, on the other hand, is the world’s largest buyer of affordable gold. Caroline Scheifele, co-president and creative director of Chopard, struck a timely nerve when she explained, “True luxury assumes you know the conditions in your supply chain. As Creative Director of Chopard, I am very proud to be able to tell our customers more about the origins of our beautiful pieces. I know our customers will be proud to wear these pieces after hearing this story.
When it comes to sustainability in the watch world, the sourcing of raw materials is a key factor. Another key factor is the environmental impact of daily work in watch production. IWC plays a prominent role in climate awareness. Based in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, IWC uses 100 percent of its electrical energy from renewable sources. In addition, many features of contemporary climate-efficient construction have been incorporated into IWC’s new manufacturing facility, which opened in 2018. IWC plans to achieve a 10 percent reduction in its CO2 emissions by 2020.
Manufacturing in Schaffhausen is not only in its ethical and environmental commitment. For example, the Richemont luxury group, which is a member of the IWC, has developed the “Richemont Green Handbook”, which declares that Richemont’s principles include ensuring responsible sources of raw materials and adhering to environmental protection measures. This is where the most environmentally relevant aspect of packaging comes into play. Packaging, especially for luxury products, has traditionally been very elaborate, so Richemont is taking an important step in the right direction by declaring its commitment to “reduce, reuse and recycle”. IWC has established a sustainable-packaging committee, which is working on specific measures to achieve a 30 percent reduction in the weight and volume of IWC’s packaging materials by 2020.
The Swatch Group is another large Swiss luxury corporation that has attracted attention for its sustainable architecture. Pritzker Prize-winning Japanese architect Shigeru has planned a new headquarters for the Swatch brand in Ban Bien. The innovative wooden building is designed to save energy and reduce emissions.
Clocks and water
There are many ways to act on behalf of our planet. Over the years, many watch brands have been committed to saving the oceans, with divers’ watches playing an important role. Blancpain, for example, launched the Blancpain Ocean Commitment initiative, in which the company sponsors organizations dedicated to researching and protecting the oceans. In addition to providing financial support to these organizations, Blancpain regularly releases limited editions of Fifty Fathoms. A portion of the proceeds from their sale is donated to marine conservation programs. The Omega Planet Ocean Project follows a similar path and primarily aims to educate people about the state of the oceans.
Oris expresses its strong commitment to the protection of aquatic habitats by regularly undertaking many concrete project-related activities. For example, Oris also supports an organization dedicated to restoring parts of the Great Barrier Reef destroyed by massive heat waves. Other examples work with people like adventure swimmer Ernest Bromes, whose projects aim to educate people about the preciousness and fragility of aquatic habitats. Oris’ new partnership with Pacific Garbage Screening is particularly exciting. This young marine conservation company is developing a device that intercepts plastic waste in rivers and estuaries before it reaches the ocean. In the second step, the recovered waste is converted into energy and bio-based products.
As with its other maritime collaborations, Oris has dedicated a wristwatch to its partnership with Pacific Garbage Screening. The Clean Ocean Limited Edition is released in a series of 2,000 watches, each of which is presented to its buyer in a box made from algae using eco-friendly methods. The design of the model represents the ocean in many ways. The blue tones of its dial and bezel are reminiscent of the color of water, while the caseback of this automatic watch is water resistant to 300 meters, with a plastic medallion that makes its dazzling color even more surprising of its origin. The plastic insert is made from recycled PET plastic and is a little reminder not to forget about plastic waste.
The wristband of Breitling’s Super Ocean Heritage II Chronograph 44 Outerown is made from a yarn called Econil, which is made from nylon waste – including nylon from discarded fishing nets. Breitling developed it in collaboration with Outerown, a sustainable clothing brand founded by surfer Kelly Slater.
Karl F. Bucherer recycles PET recovered from marine debris to make the textile strap of its Patravi Scubatech Black Manta Special Edition. It’s surprising but true: each wristband requires 30 half-liter bottles. Water resistant to 500 meters, this diver’s watch will donate a portion of the proceeds from sales to the Manta Trust, which is dedicated to protecting the manta ray. Karl F. Bucherer and the Manta Trust have been working together for many years.
It’s about attention
Of course, one might legitimately ask if a few armbands and plastic medallions made from recycled trash would really make a difference in solving the problems plaguing our planet. Are such activities merely image-enhancing “greenwashing”? In fact, the use of recycled waste materials in watchmaking is currently very important. It’s about raising awareness in a place that doesn’t traditionally talk about issues like polluted oceans. When a luxury product comes with elements made from recycled materials, it sends a clear message that no area of life or part of society can ignore the need to protect the environment.
H. Moser & Cie. Recently found a fun way to bring this passion and commitment to the watch world. At SIHH 2019, the brand unveiled its Moser Nature Watch, which features a case covered in Swiss green plants, a dial crafted from natural stone and lichen, and a bracelet made from grass. The watch must be watered twice a day and is not a practical example of sustainable watch design, but it is a fitting symbol of Moser’s efforts to become carbon neutral and use affordable gold. It’s a fitting symbol for the watch industry as a whole, which is, in some cases, starting to focus on sustainability, but still has a lot of work to do.