Watchmaking and the environment

Green watchmaking: hard to spot


February 2018

Green watchmaking: hard to spot

Is the Swiss watchmaking industry doing its bit for the environment? Ten years ago, the answer was a definite ‘no’. Things have improved since then, however.


oday, no self-respecting brand is without its Sustainable Development Department or similar. But even where there have been tangible results, they barely get a mention. The reason is that horology is all about selling dreams, not environmental activism. But with the arrival of Generation Xers and Millennials – and their high expectations in this respect – change is now on its way.

Are you clean, green, CSR, SD, and eco-friendly with it? Nowadays, watchmaking brands take such questions extremely seriously. This marks a change from the old days, when all it took to be green was a few beehives making honey out the front. Of course, bees are important – but they rather pale into insignificance beside the 10.6 tonnes of batteries recycled last year by the Swatch Group.

How to take a stand (or avoid taking one)

Environmental responsibility (to use a catch-all phrase) naturally starts much higher up watchmaking firms’ value chains. Indeed, few CEOs still attempt to get by with nothing more than the bland assertion – almost a sophistry – that mechanical watches are built to last for centuries and are thus intrinsically sustainable.

Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering © Lea Crespi, 2014
Marie-Claire Daveu, Kering © Lea Crespi, 2014

Nowadays, annual reports and Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) address the issue in depth. These are effective – perhaps too much so, since brands now take refuge behind all this material to avoid making any further statements on the topic. The Swatch Group, for instance, devotes 6 of the 244 pages of its annual report to environmental matters.

For its part, Kering has a 25-page report – but has not shrunk from speaking out, either. “Sustainable development is a source of innovation and creativity,” says Marie-Claire Daveu, the company’s Chief Sustainability Officer and Head of International Institutional Affairs. “It nurtures collaboration, connectivity, and transparency. The only difficulty is that of reconciling the brand’s long-term time frame with consumers’ short-term vision.”

Sustainable or desirable? Why not both?

In actual fact, there are many potential pitfalls. First and foremost, environmental responsibility involves processes and traceability. This is a far cry from the watchmaking marketing-speak of “historic timepieces exuding timeless elegance”. In other words, industrial production of the stuff of dreams is a delicate task – and selling it is more delicate still. Many are of the opinion that sustainable development is anything but the stuff of dreams. What is more, consumers are disinclined to be keen on sustainable development, simply because its benefits lie well beyond their own lifetimes. Helping to prevent a 1.5 degree rise in temperature in the next century is all very well – but doesn’t really boost watch sales in the here and now.

Stéphane Truchi, Managing Director of opinion pollsters IFOP, has clearly grasped this. He believes that environmental responsibility doesn’t sell – as yet – because it isn’t sexy enough. According to him, “the challenge is to link desirability with sustainability. When it comes to luxury items, the case for these two factors going hand in hand needs to be more clearly made.” Louis Vuitton’s Environment Manager Sandrine Noel agrees: “Today, consumers have clearly expressed expectations in this respect. Our sales staff have come to see sustainable development as an asset: a great story to tell. Brands engaging in sustainable development in both word and deed are more desirable – it helps them come across as more authentic and less pretentious.”

And that’s the key. For environmental responsibility to encompass the world of luxury, including watchmaking, it needs to be made desirable – and be authentic. It also needs to be accessible: ecological progress will only really happen once very large numbers of people are committed to it.

A question of certification

Green watchmaking: hard to spot

The issue of whether sustainable watchmaking is accessible is a vast one. Naturally, the product itself and its price are the first things that spring to mind. Chopard, for instance, has timepieces whose gold is certified as being “Fairmined”. This remarkable initiative is the first of its kind – and a great success. The manufacture offers new pieces bearing this label every year – and has been increasing output in response to growing demand. Kering has followed suit: some of its brands have similar certification backed by Solidaridad, an NGO.

When it comes to diamonds, almost all brands have adopted the Kimberley traceability process, working alongside the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), the authority when it comes to stemming the tide of blood diamonds. These types of certification are vital – and “not as easy as all that to obtain”, confides Chopard’s co-President Karl-Friedrich Scheufele. However, sustainable horology is about much more than the product itself: there are also stores, packaging, the types of paper used, CO2 emissions and so on to be thought about.

Worthwhile but little-known initiatives

Although watchmaking brands say little about such matters, several of them are in fact doing very well in this respect. At Girard-Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin, all paper sourcing is carefully controlled, and 50% of the paper used is recycled. 100% of all Gucci bags are recycled, too. In Japan, the watchmaking giant Seiko banned chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) as early as 1993; in 2006, it got rid of all traces of lead from its quartz movements, and two years later dispensed with mercury in its batteries. It’s worth pointing out that by contrast, some of the larger Swiss companies have obtained derogations to exempt them from commitments of this type, many of which are now mandatory for products distributed within the EU.

Green watchmaking: hard to spot

Further upstream, the main source of leverage for environmentally responsible watchmaking is production itself. Here again, little is said by brands, since they do not believe that doing so will increase their desirability. Louis Vuitton’s Sandrine Noel begs to differ, though. “Generation Xers and Millennials clearly have fresh expectations in this realm”. These new expectations are now being further amplified through social media. Nowadays, animal rights groups such as PETA and L214 enjoy broad support beyond their wildest dreams of yore, as shown by how extremely rare it now is to find any young people keen to have genuine fur.

While fur may not be a sensitive issue for watchmakers, leather is very much a part of the business. For Kering, the use and processing of leather accounts for a whopping 24% of the group’s environmental impact. As a result, the firm has implemented practical measures to address this state of affairs: these include tanning that does not use heavy metals, insourcing the tanning process, and applying draconian selection criteria for partners. The next step is probably to move to plant-based leather. The latter has yet to reach the world of watchmaking, but has already been adopted by at least one brand that tends to set the pace for luxury goods: Tesla. As of this summer, the electric carmaker has abandoned animal leather in favour of vegan leather for all its vehicles – without exception. That hasn’t stopped it from selling the stuff of dreams – and cars with a price tag of $150,000 – which may give watchmakers pause for thought.

Awaiting Xers and Yers

Emissions – of all types – are another major concern for the watchmaking industry. The Swatch Group is seeking to cut its energy use between 2013 and 2020, thus reducing its CO2 emissions by 27%, at the same time as improving its energy efficiency by 8%. Many brands, such as TAG Heuer and Hublot, are also developing a taste for deploying solar panels on their roofs.

The independents are not short on ideas, either. Christophe Claret, for instance, has swapped his firm’s fuel oil boiler for a gas-powered one, at the same time as installing a clever system to recover the excess heat given off by machinery to warm the buildings. Not so far away, Ulysse Nardin has done the same thing. Similarly, Agenhor has built its offices to benefit from the best possible exposure to sunlight, facilitating natural temperature control. IWC, meanwhile, has taken a different tack: all the energy purchased by the firm comes from renewable sources. Chopard and Hublot have also renovated their facilities recently; both firms have acquired Minergie or High Energy Performance certification in the process.

The Audemars Piguet Minergie-ECO® manufacture in Le Brassus.
The Audemars Piguet Minergie-ECO® manufacture in Le Brassus.

Is there anything to be ashamed of here? Should such initiatives be concealed at all costs? Of course not! The fact is, though, that they are little known – or indeed entirely unbeknown – to the general public, since they are not seen as contributing to “desirability”. Watchmaking is naturally conservative, and sells dreams; the view is that environmental responsibility is not something we dream about. That way of thinking has had its day, though. The time is now at hand when generations X, Y, and Z will indeed be dreaming of a better future.