ith the growing concern for global sustainable development, ESG (Environmental, Social and Governance)-inspired communication is flourishing in almost every industry. Some announcements are authentic and backed by concrete actions, while others are simply blatant examples of “greenwashing”. The watch industry is no exception.
As our own archives can attest, one watchmaker in particular did not wait for sustainability to become fashionable before acting. The Mondaine Group is known for its Mondaine/SBB Swiss railway clock watches, at an entry-level price point, as well as its self-powered luminous watch brand Luminox, its portfolio of licensed brands such as Pierre Cardin, as well as private label operations.
- Brothers André and Ronnie Bernheim, co-owners of the Mondaine Group
“Being environmentally conscious and responsible is first and foremost rooted in our upbringing, and the way we were raised by our parents,” states André Bernheim, at the head of the family group with his brother Ronnie Bernheim. “Herein lies our primary responsibility. At the company level, this approach started with the world’s first analogue solar watch, which Mondaine introduced in 1973. Then, in 1983, we launched the M-watch, a repairable entry-level Swiss Made quartz watch. Throwing things away has never been part of the way we do things at Mondaine.”
“In 1983, we launched the M-watch, a repairable entry-level Swiss Made quartz watch. Throwing things away has never been part of the way we do things at Mondaine.”
A series of pioneering initiatives
In the 1990s, Mondaine partnered with a scrap metal dealer in Zurich to melt down waste metal, to create metal bars to us for its watch cases. “This was the very first time 100% post-consumer recycled metal was used – today you’d simply call this upcycling,” explains André Bernheim. In 1992, Mondaine was awarded a prize at the World Economic Forum, presented by the Aga Khan himself, for these upcycled watches.
- An article from 1992 in Europa Star on Mondaine’s recycled watch, at a time when the issue was not a widespread concern.
- ©Europa Star 1992
“It felt great, but consumers did not really care at the time: I guess it was too early,” recounts the co-owner of the Mondaine Group. “That did not stop us from implementing our 3 Rs approach: reduce, reuse, recycle. In 2013, we launched our watch straps made from recycled PET. But this too proved too early at the consumer level. We saw a change in mindsets really happen from 2016. The Gotthard tunnel opened, and we used metal from an old locomotive to craft our watch case and bezel. Finally, consumers reacted! So, we kept pushing forward.”
- The Gotthard watch made from a scrapped locomotive
The group then looked for an alternative to plastic for a new Mondaine/SBB series of watches, called “essence”. Castor oil was promising, but proved too soft for a watch case. “After many tests, we added glass fibre and it worked. Our essence watches are made of 70% castor oil and glass fibre. The straps are made from 50% castor oil sourced from the Wonder Tree, recycled PET bottles, linen with cork lining, and other sustainable materials. Beside being CO2-neutral, the essence watches are the lowest-priced products in the Mondaine brand range. Sustainability does not need to be pricey: that’s our philosophy!”
“Beside being CO2-neutral, the essence watches made from 70% castor oil and glass fibre are the lowest-priced products in the Mondaine brand range. Sustainability does not need to be pricey!”
- The essence line from Mondaine
These initiatives help to explain how the company became carbon neutral in 2020. “We kept moving forward in our sustainability journey,” André Bernheim continues. “For the last three years, our new photovoltaic power plant has generated up to 80% of our electricity consumption at our production site in Switzerland. In 2020, we became the first carbon-neutral watch company, for our four brands, and that includes scope 1, 2 and 3 carbon emissions. In 2021, we largely succeeded in being CO2 neutral once again, with enlarged scope 3 objectives that include direct shipping of watches to customers in our eco-balance sheet. Nevertheless, we have to compensate for the business’s unavoidable carbon emissions. We do that through reforestation, as we believe it is important to remove existing emissions by capturing carbon through replanting trees.”
- The first analogue solar watch introduced by Mondaine in 1973.
In recent years, the company has also been working on reducing the impact of animal leather, which represents a substantial part of its carbon footprint: “As of spring 2022, we started replacing all animal leathers with grape-based ones, and we will eventually equip all our watches in the Mondaine brand with these vegan grape leather straps. We partnered with an Italian company specialising in turning waste from winemaking into a vegan leather alternative. As well as being animal friendly and free from solvents, no heavy metals or other harmful substances are used in the process of turning discarded grape skins, stalks and seeds into plant-based leather. It’s a true upcycling process.”
What is currently the biggest contributor to CO2 emissions for Mondaine? “The transportation of components to our factory, and even more importantly, to the final customers, accounts for the vast majority of emissions,” replies André Bernheim. “Our customers decide on their mode of transport, and shipping by air is most frequently chosen. Our watches are made to order ¬– “just in time” – so transportation to the customers is very time sensitive. No one wants to wait nowadays...”
Sourcing from Asia, the big question mark
Mondaine sources many of its components from Asian countries. Wouldn’t a manufacturing base in Switzerland reduce the company’s environmental impact substantially? The straightforward entrepreneur stresses the challenges at hand: “It’s complicated these days! The Swiss watch industry is so concentrated on the high-end segment that it’s impossible to find local suppliers who are capable of producing at prices low enough for the entry-level market in which our brands operate. In the past, we used to receive components by train, which is the mode of transport with the lowest carbon footprint. But with the upheavals of Covid-19 and the war in Ukraine, we are now forced to transport components by air to Dubai, and from there to Europe by sea.”
Despite the ongoing critical challenges in the supply chain, the group expects to see consumers react increasingly positively to environmentally responsible products. “The Mondaine essence collection launched in 2017 is doing well and represents approximately 15% of our sales today,” notes André Bernheim. “Europe responded well to this launch, as did the US, especially large metropolitan areas like San Francisco, New York and Chicago. We see awareness expanding everywhere in these markets and we hope it will expand more strongly in Asia as well.”
The group developed its first watch recycling programme in 2019 at its Swiss factory in Biberist, in the canton of Solothurn. “As part of the circular economy, we decided we would play a role in the entire life cycle of watches. We currently take back watches from all brands – except third-party plastic ones – which we then dismantle, and have their main parts recycled. We want to remain entirely carbon neutral for all 3 scopes, and in the near future we aim to become climate-positive (Ed. note: by saving more greenhouse gas emissions than they generate). We want to expand the watch recycling programme to other countries. As mentioned, we will also extend our grape leather straps to all our collections. It’s encouraging to see that consumers are becoming more and more concerned by these issues.”
“We see awareness expanding everywhere in the European and American markets and we hope it will expand more strongly in Asia as well.”
Recognition at the end of the road
Mondaine has been nominated for the Green Business Awards this year, a major signal of recognition for the company’s decades-long efforts. “This competition is organised for ecologically minded businesses,” stresses André Bernheim. “Mondaine embraced this spirit from the very beginning. We are very happy to have been nominated. Until the end of last year, we were not even aware of this award. It came as a nice surprise. At least it shows that what we are doing is getting recognition. It increases visibility for our brands, and raises awareness for consumers. It is all very positive.”
Ultimately, Mondaine exemplifies how, with a strong will and commitment, a genuine ESG approach can succeed outside the realm of giant luxury players. As André Bernheim puts it: “Everyone has to take responsibility according to their own convictions, their own abilities. If we as an SME can do it, others should be capable as well, and I hope to see more companies following our path. I believe the media also have their part to play. We can all do better.”