Swiss watchmakers stagger towards sustainability


Thankfully, mechanical watches are about as sustainable a durable good as the world has ever produced. Many timekeepers from the 18th century are still ticking and, unlike today’s washing machines, the mechanics of a modern day automatic are likely to keep working with little or no maintenance for decades. It is the wasteful behavior that sustains staggering profit margins among luxury brands that should really be questioned: the flights, the lavish hospitality — all the trappings on which the Swiss watch industry is built — that cost the planet so dear. Has a year off as the pandemic engulfed the world’s wealthiest nations changed all that? Not a chance, suggests specialist luxury business author Robin Swithinbank, but there are exceptions.

Those who walk the corridors of corporate life may reflect with some amusement on the role sustainability played in the BBC mockumentary Twenty Twelve (available in the UK and USA on Britbox). In the show, which followed the organisation of the 2012 London Olympics, the hapless head of sustainability – tasked with ‘taking into account our debt not just to the past, but to the future’ – was the butt of the joke.

Almost a decade on, and no one’s laughing now about sustainability. At least, not so much.


Last year, Bain & Company published a report on sustainability in luxury. Its author, Claudia D’Arpizio, said this: ‘Sustainability in all its forms will be one of the most important consumer trends of the next decade.’ She added that it was now a ‘business imperative’ and that social activism would be a legacy of the Covid period. Luxury, once an uncaring club defined by its arrogance, has to change.

And it is. In fashion, Stella McCartney is the driving force, lining racks with clothing made from recycled plastic, and she has legion acolytes. Watchmaking is catching on, too. From Breitling’s recycled PET plastic watch boxes, to Oris’s bursting back catalogue of partnerships with eco non-profits, to the fully recycled mechanical watch Panerai has said it will announce in April, sustainability stories are the talk of the Alps.

Talk, however, raises questions. For starters, can we trust it? Greenwashing, the practice of investing far more in talking a good game than playing one, has infected a number of industries, most notoriously the automotive sector. And if we can, what impact is it going to have on the watchmaking landscape?

On trust, Georges Kern, Breitling’s ebullient chief executive, makes an interesting point. He has said he’s entering a trust circle with his customers. Trust used to be a one-way dynamic. A brand made a promise, and consumers were left to believe it – or not.

Breitling’s New Watch Box is both recyclable and made from recycled materials.

Now, argues Kern, if a brand makes a promise, it had better be sure of it, because the internet has opened the back door to brand practices, and it wouldn’t take a lot of digging to uncover false claims. Which means the trust dynamic becomes a circle. A brand has no choice, he argues, but to be honest – the alternative is almost certain death by social media.

Even so, third-party verification helps. In late 2018, the WWF published a report that, in its own words, ‘demanded more transparency and responsibility in the watch and jewellery sector’.

It described sustainability as a ‘megatrend’ and concluded bluntly that the sector ‘does not meet good environmental standards’. It singled IWC out for praise as the clear frontrunner, while condemning billion-dollar-turnover club members Rolex, Omega, Patek Philippe, Audemars Piguet and Tissot as being ‘latecomers’ and ‘non-transparent’.

That was two years ago, and even in that short window the story has moved on. A follow-up report might find evidence of better practice on a wider scale today.

It would be welcome. Because while Kern’s argument stacks up, it’s not water-tight. No doubt with that in mind, Bulgari has talked of taking its sustainability pledges up a level.

Last year, the Italian company announced at its first Sustainable Development Webinar that it was planning to harness the power of the AURA blockchain network it helped develop to offer customers traceability – in other words, to use the apparently unhackable qualities of blockchain to store details about the provenance of materials used in a watch, handbag or piece of jewellery.

It’s yet to come good on the proposal, admitting since that it’s harder to deliver than it had hoped. Read into that what you will, but the principle has legs if it can be realised.

More interesting, particularly for industry insiders, is the question of how sustainability is reshaping the watchmaking landscape. Over the last 12 months, pandemic-assisted no doubt, the cohort of brands banging the sustainability drum has, like ocean flotsam, risen to the surface and made its way to land, while others have appeared all at sea.

Chopard began its journey to sustainability in 2013, and it has become integral to every decision and choice the family-owned business makes. The ultimate accountability for policies and practices rests with Co-Presidents Karl-Friedrich & Caroline Scheufele, who are at the heart of the corporate sustainability strategy.

Chopard, Bulgari, IWC, Omega, Ulysse Nardin, Breitling, Oris, Mondaine, Blancpain – the list is growing rapidly – and their ilk are winning consumer hearts and minds with sustainability campaigns, suggesting not just that they’re talking a language customers want to hear, but that customers believe what they’re saying.

Cynicism might be at an all-time high in a post-truth world, but at the same time, it’s crumbling in the face of stories of brands behaving like planet-saving superheroes.

At least, that’s what research shows. According to that same Bain report, 64% of Gen Z-ers and Gen Y-ers are influenced by claims of sustainability when making purchases.

Even among baby boomers, a self-interested cohort by reputation, almost half say the same. It’s a universal trend. And so, not surprisingly, Bain recorded that 93% of chief executives believe sustainability is key to future success (begging the questions – who are the 7% of holdouts, and what are they thinking?).

This is proving instructional not just for brands with 250 years of history, but for start-ups, too. Awake, a French newbie selling watches for €280 alongside the hashtag #fckplstc, has set its stall on using solar energy and recycled materials to produce its watches.

It’s a less bold move now than it was even a few years ago.

Baume was created to hothouse ideas on sustainability within Richemont. It didn’t last.

Baume, the Richemont creation of 2018, marketed its watches around ecomm, customization and sustainability, but according to analyst estimates, it only sold 1,500 watches before being absorbed into sister brand Baume et Mercier. Its spirit appears to have had more influence over Richemont’s direction than its bottom line.

Success and failure aside, a bird’s eye view of the watch industry suggests the direction of travel has altered significantly, sped up by the global pandemic. What we’re seeing is that the brand-to-consumer dynamic now rotates around an axis of good.

The Gordon Gekko, greed-is-good economy is long gone, and the once attractive bad-boy corporate image has been replaced by something altogether more considerate, more conscious.

And no, it’s not naive to reckon as much – customers all over the world, even China’s loaded Gen Z-ers, have been recorded as being bothered by how ‘good’ the products they buy are, whether it’s a stick of rhubarb or a Rolex.

All of which means that for the brand, or the retailer, that’s still laughing at sustainability, there won’t be any gold medals when the race is run.

About the author: Robin Swithinbank is a UK-based writer, editor and content producer for the New York Times, Financial Times, Telegraph, GQ, Vanity Fair, Harrods, Robb Report and more.

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