“Creating Beautiful” is a series of conversations between Iris Van der Veken, Executive Director of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC), and leading figures in the watch and jewellery industry. Available on Spotify, they ask the simple question: “What happens to your business when you put people and planet first?” Christoph Grainger-Herr, Chief Executive of IWC, was first to answer.
The importance of sustainability
“We make an emotional product, a luxury product, a non-essential product that is all about pleasure. It has to be a product people can feel genuinely good about and that brings them a positive experience. This is why our mission at IWC is to produce the most responsibly-made mechanical watches in the market today. Of course, this is a continuous improvement journey towards the goals that we have clearly set out in our 2020 Sustainability Report. When we look back, we can see this is part of our history. When Florentine Aristo Jones set up IWC in Switzerland in 1868, he chose a site by the River Rhine for the hydraulic energy, and we still get all our electricity from the hydropower station that’s just 200 metres down the road. This shows that sustainability has been part of our development throughout our history. Unlike so many of the things we consume today, our mechanical watches do not have inbuilt obsolescence. We guarantee to our customers that we will service and repair our watches for eternity. The only energy input is the power of your wrist or your fingers to wind the movement, and this creates an inherently sustainable product. Customers today are concerned with environmental impact. Our message is, look, here is a product that is designed, engineered, manufactured and assembled all in one place, in the heart of Europe, and which has been fostering skills and creating jobs continuously for 154 years.”
“A couple of years ago, concern about sustainability came mainly from the younger generations but is now spreading across age ranges. There is a much more broadly based awareness that we need to question the ways we live our lives, especially in the West where we have an over-proportional impact on the environment. Covid refocused people on what is really important in their lives. We thought about how we spend our time and this brought a message of responsibility. Another important element for us, as a company, is to be open and transparent when communicating what we do and how we do it. Everybody is trying hard and there are always ways to improve, and people appreciate that we’re happy to talk about this. At IWC we invite everybody to come and see us, virtually or physically, and see every step of the watchmaking process. IWC was given a “good score” in the WWF study, a couple of years ago, on the environmental impact of 15 Swiss watch and jewellery brands. At IWC we communicate openly with the press and clients on our sourcing practices. We also have a responsibility within the wider supply chain to be a driver of sustainable innovation. We have to set the briefing for, say, a 100% responsible and recycled rubber strap. This is the only way the supply chain will start to look at how things are done.”
“One of the Sustainable Development Goals we focus on concerns the upstream supply chain for all our suppliers. As a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) since 2012, IWC is Code of Practice-certified. In 2020 we became the first watch brand to meet new Code of Practice standards, then in March 2021 we were awarded RJC Chain of Custody certification, which is the starting point for the traceability of precious metal components. This is a milestone for us and our ability to give customers the assurance that they can trace where the components in their watch come from. You have a personal relationship with your watch, and for that reason we need to go beyond broad statements to the individual traceability of each component, ideally documented by Blockchain. For example, most of the gold we use is recycled gold from the electronics industry. Similarly, our main steel supplier is committed to increasing the amount of recycled metal in the stainless steel we use for our watches. We’re looking at how we can reduce plastic in our packaging. Wherever possible, plastic components are removed and, when this isn’t possible, we make sure the plastic is recycled and as responsibly sourced as possible. We’ve developed modular packaging that significantly reduces shipping bulk and volume, hence emissions. We use only FSC-certified paper products. We’re looking at how we organise events, and how we use visual merchandising in our stores. All with the objective of having the least possible impact on the environment and society.”
“We live in a small community. There are about 80,000 people in the Schaffhausen canton. We’ve been here for over 150 years and are one of the region’s major employers. We contribute to the community through social programmes and local charities, but not only. We also provide in-house training for youth, including in jobs that aren’t directly related to production. A lot of the families in the area have third-generation members working at IWC. This makes me very proud. As an architect-designer by training, I spent six years working on the new manufacturing centre which we opened three years ago, and which represents our vision for the next 150 years in terms of working environment, ergonomics, efficiency and sustainability. When someone who’s worked at IWC for 40 years has this massive change of moving into a new building and they tell you they feel really positive about their new working environment, well that’s the nicest response you can have!”
The biggest challenges
“We in the watch industry have something of an advantage in developing sustainable practices, because of the very nature of our product. “Swiss-Made” implies a close-radius supply chain and production all in one place. Because of this, the changes required are not as dramatic as in some other industries. We’ve also found it’s been easy to motivate our colleagues to be part of the continuous improvement journey. There’s been great take-up, among the people working at IWC, of initiatives such as soft mobility. Introducing changes to the supply chain is proving to be a little more complex. Take the example of the calf leather we use for our straps and the question of animal welfare. In my mind, this was something that would be easily addressed. I mean, I can see happy, grazing cows just outside my factory! But it’s not that straightforward. There is simply no traceability in that supply chain. We are now very actively asking our suppliers to put measures in place to ensure animal welfare and standards of sourcing. Sometimes, though, these are major industry changes that don’t happen overnight. As I said, we’re on a long journey of continuous improvement!”.