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Sustainability in watch production

Sustainability in watch production

Thursday, 07 April 2022
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

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6 min read

Mechanical watches are widely recognised as innovative, creative products that are designed to last for generations. Production offers opportunities for sustainable practices, backed by innovation and digital technologies.

In a not so distant future, “sustainable innovation” will be a redundant term: all innovation will be sustainable, in exactly the same way that — as noted by Benoît Mintiens, founder of the Ressence watch brand, at a Watches and Wonders panel discussion — manufacturers will be obliged to recover end-of-life products for recycling: “Take the example of a carmaker producing hybrid vehicles which are a mix of technologies. Recycling solutions should be built into the car’s design, except there’s a tendency to think it’s not our problem. There’s an ethical issue at stake here. Industries put products onto the market but don’t feel it’s their responsibility to make sure these same products can be recycled.”

Annual production at Oris represents a volume of 25 tonnes, the equivalent of 15 cars.

Is the watch industry guilty as charged? Certainly not to the same extent as the car industry. “At Oris, we make about 25 tonnes of watches a year,” said Rolf Studer, CEO. “That’s the equivalent of fifteen cars and there are a million cars manufactured every year. So you can see, we’re not on the same scale. Also, our watches are designed and made to last for generations. Of course, this doesn’t mean we don’t take the matter seriously. Last year Oris was certified carbon-neutral, something we describe in our 2022 Sustainability Report. Oris, as a company with subsidiaries around the world and a production centre, emits 2,300 tonnes of carbon which we offset through environmental projects. But offsetting is the easy part. The harder part is rethinking our organisation and our working practices, which is what we’re doing when we pledge to cut our greenhouse gas emissions by 10% per year over the next three years. Yes, we make products with recycled components and environmentally-friendly packaging but it’s our attitude that really matters. We need to show the customer that they can make sustainable choices.”

A change in attitudes

Similar choices have been made at Kering. The group has been an early adopter of sustainable practices, as Julien Stervinou, Head of the Sustainable Innovation Lab for Watches and Jewellery, explained: “Kering has a strong track record for sustainability, which has been central to strategy for the past 15 years. The group’s chairman, François-Henri Pinault, was first to launch the idea, based on the principle that sustainability is good for ethics and good for business. We set an ambitious target to reduce the group’s environmental impact by 40% in ten years on a 2015 baseline and we’re on track to reach that target. Half our results are achieved using existing good practices, such as those defined by the Responsible Jewellery Council. The remainder has to come from innovation. Innovation is key for sustainability. In 2013 we launched the Materials Innovation Lab in Milan for textiles and in 2020 we set up the Sustainable Innovation Lab for Watches and Jewellery.”

Economics and sustainability are more than just compatible. Put them together and you have a winning formula.

“We used to fly ‘friends of the brand’ around the world to sip champagne at product launches. Now we’re organising clean-ups and picking up trash on beaches,” commented Rolf Studer. “It’s the proof that attitudes are changing.” “Much of this change is coming from young generations,” Benoît Mintiens added. “They’ve made it clear that you can’t earn money and not be held accountable. Economics and sustainability are more than just compatible. Put them together and you have a winning formula.” These same young consumers believe a recycled product isn’t less “worthy” than a non-recycled equivalent. It’s a message struggling to be heard in a luxury industry that prefers, for example, not to publicise the fact that the gold used to manufacture this or that watch case (and it’s more common than one might imagine) comes partly from recycled industrial “waste”. Alexis Georgacopoulos is the director of Lausanne University of Art and Design/ECAL. He believes that “this is where creativity has a role to play alongside innovation, by making these sustainable and recyclable materials, which often carry a negative image, more attractive.”

Digital sobriety

Young consumers are helping to shape the luxury industry not only through expectations that the brands they buy behave as responsible corporate citizens. They are also a force for digital transformation within the industry. After developing their social media presence, brands are now embracing Blockchain, NFTs and the Metaverse, fully aware that with digitalization come huge business opportunities. “We have to change the way we think,” said Chris Grainger-Herr, CEO of IWC. “Watch brands make products for eternity, products that will be serviceable for generations to come, and for that reason we must think beyond the initial sale. The same watch will likely have several owners throughout its various lifetimes. It can be gifted or inherited or resold, yet as brands we still tend to focus on that first customer. Blockchain is the opportunity to think long-term and to imagine new services. It adds a dimension to customer relations, which are so important in our profession.”

It’s a digital jungle out there.

Not that Blockchain is limited to the customer experience, as Edouard Meylan, CEO of H. Moser & Cie., observed: “Traceability across the supply chain is a complex and vital issue that can greatly benefit from a technology such as Blockchain, not to mention the actual production processes. It’s about value creation in a digital world that complements our traditional expertise, so it’s a welcome development.” But as Ethiwork founder Céline Dassonville reminded the panel, digital is a jungle and digital technologies are not environmentally blameless. A concept is already emerging that could make tech more sustainable: welcome to “digital sobriety”!

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