The circular economy is widely viewed as an effective answer to the planet’s environmental woes. Whereas a linear economy, still the most widespread model, functions on a “take-make-dispose” basis, the circular economy reuses materials and products in a continuous loop. It covers the entire spectrum from raw materials to product design, production, consumption (for as long as possible) and recycling. “A circular economy generates less waste, hence less pollution, utilises materials with a longer lifespan and enables better valorisation of resources,” explained Irene Martinetti, a circular economy manager at the World Business Council for Sustainable Development (WBCSD), whose almost 250 members are committed to advancing the sustainability agenda. “This regenerative system replaces primary raw materials with secondary raw materials from recycling and creates conditions in which products can be reused multiple times. For companies, this represents new business opportunities as well as new sources of revenue.”
Recycling as standard
The WBCSD having laid the groundwork, the Chief Executives of Panerai and Ulysse Nardin spoke about their sustainability experiences at the Watch Forum, a day of exchanges and debates organised by Watches and Culture to raise awareness and spark action through real-life examples. Both brands are known for their multiple initiatives in favour of sustainable development. Panerai began its drive for greater sustainability when brand ambassador and adventurer Mike Horn came to CEO Jean-Marc Pontroué with a broken shaft from his boat. The brand recycled it into five watch cases. “That was four years ago,” said Pontroué, ”and we had no idea what sustainable development and circularity could actually mean for a brand like ours. We really were starting from a blank page. Those first recycled cases set us thinking about using recycled materials for our straps. We were working from the ground up.”
Panerai has come some way since those early days and the ideas that first took shape during product meetings. One area the brand is developing is to incorporate recycled metals (gold, titanium and steel) into its production. In 2021 it released the Submersible eLab-ID concept watch made from 98.6% recycled-based materials, including for movement parts and the lume on the dial. Nor did Panerai intend to keep these innovations to itself. Having succeeded in convincing ten companies, many of which had never worked in the watch sector before, to join a project that would involve only small volumes (kilos rather than tonnes), it is sharing its suppliers list with other brands that might be interested in using these materials themselves. Initial contacts have already been made. As Jean-Marc Pontroué explained, “You have to invest in this type of development. Our business model is for all our steel watches to use recycled steel by 2025. Then we’ll be able to talk about economies of scale and return on investment. I personally believe that this type of product will soon be the norm.” By way of illustration, Panerai’s CEO gave the example of electric and hybrid cars, virtually inexistent just ten years ago and now more and more numerous on our roads.
A 360° view
Patrick Pruniaux, CEO of Ulysse Nardin, spoke next. “Where recycled metals are concerned,” he said, “for one of our projects we’ve managed to secure a cost price equivalent to that of… gold. This serves as a reminder of the volumes we work with in the watch industry. At Ulysse Nardin, we’ve decided to limit production to 50,000 watches a year. This reflects the type of clientele we target and the functionality of our watches. Is there any sense in wanting a 100% recycled watch? What’s wrong with 80%? It’s a question worth asking, knowing that the watch sector has a low environmental impact and that our products are small objects, locally manufactured for the most part, which have an extremely long, not to say infinite, lifespan. Our watches won’t change the world but this doesn’t mean we can’t make progress in terms of circularity and environmental issues, which are important to me.”
At both brands, circularity is part of a much wider reflection. Ulysse Nardin uses energy recovered from its production machines to heat buildings. It has banned single-use plastic and all its packaging can be recycled. It’s a similar story at Panerai which uses solar power and a geothermal pump to heat its factory. Boutique furniture is transported by boat. Plastic (which is banned across the entire Richemont group, to which Panerai belongs) has been replaced by card in fully recyclable packaging. Having used life cycle analysis (LCA) methodology to measure the environmental performance of the recycling solutions introduced for the eLab-ID, Panerai is now deploying those with the most significant positive impacts across its ranges.