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What progress for sustainability?

What progress for sustainability?

Tuesday, 05 April 2022
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Christophe Roulet
Editor-in-chief, HH Journal

“The desire to learn is the key to understanding.”

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5 min read

While everyone agrees that luxury companies must demonstrate transparency and adopt sustainable sourcing practices, there is still a way to go. Those companies that are working for greater sustainability remain the exception rather than the rule, at a time when the industry urgently needs to pull together.

Sustainability was the overarching theme for the panels at Watches and Wonders, with specific aspects put on the table for discussion each day, starting with transparency and sustainable sourcing. At the same time as brands unveiled their new releases at presentations designed to keep us dreaming, questions of sustainable development underpinned much of the week, as if to ask how can luxury continue to inspire when the world is heading for disaster and industries across the board must carry their share of the blame?

The customer is key and none more so than young customers who, compared with older generations, approach luxury from a completely different angle. “Young people in the southern hemisphere witness the inequality gap on a daily basis. How do you think they feel about luxury brands which are meant to represent values that are important to them?” asked Diana Verde Nieto, CEO of Positive Luxury, a company that supports luxury brands on their sustainability journey. “The least these brands can do is to be humble and demonstrate transparency. It’s a vital part of corporate governance within the value chain that luxury companies can no longer ignore.”

Sustainable practices pay

“This doesn’t mean nothing has been done with regard to sustainability or inclusion,” continued Isabelle Sultan, Chief Sustainability Officer at Parfums Christian Dior. “For the past 25 years, we have partnered with horticulturists in Grasse who organically grow the plants and flowers we use. Similarly, we are working with Scienced-Based Targets to reduce our carbon footprint. The problem is that we haven’t communicated widely enough on this, which means there is still room for improvement.” In an era where luxury companies are increasingly held accountable for their impact on communities and the environment, brands are expected to open up and talk about their practices… or risk being suspected of having something to hide.

We have a right to expect luxury companies to set an example.

“It’s true, the world’s gone mad.” said Diana Verde Nieto. “The good news is that we have the power to change things. Luxury companies have everything that’s needed to bring about that change. They have the finances, the reputation, the international presence, the networks and the management, and so we have a right to expect them to set an example. Some do but clearly others don’t, and while they are the ones posing the problem, they’ll soon realise where their interests lie. The most successful companies today are the ones with strong sustainability practices.” Isabelle Sultan confirmed this: “Studies clearly show that customers are prepared to stop buying brands that aren’t doing their share. No-one wants to live on a planet where average temperatures have risen by more than 4 degrees Celsius. This is why companies that apply the principles of sustainable development are outperforming those that don’t. It provides genuine competitive advantage.”

Together or not at all

However great the intention, you cannot change the world alone. “Change must take place at industry level,” explained Sabrina Karib from the Precious Metals Impact Forum. “Not necessarily through tougher legislation because it takes a long time to bring new laws into effect. We also know that the various certifications are useful in bringing legitimacy but they are not enough. We need to take action across the entire value chain. Brands and suppliers must work together to promote transparency.”

When it comes to the brands that are taking action, it’s always the same names.

Is the watch industry prepared to join together and be a force for change? The panellists at Watches and Wonders couldn’t resist commenting that not one watch brand was at the table to discuss transparency. As for those brands that are taking action, it’s always the same names. Chopard is foremost among them, having embarked on its Journey to Sustainable Luxury in 2013, thanks to forward-looking management. “You cannot go it alone, especially as sustainability isn’t only about the environment and because it involves all suppliers,” commented Pauline Evequoz, Head of Corporate Sustainability at Chopard. “We have worked closely with various NGOs in the field, but all this takes time, patience and most of all a long-term vision if we are to build trust, with the mining communities but also with the customer. This is how we can progressively increase the amount of artisanal gold in our supply. Our objective is to reach 60 per cent.”

What next?

Panatere, which is based in Saignelégier in the Jura, is the first company in Switzerland to use solar energy to manufacture recycled steel and titanium, which it supplies to watchmakers at market price. It too knows the value of working together, as Project Manager Liselotte Turing explained: “We needed input from others to get where we are today, in particular engineers who helped us put procedures in place using local resources and clean energy. In five years we have learned how to transform waste into resources and costs into revenue using the circular economy. And it works. Our production volumes are constantly growing and we are now producing recycled titanium as well as steel.”

Local resources, recycled materials… in 2021 Panerai made public the solutions it had developed to prove that it is possible to produce a fully recycled watch. To do so, it worked with a consortium of a dozen companies, all duly named and all ready and waiting to launch similar projects with other watchmakers, with Panerai’s blessing. So far, not a single brand has shown an interest…

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