In their efforts to convince us that Mother Earth matters more to them than shareholder profits, luxury brands are making sustainable development and social responsibility part of the conversation. According to the 64 Chief Purchasing Officers questioned in the McKinsey Apparel CPO Survey 2019, who collectively spend in excess of $100 billion on sourcing, environmental and social issues are top priority. These executives aspire to source at least half of their product with sustainable materials by 2025. But where are we at today? Is a healthy planet really more important than a healthy bottom line? McKinsey’s analysis of 235 online shops in France, Germany, the UK and the US found that only 1% of new products launched during the first half of 2019 were tagged “sustainable”.
Heightened consumer sensitivity towards the environment and sustainability confirms that these are questions brands cannot afford to ignore – and that includes mechanical watchmakers whose products are clearly part of the luxury segment. While there is no shortage of initiatives, the vast majority so far involve partnerships with conservation organisations and scientific programmes working to protect marine and land ecosystems. Measures are also implemented to reduce the carbon footprint of production sites through cleaner practices. But when it comes to the product itself, there is still a long way to go.
Dreams of a better world
There have been a few welcome initiatives of late. Breitling has teamed up with sustainable clothing company Outerknown for a range of NATO straps in Econyl, a yarn whose main component comes from recycled fishing nets. Chopard, one of the first to put sustainability on the map with its decision to produce all its gold watches and jewellery from ethical gold, has released the Alpine Eagle in Lucent Steel A223: an alloy composed of 70% recycled steel and whose residue is also recycled. But apart from that, try as we might – a presentation box in recycled plastic and algae from Oris; a recycled titanium case and recycled PET strap for the… 19 watches in the Panerai Submersible Mike Horn limited edition – there is little to suggest watchmakers are doing any better than the tiny 1% mentioned in the McKinsey report.
Even Baume, the new brand with big ambitions in terms of recycled materials, circular economy and environmental credentials, appears to have dropped off the radar. The most promising projects are to be found elsewhere, at start-ups. Tide Ocean, which is based in Basel, Switzerland, is transforming ocean plastic into quality watches. Awake, a French company, made headlines when President Emmanuel Macron gifted one of its watches to leaders meeting in Biarritz at the last G7 Summit. Movements are solar-powered, hence no batteries to pollute the environment. Cases are made by repurposing fishing nets discarded in the North Sea, while straps make use of plastic bottles recovered from the sea in south-east Asia. Granted, these aren’t mechanical watches and far from luxury, but they do spark hope in a better future. If they can do it, why can’t others?