Few industries can rival watchmaking for its ability to create hugely desirable products. This wonderful aptitude, honed over hundreds of years and which has given watches their status as luxury goods, is now up against a harsh reality. However perfect that product may be, it no longer exists in splendid isolation. While timepieces continue to exert their irresistible power of seduction, questions are being raised about how they are made, the materials used or the means of communication employed. When an industry has made brand image a key to success, these are questions it cannot afford to ignore.
A wave of enthusiasm
This inevitably leads us to the Agenda for Sustainable Development that was unanimously adopted by United Nations member states in 2015. It sets out a roadmap to foster peace and prosperity across the globe in the form of 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and 169 detailed targets. These goals address the most challenging issues facing world populations and form a framework for action until 2030. At the same time as the UN made public the agenda in 2015, the planet’s future was at the centre of another major event. The Paris Agreement on climate change became the most significant treaty on climate action in the history of humanity, with 195 of 197 countries signing the text.
An investment of 1% of global private wealth would bring the UN Sustainable Development Goals within reach.
This fabulous show of transnational solidarity was backed on paper by the United Nations Development Programme’s calculation that achieving the Sustainable Development Goals would require annual investment of $2.5 trillion between 2015 and 2030. To put this figure into perspective, on January 3 this year, Apple’s market cap briefly topped $3 trillion. Indeed, the UNDP made the pointed comparison that an investment of 1% of the $25 trillion of global assets on financial markets would bring the Sustainable Development Goals within reach. Wishful thinking? Listening to Patrick Odier, Senior Managing Partner at Lombard Odier & Co, one of the largest Swiss private banks, suggests that there is reason to hope: “Sustainable investment goes beyond environmental questions. It is a revolution on a global scale. It will influence government action, how companies do business and investment decisions. It is a transformation that is unprecedented in the history of humanity.”
“We are digging our own graves”
Alas, the international community has been unable to sustain the wave of enthusiasm that began in this pivotal year for climate action, as demonstrated by the disappointing outcomes of the recent COP26 conference in Glasgow. “The annual show’s over,” commented Professor Marc Chesney, Chair of the Centre of Competence for Sustainable Finance at Zurich University. “There wasn’t much in the way of suspense at this global non-event. As always, most of the high-ranking government delegates were positive about results, claiming that the “Glasgow climate pact” meets the COP’s agenda to “keep alive” (apparently on a drip) the objective to limit the temperature increase to 1.5°C by the end of this century, when what we should be doing is achieving this goal instead of keeping it on life support! At every one of these meetings, the media turn on the spotlight and the mountain gives birth to a mouse.”
“It’s time to say, enough” - António Guterres, UN Secretary General
The parties to these agreements urge each other to apply decisions they fail to implement themselves, primarily for economic reasons, transforming climate action into climate inaction. “The six years since the Paris Climate Agreement have been the six hottest years on record,” warned António Guterres, United Nations Secretary General, at the opening of the COP26 talks. “Our addiction to fossil fuels is pushing humanity to the brink. It’s time to say, enough. Enough of brutalising biodiversity. Enough of killing ourselves with carbon. Enough of treating nature like a toilet. Enough of burning and drilling and mining our way deeper. We are digging our own graves.”
There is still hope
The importance of the private sector’s role in stemming climate change cannot be overstated, which is where initiatives by watch brands take on their full significance. Part of an economy — that of Switzerland — that relies on exports for 65% of its wealth creation, the watch industry sells 95% of its production on international markets. Not only do these global markets provide customers; they also supply essential raw materials in the form of metals and precious stones. As the country’s third largest export industry, watchmaking’s economic impact goes well beyond national borders. In its 2019 Sustainable Development Report, Germany’s Bertelsmann foundation named Switzerland as one of the states imposing the highest negative effects on other countries’ ability to achieve SDGs. Nor has watchmaking been spared criticism, this time in a 2018 report by WWF whose title couldn’t be clearer: “A precious transition – Demanding more transparency and responsibility in the watch and jewellery sector”. How much has changed, three years down the line? “Overall, not much has happened,” regrets Damian Oettli at WWF Switzerland. “The watch industry still appears to be stuck in the 1970s or 80s. Responsible sourcing of raw materials is the most urgent topic that needs to be addressed by the watch and jewellery sector. Some initiatives are trying to tackle the social and environmental impacts of mining but often traceability itself is the problem. Plus these initiatives account for just a small share of globally mined gold.”
Watches and Culture has made sustainable development its theme for the year.
While these initiatives, and their number has grown these past years, merit our full attention, they are not the subject of these lines whose purpose is to underscore the urgency that has made sustainable development the theme for this year at Watches and Culture. Over the coming months, this branch of the Fondation de la Haute Horlogerie, dedicated to promoting excellence in watchmaking, will be putting sustainable development at the heart of the conversation, specifically in relation to the watch industry, to then outline solutions. Setting the ball rolling is the Watch Forum. This one-day event will stocktake the current situation and look specifically at those issues requiring immediate and concrete action from watch brands. Through its own www.watchesandculture.org website and through its different initiatives, Watches and Culture intends to accompany the industry on its journey towards sustainability.