When I was asked to write an article about luxury watches and sustainability, I only agreed on the condition that I could also take a critical approach to the subject. Rather than sing praises and give free advertisements to various brands, I want to try to deal with the topic as fairly and objectively as possible. For this to succeed, it’s necessary not only to look at the issue through the eyes (or loupe) of a watch enthusiast; we also need to discuss what sustainability actually means for goods classified as “luxury.” After that, we can circle back to our primary interest: to shed light on how brands are committed to sustainability (or how they instrumentalize ostensible sustainability for profit).
Sustainability: Everyday Goods vs. Luxury Items
Sustainability is on everyone’s minds for well-known reasons. Hardly any industry can afford to ignore the issue; at the very least, they must give the appearance of addressing it. Even as a consumer, it’s hard to avoid the subject. The best example from everyday life: the supermarket. In addition to the classic organic labels, a whole host of seals and full-throated promises of sustainability compete for the attention of a conscience-stricken and affluent clientele. With every purchase, it seems, you can do your part to contribute to a more sustainable – or less sustainable – economy. Every grocery receipt is a ballot slip for or against a particular product, the company behind it, and their environmental and ethical framework.
In the case of everyday consumer goods, we are instinctively aware of the importance of a more sustainable kind of production in whatever form that should take. Unlike a few decades ago, we are increasingly sensitive to our consumption habits and their wide-reaching implications, from the precarious working conditions in the fast-fashion industry (and the enormous environmental pollution associated with it) to the conditions in industrial livestock farming.
As for luxury goods, this trend has arrived rather late and, in some cases, not at all. The average person doesn’t treat themselves to luxury every day because it’s not exactly cheap. In return for your investment, you get a piece of exclusivity; rare and expensive materials; elaborate, handcrafted production; an appealing presentation thanks to elegant packaging; and sometimes all of this is even rounded out with a one-of-a-kind shopping experience in a glossy, glamorous showroom. The question of climate-friendly production or the use of recycled materials is not exactly the first thing that comes to the buyer’s mind. On the contrary: A lavish or even excessive use of precious materials is often seen as a sign of quality rather than of fault in the luxury sector.
At first glance, luxury and sustainability seem to be mutually exclusive since luxury, in its essence, is an unnecessary extravagance. The most sustainable purchase, after all, is and remains the one that you don’t make at all. While this approach doesn’t always work well with food and clothing, it is easily applicable to luxury goods. So here’s the question for the sustainability-conscious buyer who nevertheless doesn’t want to forgo a bit of luxury every once and a while: Is sustainable luxury possible, and if so, what might it look like?
Sustainability includes numerous other aspects in addition to better-known issues like sustainable resource use and climate protections. The United Nations, for example, has identified 17 different aspects in its 2030 sustainability goals. Each watch brand has its own approach to the topic and devotes itself to different facets of sustainability. In this article, we take a closer look at some of these concepts and discuss examples from the industry. For the sake of clarity, I have tried to define a few categories and highlight specific manufacturers that exemplify these approaches
Moving Toward Greater Sustainability: What are brands doing?
The Direct Approaches: Resources, Energy, and Production Conditions
Perhaps the most obvious approach to making a product more sustainable is eliminating or minimizing the consumption of resources. Watchmakers can’t do away with raw materials entirely, but for those components that brands cannot or do not want to do without, there is the option of sourcing demonstrably more sustainable materials than previous standards. This means not only taking things like the environmental impact of mining and processing or the recycled content of the raw materials into account but also considering ethical issues, such as the working conditions through which the materials are obtained.
At the very least, numerous watch brands have turned to recycling. For luxury watches, recycling typically refers to accessories and packaging materials rather than classic watch materials themselves (while steel, generally speaking, has a high recycled content, it’s a very energy-intensive process). The list of brands that offer straps or boxes made of recycled materials is quite long.
IWC, for instance, sells paper-based straps, while Alpina and Breitling utilize plastic recycled from fishing nets left in the ocean. For example, Breitling uses the brand-name fiber Econyl made from the aforementioned ocean plastic for its bracelets. On the other hand, Alpina has teamed up with the microbrand Gyre Watch to craft a case made from ocean plastic and additional glass fibers for the Seastrong Gyre Automatic.
The opulent packaging of luxury watches has undergone some sustainability-conscious upgrades at several companies. For example, British direct-to-consumer brand Christopher Ward has been packaging its watches in compact slipcases made of largely biodegradable materials like wood fiberboard, bamboo, and cotton since 2020. Breitling, for their part, offers a watch box made from 100% recycled PET bottles. If desired, the customer can still opt for the “classic” box, in which case a sales representative is supposed to appeal to the buyer’s conscience and encourage a compensatory donation to an environmental organization. I personally would be very interested to know what this sales talk sounds like in practice and how well it goes over with customers.
The most radically recycled watch is likely the Panerai Submersible e-LAB-ID, a concept watch presented in 2021 with an advertised recycled content of 98.6%. Even the watch’s sapphire crystal and luminous material are recycled, and countless other detailed solutions had to be coordinated with suppliers to achieve the nearly 100% recycling rate. Unsurprisingly, the watch will remain a small series limited to 30 pieces.
With all the measures described so far, it raises the question of whether the replacement of a few components or the production of strictly limited concept watches actually advance environmental protection in any meaningful way or whether these are more or less symbolic gestures. Clearly, one can easily make the “luxury is superfluous” argument and condemn a recycled wristband as an act of greenwashing an already dispensable product. A less cynical judgment might acknowledge that every incremental improvement does its part. After all, even if we are aware of the expendability of luxuries, if we’re honest, completely abandoning all luxury goods is an implausible scenario both today and in the near future.
As I already mentioned, there is much more to sustainability than just the sustainable use of resources and climate protection. Particularly in the case of luxury goods, some of which use precious metals and gemstones sourced from politically unstable countries with precarious working conditions, many consumers are beginning to focus more critically on the question of how to reconcile these ethical issues with luxury consumption. The Chopard brand, which has its roots in the jewelry industry, positioned itself accordingly years ago and relies on the Fairmined seal when purchasing gold. Similar to those in the fashion industry, this seal goes beyond lip service. Next to impeccable traceability, Fairmined works to enable smaller mining operations to access the market while simultaneously improving their working conditions and development opportunities. While this seal is also concerned with environmental protection, its focus is clearly on people and labor conditions. In addition to Fairmined Gold, there is also the extended Fairmined Eco Gold seal, which prescribes stricter conditions regarding the use of chemicals in the extraction process.
Regarding the production of luxury watches, we should also remember that many manufactures secure skilled jobs in high-wage countries, contribute significant added value to the country, and provide training and pay business taxes.
Sustainable Energy Use
Energy conservation and the use of renewable electricity are also essential (albeit less tangible) building blocks for sustainable production. Energy consumption already plays a role in resource extraction and processing, as it influences the carbon footprint of the purchased raw materials. Finally, a watch manufacturer also needs energy for its machines and to heat its buildings, which can come from fossil or renewable sources.
Especially when constructing new buildings, watch manufacturers have an opportunity to design the building and machinery with energy efficiency in mind. This is what has happened, for example, in the last decade at Panerai and IWC, whose new buildings use an ingenious system of heat recovery. Both companies are also expanding their efforts to reduce their overall carbon footprints by optimizing the energy consumption of their stores, for instance, through efficient lighting concepts.
The Indirect Approach: Supporting Sustainability Initiatives and Offsets
Similar to planting trees for every crate of beer sold or offsetting carbon emissions by supporting various climate protection projects when booking a flight, many watch brands are also implementing an indirect approach when dealing with the issue of sustainability. The message goes something along the lines of: “We, unfortunately, can’t make these products without impacting the environment, but what we can do is support those who dedicate their efforts to the environment.”
A classic choice among indirect approaches is to support organizations that protect the oceans or to hire renowned nature photographers and researchers to serve as brand ambassadors. When listing these initiatives, it’s easy to get them mixed up: Blancpain and Ocean Commitment, Seiko with Save the Ocean, Oris with more than ten initiatives and researchers, Carl F. Bucherer with the Manta Trust, Breguet with Race for Water… You have undoubtedly come across a similar collaboration or special model associated with these ocean-saving efforts within a brand’s catalog.
To judge how serious a brand is with its donations, it would be helpful to find out more about the relationship between the financial expenditures invested into these causes and the total proceeds generated by the campaign. This way, you would be able to distinguish a company’s serious commitment from PR activities intended only to boost a brand’s public image. Still, the same rule applies in this case, too: Doing something is better than ignoring the issue of sustainability altogether.
Pre-Owned Watches: The Key to Sustainability?
Watch fans and manufacturers alike know that mechanical watches symbolize durability and are popular heirlooms – indeed, manufacturers exploit this in their marketing. Patek Philippe, for instance, has been playing on this theme for over a quarter of a century in its iconic campaign with no sign that they plan on changing their approach.
Now, one might get the idea that the solution to the question of sustainability is obvious: We should exclusively buy used watches and, thus, save money, energy, and emissions. This argument may make sense at first glance, but it falls apart when you take a second look. While there are more than enough pre-owned watches, they have to enter the market somehow, and for that, again, someone has to have purchased them brand new. Though people often and gladly turn to used models, the primary motivation behind this is the price or the availability. If the source of new models dries up, this hypothetically “sustainable” supply of pre-owned watches will quickly reach its limits.
In a 2020 article, the New York Times posed the question “Sustainability in Watches: Do You Really Care?”, thereby addressing a core problem of the sustainability issue. Surveys repeatedly show that consumers do indeed care about sustainability. Yet while most respondents to these surveys profess their support for organic products, these items make up only a fraction of the food they actually buy. The situation is identical for responsibly produced clothing. The name of this phenomenon is the “attitude-behavior gap.” Attitude and action are often at odds. That’s why it seems hypocritical to end this article with a sermon on morality, knowing full well that we often fail to live up to the standards we set for ourselves.
Earlier in this article, I asked what brands are doing for sustainability. What’s missing from this question is the second party involved: the consumer. What can we, the buyers, do?
Making the right or “wrong” choices when buying watches will neither save the world nor bring about its demise. Like any other industry, however, watchmaking cannot shirk its responsibility, despite its small global share in overall environmental impact. The same is true for the buyer. I would even go so far as to say that this applies even more to buyers of luxury watches since those who can afford such items are usually in a privileged situation.
The responsibility of the privileged buyer extends over their entire lifetime and beyond their passion for watches. Therefore, considering the measures discussed above when buying a watch can be only one of many building blocks in the larger project of trying to lead a more sustainable life. The aspects discussed in this article can serve as a guide if you want to inform yourself about individual brands’ sustainability strategies.
What we should never forget is that manufacturers are by no means the only ones responsible for providing us with sustainable watches. The customer bears just as much responsibility and should always examine their buying patterns from the point of view of sustainability. Between total abstinence from luxury goods and blind, wasteful consumption, there will always be enough room to maneuver and do better.