How Can the Watch Industry Be Greener?

The Swiss watch industry seems to be intensifying its commitment to fight climate change.

Last month, Cartier and Kering — the Paris-based luxury group that owns the watchmakers Girard-Perregaux and Ulysse Nardin — teamed with the Responsible Jewellery Council, a London-based organization that sets sustainability standards for the industry, to announce a campaign open to all jewelry and watch companies willing to commit to an ambitious set of environmental and social responsibility goals.

Known as the Watch and Jewelry Initiative 2030, the effort reflects the drumbeat of voices inside the trade calling for a more urgent response to the climate crisis. Collectively, they appear to be asking the same question: How can the industry be greener?

Here, 10 people familiar with the luxury watch business — including content creators, collectors, horology experts and an industrial ecologist — offer their ideas. Their answers were edited and condensed.

Co-founder of the “Scottish Watches” podcast, Glasgow

Whenever we talk on the show, I like to slap the Apple Watch around a bit because it’s endangered technology — it will need to be replaced in another two to three years. And it’s got a lithium battery. An automatic watch or a hand-wound watch that uses minute amounts of lubricant — that’s the way forward versus battery powered watches, which have a shelf life of one or two generations.

But how the mechanical industry could be greener is a tricky question. Sometimes, I look at it from a realistic point of view, and other times from a romantic point of view. The romantic idea is that everybody should look after the planet and do their bit, but the reality is, with larger brands, they’re all about the luxury aspect — they want to give you the massive polished veneer box that maybe isn’t from a sustainable forest but it’s a presentation box. And it’s not just the material that goes into the box but how they transport it — all the fuel they use for the trucks and ships that take it from the warehouse to the retailer. But still, compared to the waste humans produce on a daily or weekly basis, it’s so insignificant.

Watch journalist and brand consultant, Basel, Switzerland

At the end of the day, demand for greener products, perhaps especially with these things that are not completely necessary, has to come from consumers. Now when we go buy fish, we ask where it’s caught, right? And a lot of us avoid the horrendously grown Norwegian salmon. Or just like it became a must 15 years ago to start asking how diamonds came to you to make sure they weren’t blood diamonds, we should start asking about the gold in our watches.

Once the demand really kicks in, everybody makes the change. I’m also not opposed to legislation, which could really speed things up. I’m Swedish, after all — listen to Greta [Thunberg]!

Executive director of the Horological Society of New York

Watches are relatively climate-conscious products, but the business travel that often goes along with the promotion and sale of them is not. One way that the watch industry could be greener is by reducing unnecessary business travel. Pre-Covid, it was common for watch brands to fly journalists from around the world to witness the debut of a new watch. These days, video conferencing has become much more acceptable. We don’t need to completely stop all business travel, but a hybrid approach would be better for us all.

Watch and jewelry content creator, Dubai, United Arab Emirates

As a vegetarian who is trying to become completely vegan, my No. 1 request would be to stop seeing watches made with animal leather straps. First of all, there is the undeniable cruelty in obtaining leather from the animal, which seems entirely unnecessary especially when there are so many alternatives today that are eco-conscious.

Secondly, raising animals for leather requires huge amounts of feed, pastureland, water and fossil fuels, not to mention the toxic chemicals involved in the production of leather. With so many clean alternatives in the market today, the watch industry has a lot to gain by making these changes.

Vintage Rolex dealer and co-founder of the watch auction site Loupe This, Berkeley, Calif.

Before I got into watches, I was working in the computer recycling business and one of the mantras for my company was that the best way of recycling is reusing. From a reuse standpoint, a pre-owned watch is an interesting thing.

And look at mining: There’s all this talk about conflict stones and whatnot. The truth is a lot of diamonds set in watches are so tiny, the intrinsic value is quite minimal. Why would you not use lab-created stones? There are people on both sides of that issue, but it’s a question worth asking.

Harvard University student, collector and co-host of “The Waiting List,” a watch podcast, Vancouver

I recently commissioned a piece from the independent watchmaker Kari Voutilainen and I requested that he make it out of recycled material. Earlier this year, he introduced the 28SC SB, which is his flagship model. It’s the first of that model to feature a central seconds. They introduced it in a new case material, AISI 316L grade 4441 steel, and it’s basically a solar forged steel that is 100 percent recyclable and recycled itself, which reduces the carbon footprint.

You kill two birds with one stone: It’s recycled and you get a great quality steel in the sense that it doesn’t even scratch that easily. Everything green aside, it’s just cool. The industry needs more watchmakers to try new things like that. How cool would it be if all these brands were to put out models made out of recycled material?

Sustainability consultant with Ardevie & Kaaviar public relations agencies, Berlin

What brands now seem to understand is that investing in some tree-planting projects is no longer enough. The next generation of consumers (and some now) demand better than a nice product — the brand they buy from needs to be meaningful.

Every single department needs to get on board, especially top management, and every decision taken from now on should include sustainability in the conversation, from peoples’ well-being to inclusivity, data management, servers, energy consumption, packaging, shipping, materials used, etc. What they need to look out for is to not fall into greenwashing. For example, replacing leather with vegan leather is a good idea unless the alternative uses hundreds of thousands of gallons of water for production and is shipped from across the world.

Actor (“City on a Hill,” “One Night in Miami”), watch enthusiast and trustee of the Horological Society of New York

It starts with manufacturing practices. When producing parts and products, waste reduction methods can be applied in ways that substantially target green milestones. When it comes to packaging, a lot of wood, paper, cardboard, plastic, etc., is used. Considering that over 1.2 billion watches are produced per year, standardizing the usage of recycled materials to produce the packaging could immensely reduce the pollutive effects of our industry.

Executive vice president, Watches of Switzerland Group, New York

Despite outward appearances, the actual manufacture of mechanical timepieces is fairly green because watches are designed to be repaired, and they are crafted from high-quality materials that are made to last. Using more sustainable materials in watch design, as well as in packaging, also creates positive impact and reduces waste. Lastly, the beauty of a fine quality mechanical watch is that even after it has served its purpose with the initial owner, it can have a second or third life as a pre-owned timepiece.

Research scholar at the Yale School of the Environment and editor in chief of the Journal of Industrial Ecology, New Haven, Conn.

The best thing that people who can afford a luxury watch can do is fly less, by a long shot. And especially don’t fly in private planes or in first or business class. The airplane, more or less, expends the same amount of fuel regardless of where you’re sitting. But if you’re in first class, you’re displacing people from seats, and you’ll need another plane. So you’re just making things even worse when you fly high-end.

The other question is: How many watches do people need? My impression is when you get into high-end watches, people like to have a couple of these things. That’s excessive consumption. Could you say to the companies that manufacture watches (and I’m sure they’d hate this): Would you tell people to only buy one, to be sustainable?