Why Swiss watches need to become “greener”

Watch the parts waiting to be sorted, shredded and then recycled. swissinfo.ch/Céline Stegmüller

Even if they happily say they sell products for eternity, Swiss watchmakers are only at the beginning of a real reflection on the environmental impact of their industry. In the eyes of the young German economist Robert Schacherbauer, it is time for sustainability to become a key element of the Swiss Made label. Maintenance.

This content was posted on August 25, 2022 – 09:10

An economics student at Zeppelin University in Friedrichshafen, on the shores of Lake Constance, Robert Schacherbauer (22) dedicated his bachelor’s thesis to sustainability in the Swiss watch industry. During his eight months of research, during which he made several trips to Switzerland, he met many industry experts and insiders.

His conclusion is clear: the watch industry still has a lot to do to improve the transparency and traceability of its products. To convince the new generation of consumers, who are very inclined to make responsible and ecologically correct purchases, the branch must now completely rethink its value creation model, he believes.

Robert Schacherbauer is a German student interested in sustainability issues in the luxury and design sectors. Copyright 2021 Nicolas Buehringer N.buehringer@gmail.com

swissinfo.ch: Luxury watches are built to last. Why should Swiss watchmakers care about sustainability?

Robert Schacherbauer: It is true that certain factors make a luxury wristwatch inherently sustainable: it does not run on fossil fuels, it can be worn by several generations of individuals, and it draws its energy from a simple twist of the crown or a flick of the wrist.

Still, one has to wonder if the industry is doing enough. The concrete environmental footprint of its production is still unknown and the origin of the raw materials it uses is often unknown. New consumer expectations, as well as the pressure exerted by climate change imperatives, are an opportunity to rethink the industry’s status quo.

Why don’t big brands put more emphasis on fighting climate change and protecting the environment in their ads?

The luxury watch industry is built around the promise of international travel, exclusive sports and hedonistic values. Protecting the environment and obtaining recycled raw materials is not, to put it simply, in vogue.

It should be noted, however, that the industry is gently rethinking its business strategy to move towards a more sustainable approach. The same goes for communication on the subject, which is still in its infancy. This is also one of the disadvantages of the luxury industry: it takes time to adapt to current trends, because it is based on old success factors.

Personally, I see the future of the luxury industry in reconciling luxury with sustainability and redefining notions of luxury and heritage. According to projections, people born after the year 2000 will represent 70% of the potential market for personal luxury products in the world by 2025. With the arrival of this generation Z, the sector must fundamentally question itself.

In late 2008, the WWF published a devastating report for the Swiss watch industry, stating that “most companies do not seem to care about the environment and are not transparent”. Have things changed since then?

Things have changed in the last four years, but I cannot say whether this is a consequence of this report or not. The attitude of consumers and employees in the watch industry has evolved considerably. Recently, some brands have gone to great lengths to incorporate environmental sustainability into their products, but it remains difficult to change well-oiled industrial circuits.

In what areas does the watch industry in particular need to improve?

The most critical areas relate to the sourcing of raw materials – precious metals in particular – and supply chain transparency. Efforts in this area are crucial because many manufacturers are still unable – or unwilling – to communicate on this issue.

Many of them do not track the origin of the raw materials they use and blindly trust their suppliers to operate in accordance with the brand’s sustainability principles. In general, the sector lacks transparency. It often operates in a climate marked by secrecy and seeks to preserve its competitive advantage by not disclosing the names of its suppliers and partners.

According to a study by the auditing firm Deloitte dedicated to the Swiss watch industry in 2021, 72% of brands are investing in sustainable solutions to reduce their carbon footprint and meet consumer demands. What is the role of “greenwashing” among all these initiatives?

Greenwashing is a problem, as it is in many industries now. In the watch industry, this phenomenon often appears unconsciously. Brands are often unaware of the true impact of their initiatives. This also manifests itself in the fact that it is impossible to assess the environmental impact of a mechanical watch.

Currently, most initiatives focus on making bracelets from recycled materials. The idea of ​​recycling waste is good in principle, but if the environmental cost of recycling is greater than producing a fabric bracelet, the brand should ask itself if it’s really worth it.

Many startups, more agile than the big brands, offer innovative watches and processes that aim to reduce their environmental impact. Can they serve as catalysts for the rest of the industry?

The watchmaking start-up ecosystem is growing. New watchmakers are embarking on the circular economy and consciously developing their value proposition around sustainability. But they have yet to demonstrate that this path pays off in the long run, both in terms of competitive advantage and commercialization at scale. The first products developed by these startups show that the orientation towards sustainable production has positive effects in reducing costs and increasing efficiency. This is a good sign for the future viability of these brands.

As a conclusion of your research, you request an adaptation of the Swiss Made label. For what reasons?

About 95% of all luxury watches sold worldwide bear the Swiss Made stamp. At a time when the time display function was replaced by the smartphone, technical quality is no longer an essential criterion.

Today, the Swiss Made label is primarily aimed at consumer perception. The industry has the opportunity to redefine the notion of this label and enrich it with sustainability criteria. Incorporating sustainability requirements into the law would address the lack of political action related to value creation and material origin.

What do you really offer?

There are already some proposals on how sustainability can be integrated into the Swiss Made label: instead of requiring 60% of a watch’s added value to be made in Switzerland, production should be limited, for example, to Europe to support relocation and limit consumption and waste of resources.

The origin and extraction process of raw materials must be traceable, and transparency must become a requirement throughout the value chain. Other options include regulatory requirements for zero carbon production, such as using energy from solar panels on factory roofs or recycling factory heat, a by-product of watchmaking.

According to JTI standards

According to JTI standards

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