Sustainability in Watches: Do You Really Care?

Sustainability, a term increasingly used to describe the practice of environmentally conscious manufacturing, has become a watchmaking buzzword. But even as luxury watch brands tout their green initiatives, the question remains: Do consumers actually care?

According to some analysts, increasingly, they do. Across the luxury universe, “people in sales didn’t have the responsibility question three years ago and now they do,” said Erwan Rambourg, global co-head of consumer and retail research at HSBC.

But evidence of consumer appetite for sustainably produced watches has been mixed.

“As watches are luxury items, by definition they aren’t a necessity, so I absolutely expect the manufacturing process to have a strong focus on sustainability,” said Adrian Barker, the British watch enthusiast who is host of the YouTube watch channel Bark & Jack. “I’m shocked when watch companies announce they are only now using recycled materials for their packaging.”

Others said claims of sustainability were a veneer. “How is a recycled or sustainably produced watch strap on a production run of 500 watches going to impact the environment in any way?” said Justin Mastine-Frost, a Toronto-based watch collector and editor in chief of the watch forum WatchUSeek.

And when presented with a luxury watch brand built around sustainability, customers apparently failed to respond.

Baume was introduced by Richemont in 2018 as an online-only operation based on sustainability and customization, but earlier this year it was absorbed into Baume et Mercier, another Richemont brand.

Oliver Müller, founder of the Swiss-based watch consulting firm LuxeConsult, estimated that Baume, with prices from $500 to $1,500, had sold just 1,500 watches. (Richemont brands do not release sales figures.)

“Baume was a total flop sales-wise,” he said. “The price point was way too high for a concept meant to challenge the likes of entry-level brands such as Daniel Wellington. The concept of combining sustainability with cool design and trying to appeal to a younger generation was excellent, but does this generation want to pay a premium for sustainability? Unfortunately, I think those clients in Generations Y and Z don’t.”

Rolf Studer, co-chief executive of Oris, a brand known for its ecological orientation, said this was because they expected it. Before the pandemic, he invited students to the company’s headquarters in Hölstein, Switzerland, to discuss the topic. Sustainability “wasn’t something that’s a bonus for them,” he said. “They expect it; it’s not a reward.”

But David Chaumet, chief executive of Baume et Mercier, said the company remained committed to creating sustainable watches. “Soon, the question will not be how much recycled material you use, but why you’re not using any at all,” he said.

As Switzerland does not have any environmental regulations on watch manufacturing within its borders, “we’ve never been pushed,” said Jean-Marc Pontroué, Panerai’s chief executive. “Not by government, like the automotive industry. In our business, we can live the next 10 years without doing anything” to manufacture watches more sustainably.

In April, Mr. Pontroué said, Panerai intends to introduce a luxury mechanical watch made entirely of recycled materials. “It’s purely personal. It’s a sense of responsibility,” he said.

Panerai is not alone. Bulgari, Ulysse Nardin, Breitling and Oris all have marketed new watches with recycling, upcycling or sustainability partnership stories this year.

Some brands said sustainability would future-proof their businesses. “Consumers are forming their instinctive reactions to brands long before they will ever be in a position to purchase them,” said Christoph Grainger-Herr, chief executive of IWC, which has made a big play of its environmental policies and was given the highest environmental rating of any Swiss watch brand by the WWF in a 2018 report. “The impression you make on a younger consumer is fundamentally important to build the right image, and hopefully that will pay off in years to come.”

And some felt the coronavirus pandemic had made consumers even more conscious of the environment.

“The trend has been accelerated by Covid,” said Jean-Christophe Babin, Bulgari’s chief executive. “Goodness becomes a more and more important factor for the final client choice, more than a specific product.”

ImageA Bulgari store in Chicago. The brand is working toward using blockchain technology to trace the supply chain of its products.
Credit…Charles Rex Arbogast/Associated Press

Mr. Pontroué said that, despite little on-the-ground evidence of consumer demand, the industry was approaching the point of no return. “I’ve never had one customer who has said they want to buy a Panerai because we started to make some efforts in sustainability,” he said. “But if you don’t do it, it will disqualify you from being involved in the game.”

Mr. Rambourg offered some general perspective. “There are very few Gretas, but they’re very vocal,” he said, referring to the climate activist Greta Thunberg. “Few consumers are asking for this, but they’re the youngest and the loudest. So you can have two attitudes as a brand: Either you hope it passes, or you start to invest because you know that those few vocal consumers today are the beginning of a wave.”

Because it was becoming an underlying expectation, some said sustainability would never be the first consideration in a luxury watch purchase. “I don’t think people buy a watch because it’s environmentally friendly; they buy it because it’s a great product,” said Patrick Pruniaux, chief executive of Ulysse Nardin, which this month announced a concept watch with a case made of recycled fishing nets.

Retailers said the same. “It’s not something people are mentioning when they’re coming in,” said David Hurley, executive vice president for Watches of Switzerland Group U.S.

But that didn’t mean they were ignoring the topic. Mr. Hurley said he had been training sales staff members to explain the environmental credentials of brands and their products to customers.

There are signs that this is already affecting revenues. While neither Watches of Switzerland nor Ulysse Nardin will disclose specifics, Mr. Hurley said sales of the brand — whose ambassadors include a great white shark — had doubled in his U.S. stores this year. “Sustainability is one of the factors,” he said.

Concerns about greenwashing — brands using environmental partnerships to appear more attractive to conscientious buyers — were once high. “If you look at sustainability, three years ago it was greenwashing, it was box-ticking,” said Mr. Rambourg of HSBC. “It was clear very few brands actually had a plan and a vision.”

Some brands, however, disputed that. “I’m not worried about being accused of greenwashing, because you cannot lie to the consumer,” said Georges Kern, Breitling’s chief executive. “You have such transparency with digital tools. You cannot hide. When your customer sees you’re lying, they will stop buying from you.” In October, Breitling announced its new watches would be presented in boxes made of upcycled plastic bottles.

Several now do have plans, and at least one includes digital tracking of its materials. For example, Mr. Babin said, Bulgari has been working with the Aura platform being developed by its parent company, LVMH Moët Hennessy Louis Vuitton, to use blockchain technology to trace the supply chain of its products.

Blockchain, used for tamper-proof storage of digital information, “will bring full transparency,” he said. “Many clients will want to know much more about what the product is made of.”

And in the end, some brands said, improving sustainability will help consumers to care. “When you’re selling an emotional product, you want to give customers something they can genuinely feel good about,” said Mr. Grainger-Herr of IWC.

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