Being Green Is Latest Style for Watchmakers
New York Times, May 24, 2009
NEW YORK — When it comes to sustainability, a mechanical watch is a model machine. Given the proper care, an automatic or manual-wind timepiece can run for generations on clean kinetic energy created by the simple act of swinging an arm or winding a gear.
The watch industry, however, is a different story. Manufacturing generates carbon emissions and wastewater laced with hydrocarbon-based lubricants. The Swiss government helps mitigate the potential damage by enforcing strict environmental standards; but those do not cover the scores of Swiss brands quietly fabricating their components in China.
Nor do they prevent the purchase of leather straps from tanning factories, notorious for their pollution quotient, or the use of precious metals that are mined at great cost to the earth.
Conscious of their reputations, prestige watch manufacturers are increasingly beefing up their green credentials by building eco-conscious factories and sponsoring initiatives that make clear their commitment to the cause.
“This is the way the industry and the world are going,” said James D. Malcolmson, contributing watch editor at Robb Report, a luxury lifestyle magazine. “But watch companies have to be authentic in the way they attach themselves to the green movement.”
Wyler Genève came to the same conclusion last year, when it introduced the industry’s first carbon neutral watch, a G.M.T. model certified by the CarbonNeutral Co., based in London, which manages two carbon offset projects on behalf of the brand: a reforestation program in the Brittany region of France and a methane capture project at a derelict coal mine in Pennsylvania. The initiative complements a companywide carbon neutral strategy begun by Wyler Genève in 2007.
“We wanted to demonstrate that a small company could do its part,” said Ryan St. George, the managing director. “I’m almost surprised more companies aren’t doing it because it’s relatively simple and doesn’t have a huge impact on cash flow.”
Mr. St. George said that certifying the company was considerably easier than certifying the watch, since Wyler Genève buys its components from outside manufacturers that it does not control.
“One of the ongoing questions is where does their responsibility end in terms of their footprint?” said Neil Braun, chief executive of CarbonNeutral. “If you’re going to claim carbon neutrality for a specific product, you have to claim it for components in your product but do you go back to your suppliers’ suppliers? To the raw materials?”
The complexity of that endeavor may be one reason why so few Swiss brands have followed suit. Rather, many have adopted ultrasophisticated measures to reduce their impact on the environment.
Rolex, for example, recently upgraded its facility in Plan-les-Ouates, near Geneva, installing rooftop gardens designed to capture rainwater and glass facades to optimize the penetration of natural light. Jaeger-Le Coultre began a bus service for workers at its factory in Le Sentier, in the Jura region of Switzerland; along with a car-pooling program, it helps keep 270 cars off the road each year, saving carbon emissions equivalent to an estimated three million kilometers, or nearly two million miles, of driving.
Certified carbon neutral two years ago, IWC helps its employees to calculate their personal carbon footprint and then offset it by contributing money to a climate project, to which the company adds a 50 percent matching contribution.
Giving a more public face to these efforts, the same brands have thrown millions of marketing dollars behind partnerships with celebrity environmental causes.
Audemars Piguet pioneered the concept in 1992, when it honored the 20th anniversary of its iconic Royal Oak model by creating the Audemars Piguet Foundation, dedicated to forest conservation.
“We wanted to create something that would last — not just a big event,” said Jasmine Audemars, head of the foundation. “Eco-consciousness was not very fashionable then. The Swiss were very indifferent.”