Over the last decade or so, terms like “sustainability,” “eco-friendly,” and “positive social impact” have found their way into the marketing vernacular of many luxury brands. Once seen as popular buzz words to help sell products, these formerly hollow concepts of conservation and corporate social responsibility are now starting to be backed by serious action. This is in large part due to the shift in buying power towards new generations of consumers – namely Millennials and Generation Z. Often referred to as conscious consumers, they have a keen interest in the environmental and social impact of their purchase decisions and seek out brands that share similar values to their own.
That’s all well and good, but why should brands care about what these generations think? Well, according to a report by McKinsey & Company, the affluent members of these groups now drive 85% of global luxury sales growth. This tremendous buying power, coupled with an overall global shift toward a more sustainable way of living, means luxury brands have to adapt if they want to survive. Surprisingly, high-end watch brands, who are notoriously slow to react to changing market conditions, have been near the forefront of this movement since its inception.
IWC Schaffhausen, for example, has demonstrated a strong commitment to sustainable business practices for over a decade. In recognition of this, the company has received numerous awards, including the Walpole Award for Excellence in Corporate Social Responsibility in 2012, Best CSR in Switzerland by Capital Finance International in 2014, and the Bronze Award in sustainability at the 2017 International CSR Excellence Awards. In 2018, it became the first Swiss luxury watch company to produce a sustainability report in line with the Global Reporting Initiative Standards. Both its Schaffhausen-based headquarters and nearby manufacturing center, opened in 2018, run on renewable energy and boast a number of other initiatives geared toward environmental sustainability. In addition, IWC uses recycled gold where possible and sources from a refinery powered by renewable energy.
Of course, your average watch lover probably doesn’t know any of that. They are likely more familiar with IWC’s work with a number of charitable organizations that focus on positive global impact. These include the Laureus Sport for Good Foundation and the Antoine de Saint-Exupéry Youth Foundation; the latter has yielded the popular, and increasingly collectible, Le Petit Prince (Little Prince) editions. While IWC might be the poster child for sustainability in the luxury watch industry, it is by no means the only one.
Luxury watch and jewelry maker Chopard embarked on its self-described “Journey to Sustainable Luxury” in 2013. The company has been a member of the Responsible Jewellery Council since 2010 and has maintained RJC Code of Practices (COP) certification since 2012. The COP covers areas such as human rights, labor rights, environmental protection, and product disclosure. In terms of sustainability, however, the company is perhaps best known for its commitment to sourcing 100% ethical gold, which it does via two traceable routes:
- Artisanal freshly mined gold from small-scale mines participating in the Swiss Better Gold Association (SBGA), Fairmined, and Fairtrade schemes and
- RJC Chain of Custody gold, through their partnership with RJC-certified refineries.
In 2017, the company was the single largest buyer of Fairmined gold. Since then, it has purchased more than 85% of all Fairmined gold produced and has used it in the production of a number of its stunning watches.
It’s not just the major players that have incorporated sustainability into their business models, though. Niche brand Linde Werdelin was recently named the Circular Economy Pioneer of the Year by Positive Luxury. For years, the company has been working toward reducing its environmental footprint by focusing on making design and production processes more efficient and pivoting to 100% recyclable and reusable packaging. Perhaps the biggest turning point for the small company, however, was the introduction of its in-house platform for pre-owned watches.
Linde Werdelin was one of the first luxury watch brands to pioneer this concept, which has since been adopted by a number of other brands, including Audemars Piguet, MB&F, and Urwerk. It allows for a significant extension of a watch’s lifetime. By offering certified pre-owned watches that have been serviced and restored to near-original condition, the company can further reduce manufacturing volume and its associated energy consumption and environmental impact.
Broadly speaking, this is the concept underlying the circular economy – eliminate waste by continually reusing the same resources. It is one of the reasons why the pre-owned luxury watch market has seen a surge in interest over the past few years. Robust construction, serviceable and replaceable components, and the use of durable materials mean that many luxury watches will outlast their owners. In fact, we know this to be the case simply by looking at the vintage market. Watches that are 50-60 years old (or more) are still suitable for daily wear and in some cases, more appealing than current offerings.
Of course, you don’t have to be that extreme about it. There are numerous examples of models that are only 5-10 years old but still offer the same or similar specifications to their current counterparts. Rolex is a prime example of this. The iconic Submariner Date ref. 116610LN has been in the Rolex line-up since 2010. Sure, most people think an upgrade is well overdue – and many had expected this year – but even then, it will most likely come in the form of a new movement and some minor changes. It’s not necessarily worth the environmental impact if you’re happy to buy pre-owned. Plus, you’ll get your watch a heck of a lot quicker.
That’s not to say that luxury watch brands are suddenly going to stop making new watches, of course – far from it. We will, however, continue to see a growing focus on sustainability, as well as support for charitable initiatives in this area; think of Breitling’s partnerships with Ocean Conservancy and Outerknown, for example. It is also likely that more and more brands will announce their own certified pre-owned initiatives, as well as more responsible manufacturing and supply models to better match demand on the market.
After all, that is what the consumer wants, and the brands seem to be listening.