Watchmakers Lead the Green Charge

Want a good example of an eco-friendly product? Look at your watch.

The watch industry has been a leader in the environmental movement, producing products and using procedures that are environmentally responsible.

For years, the primary environmental concern about watches was the silver-oxide batteries that power most quartz varieties (95 percent of all watches). They contain mercury, which can leak when a battery is replaced. The potential ecological impact of used batteries led to responsible watch technology.

The original green timepiece is the mechanical watch, wound by hand or wrist motion. Mechanicals’ availability has increased greatly in recent years, but they’re still just 5 percent of all watches.

Since the 1970s, however, research by Swiss and Japanese watchmakers has created two types of quartz watches with minimal impact on the environment: light- and motion-powered watches.

Light-powered watches use a tiny cell in the dial to convert light into electricity that goes into a capacitor or rechargeable battery. Watch brands like Casio, Junghans, and Pulsar have developed these. The leader is Citizen, a pioneer of the technology. Its Eco-Drive timepieces (with a permanent rechargeable lithium-ion cell) account for two-thirds of its U.S. sales, with 8 million sold in North America since the early 1990s. Eco-Drive is now Citizen’s cornerstone.

“Over the years, we’ve refined the technology and continued to introduce sophisticated designs,” says Laurence R. Grunstein, Citizen Watch of America president. “Most wearers don’t even know their elegant watch is an environmentally conscious product.” Eco-Drive, he notes, “has prevented the need for, and subsequent disposal of, over 10 million watch batteries in North America in the past decade.”

Mechanical/electronic watches (sometimes called auto-quartz) are powered by motion. The watch contains a tiny self-winding rotor that spins when the wrist moves, generating electricity that goes into a capacitor. The technology, developed 20 years ago, has been used by a number of brands. Seiko successfully pioneered the technique of converting motion into electrical energy, and its Kinetic technology has over 50 patents. Since the 1988 launch of its first commercial watch using it, Seiko has sold more than 8 million Kinetic watches worldwide. Some 30 percent of Seiko watches are now Kinetic (one of five Seiko watch products with Eco Mark certification by the Japan Environment Association). The newest generation is Seiko Kinetic Direct Drive, which also lets the wearer charge the watch by winding the crown.

Watchmakers in Europe and Japan, influenced by their homelands’ longtime environmental sensitivity, also led the way in responsible operations, especially recycling. In Switzerland, “awareness of ecologically correct behavior has been successfully promoted for many years,” notes Dr. Ronald Bernheim, president of Swiss watchmaker Mondaine. “Today, it’s a widespread civil attitude, and recycling is standard in households.”

Major Japanese watchmakers Seiko, Citizen, and Casio have had environmental protection policies for years. These include recycling and alternatives to batteries with mercury—long before these were banned by some U.S. states and the European Union in 2006—and they set long-term environmental goals for what Casio president Kazuo Kashio calls “a sustainable global society.” Citizen’s “Vision for the Environment in 2025” governs its corporate, business, production, and social activities. At Seiko, says Les Perry, executive vice president of Seiko Corp. of America, “We’ve focused on reducing waste, recycling, and other environmental directives for over four decades and strive each year to be more efficient and environmentally friendly, to go beyond national and global environmental guidelines.”

Timex, the biggest U.S. watch seller, has used packaging from recycled materials for decades and insisted its watches’ batteries be mercury free. The Norwegian family that controls Timex was “years ahead of the industry in such demands and rigorous in enforcing them,” says Lou Galie, senior vice president for research and strategic development.

Recycling became routine in the U.S. watch business in this decade, led by the American Watch Association, Jewelers of America, the American Watchmakers-Clockmakers Institute, individual watch companies, and retailers. A 2005 AWA/JA survey found 96 percent of used watch batteries are regularly collected and recycled.

“Waste management companies and other recyclers want their silver content,” notes Emilio Collado, AWA executive director. “They pay retailers a percentage of the silver’s value and make a profit on the rest. The batteries are recycled by companies approved by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. Retailers have an economic incentive to collect and recycle, and the environment prospers.”

Recycling isn’t limited to batteries. Mondaine in the early ’90s made the first watchcases of post-consumer recycled metal and was honored in 1993 with the international ecological Oko award at the annual World Economic Forum of world leaders in Davos, Switzerland. That helped raise worldwide consumer awareness of recycling.

Many watch companies are active in recycling wastepaper, cardboard, and other materials, providing bins for employee use, like Seiko, or making watch boxes from recycled materials, like Timex, or reducing packaging. Some use recyclable materials like titanium for sport watches.

Some watchmakers support national and global environment projects. The Audemars Piguet Foundation works to conserve forests worldwide and educate the next generation. Rolex sponsored the recent Arctic Arc expedition, the first scientific trek across the Arctic to aid understanding of global warming. Seiko is on the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, whose goals include conservation. Mondaine belongs to the Swiss Association for Environmentally Conscious Management.

IWC supports environmental activist David de Rothschild’s Adventure Ecology group, which spotlights urgent ecological problems. Citizen personnel, including its president and directors, participate in the annual Clean Mount Fuji campaign and various national environmental events, including tree planting and butterfly-protection projects.

Most watch companies agree that environmental responsibility starts at home. At Mondaine—winner of a recent Swiss prize for ecological management—president Ronald Bernheim says environmental responsibility is “very important to us inside the company—where it must start and matters most—and in product development and communication.” The company has drastically reduced packaging and paper printouts, and employees must dispose of paper waste in central recycling bins. Its buildings are well insulated, temperatures are tightly controlled, and computers and lighting—using energy-efficient bulbs—are turned off when not in use.

Mondaine uses longer-lasting, reusable (and recyclable) plastic trays and bins to transport parts and watches during assembly, between factories, and for shipments. “This allows visual quality control from production to distributor and reduces the space, volume, and weight of what’s transported, reducing fuel consumption,” says Bernheim. Watch boxes are made of recycled materials and can be reused to hold CDs, small tools, or cell phones.

Luxury watchmaker Audemars Piguet is using ecologically sound procedures to build its new headquarters facility in Le Brassus, Switzerland. It’s Switzerland’s first business building to win the government’s Minergie-Eco seal of approval for meeting all criteria to safeguard the environment and workers’ health. The complex uses wood-fired heating, not fossil fuels, and heat-recovery systems. Construction materials don’t contain substances harmful to health or the environment.

In La Chaux-de-Fonds, Switzerland, upscale watchmaker TAG Heuer’s headquarters is ecologically efficient, with the energy-saving architecture that allows natural light to flow throughout the building from the entrance to the roof via the elevator tubes and office windows.

Two other Swiss watchmakers—Wyler Genève and IWC—have radically cut carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and are certified carbon neutral. Wyler, whose corporate plan includes “respect the environment in all brand activities,” hired CarbonNeutral Co. of London to audit its Geneva headquarters in 2007. Its annual output is 30 tons of emissions. (Watch production, audited separately, will be announced soon.)

Wyler has shifted completely to renewable energy sources (80 percent water, 20 percent solar). All lights and equipment are turned off overnight and on weekends. Computers have LCD monitors (low-energy users). No plastic or paper cups are used. Paper, cardboard, bottles, and aluminum cans are recycled.

It replaced paper press kits with press information via extranet or reusable USB keys, and produced Carbon-Neutral business postcards (calculating and offsetting CO2 emissions for paper used, pages and copies printed, delivery, and shipments).

Wyler supports financially three CarbonNeutral-backed projects to offset remaining emissions: planting 30,000 trees (absorbing 10,000 tons of CO2 over 99 years) in France; small hydropower stations in China; and capturing methane gas from three shut German coal mines, erasing 380,500 tons of CO2.

Wyler also convinced organizers of the 2007 Paris-Beijing car race, for which it was timekeeper, to offset those CO2 emissions by supporting reforestation in Costa Rica. In November Wyler held its first CarbonNeutral event, launching its Zagato luxury watch. Every aspect—transport, catering, waste generated, energy consumed—was calculated and offset by more support for the China project.

Meanwhile, IWC has cut 750 tons of annual CO2 emissions in half since 2001, and aims to reduce emissions to 100 tons by 2010. It used environmentally responsible building techniques for new production wings at its headquarters in Schaffhausen, Switzerland, in 2001, significantly reducing CO2 emissions and keeping overall energy consumption constant for five years. IWC gets all electricity from hydroelectric energy and uses only hybrid, diesel, or other low-emissions vehicles as company cars. A high-efficiency filtration system removes hazardous contaminants from wastewater created by electroplating, polishing, and ultrasound cleaning.

IWC’s energy plant has a heat pump with a hydro-extractor to tap residual heat from the town’s sewers. Two groundwater-capture systems provide added cooling for buildings and machinery and backup for heating. Still coming: a rainwater recycling system for toilet flushing and 50 square meters of solar panels for hot water.

Wyler, Mondaine, and IWC encourage employees to commute using public transport, and, when feasible, use video conferencing instead of travel, and trains instead of airplanes, which emit 10 times more CO2 per passenger.

IWC and Mondaine even provide financial incentives to drive less or use “green” alternatives. IWC has an annual $250,000 budget to cover half the cost of public transport cards; up to $5,400 per employee over five years for CO2-reduction measures in their private lives; and $900 to $2,300 if they buy cars with reduced emissions. IWC workers can calculate personal CO2 emissions on IWC’s Intranet and offset that by donating to a climate-control project, which IWC matches 50 percent.

Audemars Piguet CEO Georges-Henri Meylan sums up the view of many watchmakers: “Being respectful of nature isn’t only a philosophy; it’s an absolute necessity. Everybody has to be concerned.”