The dark and murky messaging of the major watch brands

Jasmine, Switzerland, 14 years old

Luxury goods businesses portray themselves as virtuous and protecting the environment, when it isn’t really the case in practice. What lies hidden beneath the gleaming exterior?

The English term “greenwashing” plays with the idea of “whitewashing” in environmental terms. This is a marketing strategy that involves communicating an environmentally friendly image that is often misleading, since it cannot be demonstrated or does not comply with standards.

Almost half the world’s luxury jewellery and watch brands are based in Switzerland. Our country is a crossroads for the global gold market, with two thirds of the metal passing through or traded by Swiss companies.

The days when a mechanical watch was viewed as less polluting because it didn’t have a battery are over. The leading watch brands are starting a revolution to turn their golden reputation green, with factories following stricter standards based on green solutions, such as recycled materials, solar panels and more.

But when multinationals commit to environmental topics, doubts remain over their real intentions: is it really about sustainability or just a communications technique? Not seeing the wood for the trees?

The WWF tried to check the provenance of materials used in watch-making in a report published at the end of 2018, and found that the brands offer little information about the environmental impact of their activities. Based on their six assessment criteria, IWC (the best) was ranked in 3rd position, Cartier, Jaeger-LeCoultre, Piaget and Vacheron Constantin in 4th, and Chopard and Tag Heuer in 5th, Audemars Piguet, Breguet, Patek Philippe, Rolex and Swatch were classed as untransparent or lagging behind. These results are concerning, because the pollution from factories therefore doesn’t occur in Switzerland, but elsewhere! The supply of raw materials to the jewellery and watchmaking industry has a negative effect on the ecosystem and the population and the efforts claimed too often affect only a small part of the business.

Burkina Faso is a sad example, since the gold boom in 2008, the state being unable to exploit these resources itself, grants free exploration permits for its sub-soils. Over 600 unregulated “artisanal” mines use miners with no safety equipment, and children make up 30% of the workforce. Most of them are not in school and are around 13 years old. They grind the stones dug out of the mines and dissolve them in mercury, destroying everything except the metal.

A child miner with tuberculosis. © Flickr/CIFO
Young miners out of school. © AFP

This is a polluting chain from crushing the minerals and smelting the metals to long distance transport, the creation of the finished product and its delivery to consumers. Miners, including children, work in inhumane conditions. The mercury creates unfiltered toxic vapours that penetrate the air, soil and water.

Several leading players are looking for solutions. The WWF is committed to ensuring that watchmaking and jewellery firms adapt their commercial strategies to respect the planet’s ecological limits.

The Swiss State Secretariat for Economic Affairs (SECO) joined forces with the Better Gold Initiative (BGI) in 2013, to reduce poverty and improve the social and environmental conditions affecting 15 million workers worldwide, including 600,000 children.

According to Maria Espiniala, head of technology at the International Labour Office (ILO), work done by non-governmental organisations (NGOs) is guaranteeing working conditions and raising the average age of child miners to 15 years. Their families are dependent on this additional income because of their country’s precarious economic situation.

Switzerland was involved in developing the Minimata Convention in 2016; it is based in Geneva and works worldwide to combat the dangers of mercury.

Maria Espiniala explains that the convention has resulted in a higher level of responsibility in industrialised countries throughout the supply chain in developing countries. They also have to demonstrate decent working conditions.

Labels such as Fairtrade (from the Swiss foundation Max Havelaar) and Fairmined guarantee working conditions and compensation for miners, as well as traceability in the gold sector. However, only a few hundred kilos of gold (5% of jewellery and watch production) obtain these labels out of the 2,500 tonnes processed in Swiss refineries every year.

Several leading jewellery brands that are concerned about their environmental impact are turning to traceability labels or recycled gold. Cartier, the founder of the Responsible Jewellery Council (RJC) in 2005, has developed a baseline standard for the whole supply chain.

According to Jean-Nicolas Michaud, an independent retailer, the major brands are creating new, more environmentally responsible lines of jewellery and watches to which retailers can guide clients, but their communications are half-hearted. They are fearful of their brand image in the event of being caught out.

Chopard now uses “Fairmined” gold and is supplied by “certified” suppliers who comply with strict environmental and social standards.

Jean-Nicolas Michaud notes thatolder clients with more money are ready to pay more to buy metals and precious stones based on fair practices. Awareness is accelerating thanks to films covering a problem that has existed forever but which has, up to now, been ignored. Unlike other industries (such as coal and oil), the luxury goods sector sells dreams to clients who give into their desires.

Uncertified jewellery. © Jasmine Michaud

The WWF suggests consumers ask questions about the origin of raw materials, such as certified diamonds or ecological certification and takes the view that consumers cannot push all the responsibility for these impacts onto the producer. Consuming creates an environmental footprint, regardless of the product purchased. We need to make conscious choices about our watches and jewellery.

To echo the words of Julia Faure, co-founder of Loom: “Greenwashing is dangerous, because it discourages us from changing how we consume. Because it makes us believe the problem is resolved. It sends us to sleep while the house burns.” 



– Maria Espiniala, ILO
– Jean-Nicolas Michaud, watch and jewellery retailer

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