The Swiss watch industry would do well to take note of IWC’s movement towards a more sustainable future, says Chris Hall.

There isn’t much crossover between the worlds of luxury watchmaking and environmental awareness. You’re unlikely to find many Extinction Rebellion protesters wearing Montblanc watches, and I’m pretty sure I know what Greta Thunberg thinks of the acres of orange plastic surrounding the Louis Vuitton flagship store on London’s Bond Street as it undergoes yet another extravagant makeover.

For a long time, the closest the Swiss watch industry got to a coherent position on sustainability was the oft-repeated line that because a watch lasts for decades, it’s inherently a sustainable item. Well, perhaps – no doubt there’s a larger carbon footprint incurred by buying cheap ones that break every couple of years – but even though the Swiss watch you just bought might last a lifetime, the brand that made it is turning out hundreds of thousands just like it, all relying pretty heavily on raw materials, shipping, manufacturing and marketing that aren’t exactly green.

Hang on, though – haven’t we all heard about the various watchmakers’ efforts to save endangered coral/stingrays/hammerhead sharks, and clean up the waters of the Caribbean/Polynesian islands/the Rhine in the process? It’s true that there are plenty of high-profile initiatives to preserve photogenic locations and species, but when it comes to the nitty-gritty of behaving sustainably, the great and the good of Switzerland’s watch industry are coming up a little short.

Don’t take my word for it – I refer you to a damning report issued by the Swiss WWF this time last year, which, having looked at the eco-credentials of the nation’s 15 largest watch brands, concluded that “most of the companies have not taken any appropriate steps to address and counter climate change… The results also show that few companies recognise their responsibility and that action and more transparency towards sounder environmental management are needed… the overall findings are highly worrying.” Ouch.

The WWF graded the 15 on a scale from “latecomer/non-compliant” to “visionary”. None made the top category, or even the one below it, “frontrunner”. Still, one brand was judged deserving of “ambitious” status, and that was IWC.

It helped that IWC is in possession of a new factory building with 2,183 sqm of solar panels on its roof, but, in truth, the company’s efforts to think a little deeper about its impact on the environment began some years ago, when it set up a sustainability committee with representatives from across the company and started producing biennial reports with fairly ambitious targets.

The next one, set to be published at the start of 2020, will report that greenhouse gas emissions are down 10 per cent, and highlight that the brand is on the verge of using entirely renewable energy at all of its premises around the world. There’s more; chief executive Chris Grainger-Herr has laid down the goal of going entirely plastic-free, and the company wants to insist on sustainable certification not only for all of its suppliers, but all of their suppliers. It is even looking at certifying its marketing events for sustainability, and makes sure to buy enough carbon offsets to cover its various stunts – which this year has involved sponsoring a restored Spitfire on a round-the-world trip.

Let’s be in no doubt: buying a luxury watch is still an exercise in indulgence, and if the brands really want to tackle the industry’s impact on the world around it then there is a long way yet to go – including locking horns with the world’s diamond and gold producers. And, yet, even on this front, there is some inspiration on offer – various other brands including Cartier and Chopard are making efforts to use responsibly mined, artisanal gold, and IWC claims it is well on the way to using nothing but recycled gold across its range.

Now, I’m not saying that means you can look at the Big Pilot’s Watch shown here in an entirely new light; as a CHF 235,000 (£184,000) constant-force tourbillon with 341 components and a 96-hour power reserve, it still goes down as a serious extravagance in my book. The constant-force tourbillon, by the way, is what you can see on the left-hand side of the dial; a tiny chain-driven mechanism that is phenomenally fiddly, and is designed to ensure that the energy of the watch’s mainspring gets metered out with unvarying torque, for more even and accurate timekeeping.

So, yes, when it comes to staggering feats of over-engineering, some aspects of the watch world are never going to change. But as we turn over a new year, the clock really is ticking for the rest of the Swiss to start thinking a bit more like IWC.