André Bernheim, co-owner and board member of Mondaine Watch Ltd. group, does not mince words when it comes to sustainability and describes his company as one of the leaders in the watch industry.
You can quickly see that this is more than just a marketing statement if you take a look at the brand’s past and present. You then discover much more than the “Official Swiss Railway Station Clock” for the wrist, for which the Mondaine brand has been known for decades.
Environmental issues have been very much in the public eye in recent years and have also had an impact on consumer behaviour. Generation Z in particular is increasingly questioning the sustainability statements made by brands and manufacturers and do not simply trust every slogan.
The Mondaine Group, with the brands Mondaine, Luminox, M-Watch and Pierre Cardin, has nothing to fear. The family-run company’s commitment to environmental protection goes back to the 1970s, when so-called ‘ecos’ were still being dismissed by many as dreamy do-gooders in dungarees.
Mondaine has been proving for almost five decades that sustainability has a lot to do with technological innovation. “The sustainability journey began in 1973 with the world’s first analog solar watch developed by our father,” says André Bernheim about Erwin Bernheim, who founded the Frank & Bernheim company in 1951 and registered the Mondaine brand in 1954. After developing the first digital watch with partner companies that worked with a microprocessor and was programmable – which was a sensation in itself – the first solar quartz watches with analog and digital time display followed in 1973.
The most important step towards sustainability took place in the 1990s, when Mondaine launched the “100% post-consumer recycling” watch made from 100% recycled material, a real upcycling. For this, the brand received various awards and the attention of such renowned museums as the MoMa in New York and the Guggenheim Museum in Bilbao.
The watch proved to be formative for the future of the company. “Since then, we’ve been working on more sustainable materials, either recycled or renewable, for cases and tapes. We only use a few grams of gold and no diamonds, which cause major problems because of their origin, procurement and working conditions,” explains Bernheim.
“As far as I know, there is no other watch company that has been committed to protecting the environment for such a long time and continuously. And that at a time when very few people around the world were interested in it – which unfortunately continues to this day.”
And so the list of more sustainable materials that Mondaine uses is now long. These include, for example, castor oil for the cases and straps of the Essence collection, rPET felt and rPET nylon made from recycled PET bottles, eco-cotton, linen and cork.
One of the completely new materials that Mondaine uses for the Luminox brand is called Ocean Plastic, which is recycled plastic waste that has been fished from the oceans. And what about leather, a material that watch straps can hardly be imagined without?
“We only use leather that is produced as waste in meat production. But traceability is very difficult: where do the hides come from, how were the animals kept, how was it tanned? That’s why we put a lot of effort into looking for alternatives to leather.”
Mondaine is currently testing materials that come “amazingly” close to leather. Because when it comes to quality, appearance and feel, Bernheim does not want to compromise. If the new alternatives pass all tests, leather will gradually be replaced as early as this year.
Of course, a watch manufacturer cannot avoid consuming energy during production. But even here there are no half measures. Since September 2019, a large part of the electricity required to manufacture Swiss-made watches has been coming from the company’s own photovoltaic system on the roof of the production hall.
At the end of 2020, Mondaine also reported a remarkable success in terms of climate protection: the whole group is CO2-neutral. “We’re not just talking about our factory and headquarters, but also about all of our components, packaging, operating instructions, the transport of goods, company cars, photovoltaics in the factory in Biberist and green electricity at the headquarters in Pfäffikon – everything is included in this life cycle assessment, also known as Scope 1, 2 and 3 of the Greenhouse Gas Protocol. We are probably the first in the watch industry to consider all three scopes in the life cycle assessment. We offset the remaining CO2 emissions of the Mondaine Group with the environmental protection organisation Fairventures and were therefore CO2-neutral for the whole of 2020”, reports Bernheim proudly and refers to the company’s ongoing efforts to reduce its own ecological footprint.
Although hardly anyone would think of disposing of or recycling a Rolex, there are many watches that the owner doesn’t know what to do with when they are no longer being worn. ”Above all, quartz watches cannot be thrown into normal waste because of their electronics and batteries. So the Mondaine Group accepts these watches, also from third-party brands (apart from plastic watches).
“We dismantle them and recycle the possible individual parts. This should also be a sign to the big watch companies: if we as an SME can do this, they should be able to do it all the more. “
The good deed is one thing. But as an entrepreneur, Bernheim, who took over the management of the company from his father with his brother Ronnie in 1999, also has to keep an eye on finances. This begs the question: is sustainability really beneficial for sales?
Bernheim sees this very realistically. “Nobody will buy a watch just because it is more sustainable than others. First and foremost, it has to please and be within the price budget. But we can also give consumers a good feeling that they are doing a little more for the environment with our watch than with any other watch. Many organisations – from saving the seas to reforestation of the primeval forests – are becoming more and more influential. In addition, there is the rapidly growing group of vegans and vegetarians as well as people who consciously forego amenities such as flying, plastic or fossil energy sources more and more. These people, and of course those who simply think our watches are great, are our target groups. And they are getting bigger and bigger.”
And everyone can make their contribution, Bernheim is certain. Whether as a consumer or manufacturer and no matter how small they may appear.
“Hundreds of millions of clocks are manufactured every year, the sum of all these clocks is a major environmental burden. The individual watch is small, our company is relatively small, the Swiss watch industry is relatively small in terms of volume, but if everyone does their part, it makes a big difference. And if we, as a small, family-run SME can make a difference, then others can too.”
WatchPro: Do you see yourself as a sustainability pioneer in the watch industry?
André Bernheim: Yes. Mountains of rubbish everywhere, rubbish in the seas, air pollution in the big cities and so on, none of this has just existed since yesterday. And it was already clear 20 or 30 years ago that this could not go on like this. Nevertheless, we were one of the few pioneers in the watch industry, we were in a certain way “lonely fighters”.
Now we are finally seeing that the topic of sustainability and environmental protection is picking up speed, and we want to continue to support this, as much as it is possible for an SME and as a private person. By the way, we are happy that so many people take to the streets to protect the environment. Politics and companies will only change through social pressure. As you know, we don’t have much time left for this.
WatchPro: How is the watch industry doing these days in terms of sustainability?
André Bernheim: Unfortunately, the watch industry is still lagging behind many other industries. It is therefore still very important to us to be a pioneer. We not only want to show that it is possible to produce good and beautiful watches sustainably, but that you also have a certain obligation to do so.
If you are able to produce a technically and aesthetically sophisticated watch more sustainably, then you have to do so. Every step counts, just as every vote counts in a democracy. With our models Essence from Mondaine and Tide from Luminox, we also prove that sustainability does not have to be more expensive.
WatchPro: Environmental protection on the one hand and battery-operated quartz watches on the other – how does that work together?
André Bernheim: We are aware of the topic. However, our button cell batteries do not use heavy metals such as mercury, they are silver oxide cells. These are collected in all of our service centers and sent for recycling. Unfortunately, there is no longer a life entirely without ecological compromises, but we try to make the best of it.
Watchpro: Sustainability is not just about environmental protection. In which areas is Mondaine also involved?
André Bernheim: I am pleased with this question, because many people use the term sustainability as a synonym for environmental protection. We have been devoting ourselves to this for decades without really talking about it.
But sustainability is also design, for example. Our Mondaine station clocks were developed in 1944 by the Swiss Federal Railways SBB, and we still use the original plans for the dial and hands to this day. This is probably one of the most sustainable designs there is, absolutely unchanged for over 75 years.
But our group of companies, which has been family-owned since 1951, is also sustainable: sustainable in growth and sustainable in our extensive financial independence. As an SME, we can also do and accelerate things that large, listed corporations cannot do, or only do much more slowly, because they always have to pay attention to the stock exchange price.
Social skills are another important issue for us, both privately and in business. Many of our employees in the factory and at headquarters have been with us for 30 or even 40 years. And many who have “only” worked for us for five, 10 or 20 years still have good contact.
WachPro: What do you expect from your suppliers in this regard?
André Bernheim: At the beginning of the 1990s, we had our first Code of Conduct signed by our suppliers. This laid down essential guidelines regarding child labour, religious, gender and minority ethics and so on.
Almost two years ago we developed a new CoC that contains new and updated laws, but also takes ecological aspects into account. Together with our suppliers, especially with those in Asia, we want to improve their sustainability, step by step, in partnership, in ecological and social matters.
WatchPro: You once said that terms such as ecology and sustainability have become buzzwords that many companies adorn themselves with – keyword greenwashing. How much does that annoy you?
André Bernheim: Very, because some make it too easy for themselves or because they are fooling consumers. I can give you various examples:
A brand describes itself as environmentally friendly simply because it offers a bracelet made of cork. And wooden watches don’t make ecological sense per se if you don’t pay attention to where the wood comes from and whether it is being reforested.
There are also corporations that are building a very expensive wooden headquarters and announce that they will equip it with 400 solar cells. That is half as many as we have at our much smaller factory in Biberist in Solothurn.
A brand like us has recently started offering a watch made from castor oil. But the watch cannot be repaired or disassembled and is therefore not recyclable. I think this is probably the most environmentally friendly watch there is – with a touch of nature.
Other companies say they are carbon neutral but don’t explain what exactly that means. Is it about the whole process, like with us? Probably not, otherwise you would communicate that.
All of these examples are, of course, only guesses, but these come to mind without open and detailed communication. They may even do more than they say. One thing is certain: You have to take environmental protection seriously, for us it is not a fad that you can put on for a while.
WatchPro: Where does your great personal interest in sustainability come from?
André Bernheim: On the one hand, it comes from my parents. On the other hand, my brother integrated the topic into the company as early as the 1980s, including packaging made of recycled cardboard. Melting down consumer waste in the 1990s was also an idea of my brother and father.
Working with people like Scott Cassell, the American underwater filmmaker and environmentalist, has also convinced me more and more to seek and use the possibilities of sustainability. I went diving with tiger sharks with Scott many years ago. He showed and explained to me why these animals are not the malevolent monsters they are often mistaken for, but rather play an extremely important role in the ecological cycle.
In order to recognise and realise the opportunities of sustainability, one must always keep one’s eyes open and be ready to learn new things.
This article was first published in the December 2020 edition of WatchPro Germany.