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Hot Take: Preowned + Vintage are the Greenest

I applaud the effort by watch manufacturers to minimize their contributions to climate change. Globally, we've made some progress towards "bending the curve" of greenhouse gas emissions, which is the good news.
This figure from shows that, even under an optimistic scenario, some increase in global temperatures is unavoidable.
The bad news is that we clearly need to do a whole lot more to get to a point where we halt the growing cost of environmental degradation. As the graph I've presented here shows, existing policies are not enough to ensure a healthy planet for our children, their children, and all future generations.

As Elizabeth Doer's outstanding coverage on Quill and Pad shows, the watch industry is discussing the challenges ahead and developing contributions to the fight against climate change. These include the use of recycled and recovered materials in manufacturing as well as requiring transparency in how raw materials are sourced.

We like to imagine that the simple act of buying a traditional mechanical watch is good for the environment. Supposedly, a traditional mechanical watch lasts a long time and it is not "disposable." This is a reasonable point. However, when it comes to information, collectors and buyers will struggle to learn the exact environmental impact of any particular watch purchase.
A WWF assesment of watch brand environmental friendliness.
The image here comes from a 2018 WWF report on the jewelry and watch industry. The report author rated the majority of watch brands as "latecomers" and "non-transparent."

When we turn to the Apple Watch, a supposedly "disposable" bit of kit, we discover that Apple is actually ahead of most of the luxury watch industry when it comes to disclosure. On their web page, after a fair bit of digging, you can find a report offering carbon footprint figures for the Apple watch, calculated according to an international set of standards (ISO 14040 and 14044). I tried to find similar environmental disclosure statements for major Swiss watch brands and I got nowhere (although this Rolex infographic by some undergraduates is pretty cool and interesting). I do believe it is still likely that a Swiss mechanical watch is more environmentally friendly than a smartwatch. For example, a smartwatch requires electricity, the production of which almost always casts off greenhouse gases. A mechanical watch involves converting caloric intake into stored energy through a wound spring. That caloric energy is either recovered as you move about (automatic winding) or you "exert" yourself to wind the watch. In either case, my guess is that the greenhouse gas emissions from winding a mainspring is negligible compared to the energy used in charging an Apple Watch.

But why am I left to guess about this? If I really do care about the future of the planet and I want to compare the carbon footprint of a mechanical watch to an Apple Watch, why is the traditional watch industry making it so hard to do so? Fortunately, every collector has a readymade solution to this conundrum: buy preowned or vintage. Such watches do not require mining or shipping about of raw materials. They don't require consumption of energy in a manufacture in order to create the timepiece. That energy use took place at some point in the past. Therefore, the carbon footprint for a preowned or vintage watch is necessarily lower than the footprint for a brand new watch walking straight out of an authorized dealer's door. Prefer an untouched case? Consider buying a watch from a manufacturer who upcycles components, such as watchmaker Colin de Tonnac at Semper & Adhuc. At least then you'll reduce the environmental impact of a watch that is mostly new.

I have bought my own fair share of brand new watches. However, I have also bought preowned. Since buying a "used" watch is almost certainly better for the environment, I generally feel better about my "secondhand" purchases. Going forward, knowing that the preowned path is greener may well shape my buying patterns.
My book on the history of Rolex marketing is now available on Amazon! It debuted as the #1 New Release in its category. You can find it here.

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