The man in the white suit is a black-and-(rightly) white film that now feels horribly prophetic. Set in 1951, the plot revolves around a pioneering chemist (Alec Guinness) who creates a magical fiber that will never wear out or get dirty. Unfortunately, this brilliant invention makes him fall under the spell of textile producers and unions who begin to plot his downfall. Their scheming is motivated solely by their fear of loss of income. For if the chemist’s miraculous clothes last forever, the demand for replacement items will plummet.
The film may be a satirical comedy, but we find ourselves today in a time when, unfortunately, a lot of things are deliberately built not to last. “Planned obsolescence” is the notion that certain gadgets and devices – think light bulbs or laptops, for example – are made with purposely short lifespans.
According to an EU study, the average lifespan of a desktop printer is five hours and four minutes of actual print time, while many ink cartridges are equipped with smart chips that disable the printing when a color drops to a certain level, even if there is enough ink to finish the job. Smartphone longevity is equally dismal, with market research firm Kantar Worldpanel reporting that US smartphone owners use their phones for an average of 27.7 months before upgrading. This short-term mentality makes sense if you want consumers to keep opening their wallets. But the picture is less rosy if we consider the effect on global warming and toxic waste.
Mechanical watches are different. Right now, for example, I’m typing this while wearing a Zenith dress watch made in 1956. Sure, I have to wind it every day, but I get it serviced every five years or so to make sure it’s running well . And that’s the great thing about a half-decent watch – it’s the antithesis of a disposable product. Instead, such a watch is a potential heirloom in the making that, if cared for with a modicum of care, will easily last for decades. Yet, rather than feeling content with their inherently green credentials, many watch brands are now doubling down on their environmental commitments in various ways.
Rolex, for example, has long been associated with exploration, ever since (Sir) Edmund Hillary first conquered Everest on an expedition equipped with the brand’s watches. In 2019, Rolex launched its Perpetual Planet initiative which champions exploration, not for its own sake, but with an emphasis on environmental protection. From working with the National Geographic Society to study the impacts of climate change to supporting cave diving expeditions to find sources of contaminated water in the Yucatán Peninsula, the reach of this philanthropic effort is truly impressive.
While many watch brands also create watches that donate to eco-friendly initiatives, others take a different approach by seeking to make their manufacturing process as sustainable as possible. TAG Heuer, for example, revamped its watchmaking facilities in Switzerland by installing 750 square meters of solar panels on the roof, and they’re not the only ones trying to find a cleaner way of doing business.
After analyzing the dominant trends in the watch world last year, Deloitte’s Swiss Watch Study reported: “The Swiss watch industry recognizes the growing importance of sustainability and ethics across its entire supply chain. value, whether in the form of recycling/upcycling materials, responsible sourcing, seeking alternatives to animal products or reducing their overall carbon footprint.
Sometimes this green attitude clearly manifests in its product. The Oris Aquis Date Upcycle, for example, has a dial made from recycled PET plastic, while Citizen has perfected its Eco-Drive technology which powers its watches using sunlight.
OWhile these developments are encouraging, if you take a step back, this environmental stance seems like a natural fit for the watch world. Humans, after all, first began to mark time by tracking our planet’s orbit around the sun. In short, timekeepers have always had a long-standing interest in the earth, which has finally come full circle.