The sustainability movement has been bringing new ideas — and a new kind of entrepreneur — to the mass-market segment of the watch industry.
These start-ups are focused on bringing ethical practices to every aspect of watch production, from design to materials and packaging to logistics. And they have been zeroing in on consumers, mainly millennials and Gen Zers, who are turned off by the fast fashion model and the wasteful consumption habits it fosters.
As Ryan Beltran, co-founder of the California-based brand Original Grain, said, “Your watch says a lot about who you are.”
Here are the stories behind three brands who aim to limit their carbon footprints in creative ways.
“It smells like bourbon out there on the porch,” Mr. Beltran, 33, said during a video interview from his home in San Diego. He said the scent came from the planks of an old whiskey barrel, just one of many unusual materials that he and his co-founder (and younger brother) Andrew, 31, recycle into one-of-a-kind statement watches.
Original Grain is the name of the company that the brothers debuted in 2013 after raising money on Kickstarter (they also got $1 million from an investor in 2017). “I think, for us, sustainability has always been about materials,” he said. “And we’ve found that the less non-recycled material we use in a watch, the less well it sells.”
The brand, which sells through its own website and some other online merchants, aims at the upper end of the mass market — what Mr. Beltran called the “sweet spot” price point of $250 to $500.
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It is a segment of the watch industry that has been losing market share to smartwatches, like the Apple Watch. But Mr. Beltran said there is an opportunity to attract men in their early 30s who want an affordable quartz timepiece with more character and individuality than a smartwatch. (One of Original Grain’s early models was a watch with a handcrafted wooden face and a slot on the reverse side, where the wearer could slip in his Apple Watch, keeping it hidden from sight.)
The brothers grew up in what Mr. Beltran called the “crunchy granola” city of Eugene, Ore. At the start of his career, he lived in Hong Kong for four years, teaching English while researching the fashion and watch markets. His brother, then a Marine, put up some of his savings so they could commission their first prototypes.
They eventually settled on a trademark style: combining stainless steel with recycled wood that has an interesting back story. The Buffalo Trace Barrel, for example, is a typical design, with a rugged 46-millimeter watch face and bezel made of whiskey barrel staves, and a matte black steel bracelet with wood insets.
The brothers come up with the material ideas and concepts, which then are realized by a designer and assembled in Shenzhen, China, the go-to powerhouse of global mass-market watchmaking. But the Beltrans have plans to relocate as much of the production as possible to the United States, in part because it is the source for most of their materials — like leftover exotic wood from the nearby Taylor Guitars factory; tequila barrels from the Mexican state of Jalisco; U.S. military surplus steel; and seats from the old Yankee Stadium in New York City, which operated from 1923 to 2008.
“We want to go down that path for all kinds of reasons, but mainly because of the sustainability aspect,” Mr. Beltran said. “If we don’t have to ship things so far, that lowers our carbon footprint and that will be a better thing for sure.”
2 Degrees East
Sally Lim, 43, used to buy, wear and toss Swatch watches. “They were stylish, but I was buying one every two to three years because they were falling apart after that time,” she said in a video interview from her home in Hong Kong.
So when she began what she called a “sustainability journey,” she realized the Swatches had to go and started looking for an alternative. “I didn’t want to spend a huge amount of money on my watch. I just wanted something kind of nice,” she said. “But I couldn’t find anything that wasn’t packaged in tons of plastic. There were lots of watches out there, but none fit what I felt was the criteria.”
That failed search led her, in 2019, to introduce her own watch brand. “I saw there was good opportunity for a business that’s just trying to do the right thing,” she said.
Ms. Lim said her concept for the 2 Degrees East line — watches with straps that can be changed easily — matches “the capsule wardrobe idea, where people might have just 30 items of clothing. It’s sort of anti-fast fashion, just having a few high-quality, good things that all match each other.”
Securing materials and manufacturers that met her criteria proved more daunting than she expected, Ms. Lim said: “I Googled and Googled and Googled. I asked a lot of questions — I looked at the same kinds of things that activists in the anti-fast fashion movement were asking about materials, and about the workers making them.” She ended up buying quartz movements made by the Japanese company Miyota, recycled plastic for watchbands from Taiwan and plastic-free packaging from an eco-friendly supplier she discovered at a Hong Kong trade fair. The watches are assembled at a factory in Shenzhen.
Ms. Lim’s watches for men and women are priced at about $130, her children’s models are about $75 and the straps are $36. She sells through her brand’s website and a growing network of online portals for sustainably focused products. So far, she said, her sales have totaled less than $100,000.
But being small fits Ms. Lim’s business philosophy. “We’ve made really small batches to sell as we go, to make sure that we’re not overproducing things that aren’t wanted,” she said. “There are many things that I do in trying to run a sustainable business that just don’t make sense, to be honest. I want to be ethical and sustainable in marketing. I don’t want people to be buying a watch that they don’t need.”
Watching the apocalyptic 2016 documentary “Before the Flood,” which starred Leonardo DiCaprio, was a turning point for Samuel Leroux and Alexandre Desabrais.
As business students at HEC Montreal, a prestigious business school in Quebec, the two men teamed up for a university entrepreneurship contest and had been thinking about going into business together when the climate change documentary shifted their focus.
“We realized we wanted to do something to improve people’s consumption habits, make a positive impact,” Mr. Desabrais, 30, said on a video call from Solios’s new office and manufacturing center in Le Sud-Ouest, a district in Montreal. “Being watch fanatics, we knew that the industry was really conservative.”
After graduation, the men took jobs in finance to get experience and used their vacation time to make research trips to watch industry centers like Japan, Hong Kong, France and Switzerland. “I think being French Canadian really helped us because French is a language that is quite important in the watch industry, and being Canadian in this industry is quite new,” said Mr. Leroux, also 30.
Conversing fluently with watch producers in a shared language also helped them get straight to the point. “The watchmakers in Switzerland assumed we were there for the ‘Swiss Made’ movement,” Mr. Leroux said. “But we told them, ‘We’re here because you have the expertise to create a watch that would have a much lower impact on the environment. But you’re just not using your capabilities to do that!’” (The pair ultimately sourced quartz movements from Epson, a Seiko company in Japan.)
By 2019, the partners had settled on their product offering: solar-powered dress watches for men and women that would sell for $300 to $350, would be slim and elegant, and would be made from as much repurposed and recycled material as possible. Materials now include vegan leather, certified recycled stainless steel and an innovative transparent biopolymer watch face that allows the sun’s rays to reach the solar cell.
They also decided to submit Solios to the environmental impact vetting required to achieve B Corp certification, one of the best-known proofs of social good available to for-profit companies. They achieved it in December 2020.
Since the debut of its first watch in April 2019, Solios has sold 10,000 watches, mainly through its own website but also through partners such as Madewell, and it expects to increase that total to 40,000 by the end of 2023. A loan from the Bank of Canada this year helped the brand buy a commercial building in Montreal — and while its production is still being done in China, there are plans to move that work into the headquarters eventually.
“Five years from now, we’re still going to be improving our environmental impact,” Mr. Desabrais said. “We’re not even going to have to talk about it in our marketing strategy, because it’s going to be something that is really implemented in people’s consumption habits. We want sustainability to just be part of that normal path when people are buying something.”