You may know at least one person who proudly wears or cares for a still-perfectly functioning watch, the one that has belonged to a grandparent or parent.
That is the charm of a quality watch. More than just a tool or accessory, they are an investment in the future (or so my husband has often told me). Yet, even the best quality or the most luxurious watch may not be a result of ethical or sustainable production, and it seems that demand is growing for watches that are likely neither luxurious or high quality.
We can’t allow Fashion Revolution Week (19th-25th April 2021) pass without discussing transparency in watch-making.
Watches aren’t generally brought into the discussion when it comes to Fast Fashion. Ethical brand lists often stretch to jewellery and other accessories, but rarely to watches.
While watches aren’t (generally) considered as disposable as clothing pieces, one extremely successful fashion watch brand practically invented influencer marketing, and lower-priced and mid-priced watches are increasingly gaining market traction, due to increasing demand for ‘value-for-product’ watches and accessories among women.
This does sound worryingly like a turn away from watches being a quality forever piece to something more trend based, and a recent report on the industry quoted; “The disposability and affordability of value watch brands make them a popular fashion choice among consumers.”
It is important that this already very large market doesn’t continue to travel mostly under the radar of accountability for both company and supply chain ethics.
When I started this company, I wanted to build our business consciously, with every decision from the beginning taking into consideration its potential social and environmental consequences. I have learned a great deal, and we have an incredibly long journey ahead of us, but I am so far very proud of what we have achieved.
We don’t just make great watches, we care about how we make them and want to invest in our partners throughout our supply chain.
Transparency is at the heart of what we do.
Why we should care
What do we mean when we talk about transparency?
The world of fashion is a complex and truly global affair. A single item can travel several countries before it reaches a consumer. Production usually involves a complex network of suppliers, manufacturers, producers, traders, and sellers, some of whom are not visible or disclosed. Most brands today outsource their production. A combination of fast fashion mindset (producing as quickly and cheaply as possible), financial pressure, and lack of strong regulations, means that brands don’t have any responsibility towards the factories which make their products. Often, they arenot even aware of what’s happening in their supply chains.
In recent years, and largely thanks to organizations such as Fashion Revolution, we see this complex system as a large ethical and sustainability issue. Especially when it comes to garments, there’s a growing awareness and a need to know #WhoMadeMyClothes, as a hashtag and annual campaign by Fashion Revolution demands. And even though we talk about it less, other parts of fashion, like jewelry or watches are a part of this complex system of suppliers and factories.
Without knowing who makes the things we buy, there’s nobody to take responsibility for when the incidents and disasters occur. So when a factory collapses, burns, or when someone loses their life, there’s nobody to answer for it. Moreover, in times of crisis, like when the COVID-19 pandemic hit, brands can easily wash their hands from the responsibility.
That is why transparency matters. It is the first step towards accountability in the industry, and an essential piece we need for the industry to become truly sustainable for all. Transparency on its own isn’t enough but it *is* essential.
Who are we?
2°East is currently a company of two (officially four including our spouses, but they are yet to play an active role):
(That’s me, behind the website, emails, and any instagram and facebook activity you see)
I live in Hong Kong, I have been here for 8 years. I moved from Melbourne, Australia with my husband, and my daughter was born here. I left my job in the pharmaceutical industry when my daughter was born and started looking into businesses that I could throw myself into (eco-)guilt free. Along the way, I met my current business partner, Ron.
Ron lives with his wife and son, just a train ride away in Shenzhen, China. He owns a watch manufacturing and assembly facility, also in Shenzhen. Over the past decade, he has built his business from scratch; starting out working for other watch-makers, he moved out to trading of watch components, then assembly, and finally the manufacturing and assembly he does today.
I am convinced his loyalty to his staff and suppliers is a big key to his success, he is humble (to the point that, for a while my husband and I assumed he was an assistant, not the owner of the factory we were visiting!) and often mentions his wishes to share his successes with everyone involved.
I have watched Ron give his staff autonomy and room to shine. He has a long term vision for his factory in an economy where many focus on making fast money. This has led him to building a solid, happy workforce of loyal staff to whom he provides regular training and up-skilling.
In the early stages of our business, Ron came to Hong Kong regularly, and I could visit his factory, and accompany him to visits with suppliers. By mid 2019 commuting was often disrupted during the widespread protests that regularly shut down roads and transport here, and travel across borders stopped completely early 2020. Ron now takes care of the business north of our border and I everything south.
Our Supply Chain
Ron manufactures our watch cases and assembles our watches at his factory, and we source the specialised components from local suppliers. Our dials, crystals, hands, and buckles are made in a city about an hours drive north, and the mesh bracelets are produced nearby to Ron’s factory.
Our Rose gold is applied in another factory close to Ron's, they are also committed to their social and environmental responsibility, as well as transparency on their sources of minerals and are Conflict Mineral Free.
Ron has built his typical strong long term relationships with each of these suppliers and visits each personally.
Early on, I selected a Swiss movement (the internal mechanism that powers the watch) for our watches, simply because Swiss movements are popularly regarded as a sign of a quality watch. However, when I reached out to the movement maker, they didn’t respond to my queries on their environmental and social policies (if any).
After making early samples with Swiss movements, I felt much more comfortable when we made the decision to switch to Miyota movements. They are made in Japan and are a part of the CITIZEN group, which is pushing for strong sustainability and social responsibility policies. Their movements are produced in factories with a very low eco-footprint. Miyota movements are made to last and are built with precision and accuracy in mind.
My social feeds have long been full of sustainable activewear and swimsuit brands, advertising their “recycled from ocean plastic” materials. I looked around and found many use Econyl, a type of recycled nylon made in Italy. Unfortunately, when I contacted the company, they very apologetically explained they couldn’t sell their yarn directly to us and were focussed only on partnering with apparel brands at that time.
Luckily, I pushed on, and found a producer in Taiwan that makes yarn from recycled PET bottles, and via a local agent we were able to source small amounts of the yarn, to be made into our NATO straps. Roughly an equivalent of one post consumer plastic bottle goes into making one NATO watch strap, which is woven and printed in a factory about one hour drive north east of Ron’s.
For our leather straps, we use full grain and vegetable-tanned leather from Italy. I had hoped to source leather solely from offcuts of the fashion industry (i.e what is left after the manufacture of bags or clothes) but the consistency of colour, quantity and quality wasn’t guaranteed and as our first round of production we decided to make one small batch of consistent, high quality straps of a known quantity. (I have since made a local contact that should be able to supply the offcuts we wanted, so will keep looking into this for our next order.)
This leather is made into our straps in a workshop here in Hong Kong. Being local to me, I had hoped to be able to visit the workshop, interview staff, take photos and videos and do a deep dive into this supplier to feature as its own “get to know our supplier!” blog post. Unfortunately the radical supply chain transparency idea hasn't really made it big here yet and with a bit of lost in translation style confusion the owner and I just kind of awkwardly stopped talking about it.
The problem with certifications
Initially, I wanted to work only with suppliers who were certified as fair and sustainable, but quickly realised that this can be a misleading indicator. The potential certifications are many and varied, and each very expensive for the suppliers to maintain.
Unless they work with brands that select and pay for particular certifications, and continue to maintain them, the suppliers are unlikely to hold them. Others that did advertise certifications sent me copies of audits that showed me they weren't meeting some criteria and probably didn't fully understand the meaning of them.
A big factory that has regular large customers that pay for certifications (while probably simultaneously pressuring for discounts) is not necessarily better than a much smaller specialised supplier.
We have drawn up a policy based on the standards set by the International Labour Organisation which each of our suppliers sign. Having worked in the industry and with these same suppliers for so long, Ron naturally selects those work to the standards we’d expect. In the future, once we have the budget we would like to help our suppliers get externally certified as well.
We had also planned for a dedicated Ethics and Sustainability Officer to help us track and document our supply chain in greater detail (and explain our plan for transparency projects to suppliers better than I did to our leather strap supplier!), but for now, we share this role, hope for easier travel soon, and continue to look for someone that fits the role.
Who Supplied your Supplier?
The focus of this year's fashion revolution campaign is #WhoMadeMyFabric. While the past campaigns have resulted in many brands having discussed the factories where their garments are cut and sewn, few have covered the facilities where the raw fabrics and yarns are made.
While we have traced much of our supply chain, some of our components are complicated, and involve suppliers to our suppliers' suppliers (!!). We are yet to visit and assess all of these facilities ourselves.
In the future we aim to trace our supply chain further back, to understand more about where all the suppliers listed above source their raw materials, and continuously improve transparency and working conditions all the way back through this chain.
We would also like to invest in our suppliers and help them incorporate initiatives, such as implementing digital training platforms like Quizrr Worker Engagement Training or BSR's HERproject, a collaborative initiative empowering women in global supply chains. Finally, once we are financially stable, we plan to apply for certification as a B Corp, given only to companies that meet the highest social and environmental standards.
I recognise that we still have a lot to do but we are committed to continuously improving transparency and ethics.
What have I missed? What else would you like us to be sharing?