Breitling’s sustainability director says ‘data dumps’ don’t help the public understand environmental efforts.
Since joining the Swiss watchmaker Breitling in April 2020, Aurelia Figueroa has overseen what many people in the watch trade have described as one of the industry’s most ambitious efforts to trace, document and transform a supply chain, launching a traceable watch and working to hit specific emission reduction goals.
An example of that focus is the brand’s third annual sustainability report, a 78-page document released in September. It detailed, among other things: the sources of the company’s greenhouse gas emissions; the mines and refineries where its gold is produced and processed; and the amount of lab-grown diamonds that it had purchased in fiscal year 2023, which ended March 31 (5,624 carats).
During a video interview last month from the Breitling office in Zurich, Ms. Figueroa, 40, the brand’s global director of sustainability, talked about how working in the luxury watch industry differs from her previous jobs, why recycled gold is not necessarily a good thing and what the industry should focus on if it hopes to make progress in sustainability. The interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.
You spent six years researching sustainable business practices before you segued into the luxury world in 2016, joining IWC as a senior corporate sustainability manager. What was that transition like?
It was a really dramatic shift. On one of the main projects I had been working on, I was conducing empirical research in Nairobi, Kenya, where I was interviewing households with the primary breadwinner making about $2 a day. I saw people buying toothpaste by the squeeze because they couldn’t afford a tube.
I went from a setting like that to the luxury watch industry, where a purchase of $10,000 to $20,000 is maybe not a big investment decision for some people. And this was something I really had to grapple with — am I comfortable in doing this? But I decided the industry has such a role in shaping societal notions of status that it is absolutely something to engage in.
You worked on Breitling’s first sustainability report, which was published in fall 2021, in the midst of the pandemic. How did that affect what you focused on?
Because the pandemic was raging through Latin America, people were in some cases turning to illegal mining in order to be able to feed their families. As a result, we saw a huge uptick in Amazonian deforestation at that time. This is what we were discussing as we prepared the report. These are global challenges, and they’re happening regardless of your decision to source recycled gold. Just because you’re sourcing 1 kilogram of recycled doesn’t mean that somebody is not entering the Amazon River basin, contributing to illegal logging and removing mineral in order to be able to put food on the table.
In October 2022, Breitling introduced its first “traceable” watch, the Super Chronomat Automatic 38 Origins. Will the rest of the collection soon be traceable?
We’re going about it reference by reference, and we’ve now introduced the Origins label that applies to watches for which the gold and/or diamonds are adhering to these principles. And the latest collection to be launched with them was the Navitimer 32 and 36.
What do you think watchmakers need to prioritize if they’re serious about sustainability?
The real starting point for me is transparency — meaningful transparency. In some sustainability reports, across all industries, I notice data dumps, where it’s like, “Here’s a ton of information. We have 500 factories around the world; this is how much energy they’re using.” OK, thank you, but how am I supposed to digest this? Can you just tell me about the carbon in addition to the energy?
It’s also talking about the topics that have impact. A common topic I reference is recycling. At Breitling, all the steel we use for the watches and built-in environments [boutiques] accounts for 1 percent of our carbon emissions. It matters, yes, but for us to speak about recycled still, we’d be avoiding the elephant in the room, which for our industry is the gold sourcing. I’ve been seeing claims about traceable recycled gold. Unfortunately, they can’t both be occurring. If it’s recycled gold, you cannot actually say where it originated.