Brands unfold packaging ideas to cut carbon footprint
Simply sign up to the Sustainability myFT Digest -- delivered directly to your inbox.
Packaging has long been part of the ceremony of receiving a luxury gift, boosted in recent years by the popularity of unboxing videos on social media. But, increasingly, watch and jewellery brands are rethinking their approach because of sustainability concerns.
In January, Garrard will replace its current jewellery boxes, which have no recycled elements, with new versions made by UK-based watch and jewellery storage specialist Wolf. The boxes are made from Forest Stewardship Council-certified cardboard wrapped in vegan leather (polyurethane) comprising 35 per cent recycled material (polyester), with an internal polyester lining consisting of 51 per cent recycled material.
Joanne Milner, Garrard chief executive, says the development process revealed the challenges the industry faces. While the UK jeweller was willing to “shoot for the stars”, she says, sustainable options were not easily available, so it “had to make some compromises”.
“At one point, we got to 100 per cent recycled materials, but the quality and the technology just weren’t there yet to make it suitable for the jewellery that we have,” explains Anu Huhtisaari, sustainability manager at Garrard.
But the brand has redesigned its paper bags — eliminating ribbon to make them fully recyclable — and replaced an outer cardboard and paper box with a protective pouch made from box lining fabric. It has also committed to having its packaging made from either 100 per cent recycled or recyclable materials by 2028.
Garrard is not alone in exploring its options. Watch industry executives believe recycled packaging will be the most important material in delivering sustainability over the next five years, ahead of six other materials including certified ethical gold, according to the Deloitte Swiss Watch Industry Study 2023. The report, published last month, noted a shift in motivation for brands’ investment in sustainability, from external pressures (consumer demand and image) to internal drivers (corporate strategy and reducing carbon footprint).
In June, Boucheron unveiled jewellery cases made from recyclable aluminium and felt, which were designed to have “the smallest possible environmental footprint”. However, the jeweller declined to disclose their environmental footprint to the FT.
Breitling does give figures for its updated packaging: it has cut global greenhouse gas emissions by about 1,000 tonnes of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO₂e) per year, or 5 per cent of its total, says Aurelia Figueroa, the company’s global director of sustainability. The Swiss watchmaker began shipping its recyclable watch boxes, made from upcycled plastic bottles, in early 2021. Figueroa says one box has a carbon footprint of 0.44kg of CO₂e, compared with about 4kg of CO₂e for the heavier old box made from materials covered in leather.
While most of the savings are down to switching materials, Figueroa says the fact the new boxes fold flat makes shipping more efficient. The distance that the boxes travel is down about 30 per cent, on average, because they can be sent directly to markets. The new boxes also “cost less”, Figueroa says, although Breitling will not reveal the saving.
Garrard’s new box, which is royal blue to reflect the jeweller’s change in brand colour last year, is more expensive than the current MDF box, which is wrapped in coated red paper and lined with simulated suede, says Milner. But she notes that customers want to save packaging to keep with pieces, and jewellery “lasts for ever” (the new boxes are designed for travelling and storage).
Figueroa believes the importance of packaging to a watch buyer is influenced by their intentions for the piece: if they intend for it to re-enter circulation, packaging will have “high value” to them but is potentially less important where the owner will be the only user until it is inherited.
However, Swiss watch brand ID Genève, which launched in 2020 with the circular economy in mind, takes a different approach. “We want our packaging to disappear,” says co-founder Nicolas Freudiger.
ID Genève watches sold in stores are presented in boxes made from seaweed by London-based Notpla. This packaging can dissolve in water within hours and then be used as plant fertiliser, says Freudiger. Online sales come in a travel pouch in a vegan coated fabric made mostly from wine residue; the pouches are protected by mycelium packaging, a home-compostable alternative to plastic foam developed by UK start-up Magical Mushroom Company using the material structure of fungi. ID Genève also uses boxes made from recycled and recyclable cardboard.
“As a brand, our promise is that we will never make packaging that you will need to resell your watch — and that’s a paradigm that we’re shifting because, of course, right now, as a Rolex owner, you will lose value if you don’t have the box and the papers,” says Freudiger, whose company received investment from actor Leonardo DiCaprio last month.
At Breitling, Figueroa says non-fungible tokens (NFTs) could be an opportunity to move away from packaging as a means of authentication. Breitling has provided an NFT — a blockchain-backed proof of ownership — with new watches since 2020. Panerai, which unveiled new paper packaging made from at least 72 per cent recycled materials last year, launched a digital passport providing “tamper-proof proof of authenticity” last month. “The NFTs are going to be the disrupter, because if we think about the value of a box as an authenticator, it’s pretty stone age, especially in comparison,” says Figueroa.
But packaging itself will not be dispensed with. Garrard’s Milner says it is “absolutely needed to protect the jewellery” and is part of the experience of receiving a piece.
“Those two elements have to be brought into any discussion about what to do with packaging, but neither of them need to preclude sustainability being part of what your packaging looks and feels like,” she says.