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Watches are a wonderful example of responsibility, technology and beauty and the bustling business hub of Hong Kong, with its entrepreneurial spirit attracting talent from around the globe, makes it the ideal birthplace for a sustainable watch company.
When Australian entrepreneur Sally Lim, co-founder of conscious watch brand 2°EAST, moved to Hong Kong eight years ago, she noticed the city-wide obsession with timepieces.
“Hong Kong is known to be a paradise for watch fanatics,” Sally explained. “My husband started going to the annual watch fairs and in doing so, sowed the seeds of 2°EAST.”
The seeds of 2°EAST may have been sown at watch fairs, but the idea sprouted when Sally experienced her own watch crisis amid undertaking a personal plastic-free challenge.
How it all began
In 2018, Sally set herself a challenge to reduce her plastic consumption. Easy swaps came first; ditching soap and shampoo bottles for bars, replacing cling wrap with beeswax wraps and silicon alternatives and carrying reusable water bottles and shopping bags everywhere.
Then her watch broke.
For the plastic-warrior Sally, a replacement of the same colourful, plastic style was out of the question, so she looked to other alternatives. After cutting out options that came packed with foam lined boxes, offered polyester straps and plastic spacers inside their dials, she realised how limiting her “no new plastic” rule was becoming in her quest to replace her watch.
It was around this time whilst attending a watch fair, she met Ron Zhang, the owner of a factory in Shenzhen, China that manufactures watches and jewellery. Ron proposed a watch business partnership and as it is often said in the world of story-telling, the rest is history.
Given the difficulty of finding a watch that matched her eco values and standards, Sally zeroed in on ethical and sustainable manufacturing as the primary focus of their new business 2°EAST: design timeless, minimalist watches, source eco-friendly materials, implement ethical-as-can-be production practices and ensure a direct and transparent connection from the manufacturer to the customer.
While many established brands are scrambling to rework their businesses to meet the expectations of an increasingly socially and environmentally aware demographic, Sally designed 2°EAST with sustainable and ethical values from day one.
After developing several watch samples originally manufacturing with a Swiss movement (the internal mechanism that powers the watch) and then a Miyota movement, the final decision was straightforward. “[Miyota] are made in Japan and are a part of the CITIZEN group, which is pushing for strong sustainability and social responsibility policies,” explained Sally. “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.”
As for the manufacturing, this is the domain of co-founder Ron, whose Shenzhen factory and workforce of loyal, fairly paid staff produce all the watch cases and assemble all the watches. Having been an employee for other watchmakers and then building his own business from scratch, Ron is familiar with the work standards in the supply chain and has nurtured long-term, solid supplier relationships.
He sources specialised components from local suppliers, whom he visits regularly. The dials, crystals, hands, and buckles in 2°EAST watches are made in a city about an hour’s drive north of the Shenzhen factory. The mesh bracelets are also produced nearby. The rose gold is applied in another nearby factory operated by owners who are as committed to social and environmental responsibility and source Conflict Free Minerals.
When it came to designing the watches, Sally drew on her knowledge of ‘capsule wardrobes’ and applied the same principles to 2°EAST – fewer, flexible, quality pieces that could be mixed and matched. The materials were chosen for longevity and had lower environmental impact in relation to toxic chemicals, plastic and waste. One example is the rose gold, which is applied using zero waste dry plating that eliminates air emissions, wastewater and hazardous run offs and lasts 10x times longer than standard plating.
The simple lines, minimal branding and easily interchangeable strap options – leather, recycled PET and mesh – make for a flexible and versatile accessory that will never go out of style. The decision to offer a minimalist design and interchangeable straps also delivered the added benefit of lower minimum order quantities, resulting in less waste. “We maintain a low inventory and I assemble the watch faces with straps as they are ordered. This way we avoid oversupply and can accurately manufacture for demand,” Sally explains.
Leather straps are ideal for wearing to work and 2°EAST makes their straps with full grain, vegetable-tanned leather from Italy. “We had hoped to source leather solely from offcuts of the fashion industry, 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.”
For the bold, printed NATO watch straps featuring exclusive illustrations, Sally settled on a woven yarn made from recycled PET bottles; each strap contains the equivalent of one post-consumer plastic bottle. As sustainable as this choice is, her original fabric choice was just as sustainable.
“Our social feeds have long been full of sustainable activewear and swimsuit brands, advertising their “recycled from ocean plastic” materials. We looked around and found many are using Econyl, a type of regenerated nylon made in Italy,” Sally recounted.
“Unfortunately, when we 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.”
The watches are also virgin plastic-free. Since 2°EAST watches are built to very precise measurements and fit the selected movement perfectly, no plastic holder or plastic spacers are required inside the watch.
Sourcing and manufacturing were kept as local as possible to improve efficiency as well as minimise the operation’s carbon footprint. Aside from the recycled PET yarn that is produced in Taiwan, the movement that is made in Japan, and the leather that is procured and tanned in Italy, all other components are sourced and manufactured just short drive or train ride away from their factory in Shenzhen or Hong Kong headquarters.
Its lean operations, low overheads and direct to consumer business model means that their watches are also reasonably priced, proving that sustainable products needn’t be out-of-reach expensive.
On the topic of ethical certifications
From the outset, the 2°EAST team looked for suppliers who held all the right ethical and fair-trade certifications, but after doing some research they also uncovered a host of issues with this ‘certification only’ sourcing strategy.
“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,” said Sally.
“Others that did advertise certifications sent us copies of audits that showed they weren’t meeting some criteria and probably didn’t fully understand the meaning of them. It seemed to have been more of a box-ticking exercise than a true measure.”
So they drew up workplace policies based on the standards set by the International Labour Organisation (ILO). Only ethical, fair and responsible employers are included in the 2°EAST supply chain, and each supplier is required to sign and comply to the requirements of the Responsible Sourcing Agreement. The long-term objective is to help suppliers with ongoing training and external certifications when the start-up becomes more profitable.
“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,” admits the Australian co-founder.
Sustainability isn’t all or nothing and in a sustainable business there is always room for continuous improvement, something Sally acknowledges. “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.”
The traditional watch market is crowded, but 2°EAST is expanding well beyond the world of cheaply made, short-lived timepieces and ringing in an era of thoughtfully-designed watches that can be easily assembled, disassembled, mixed and matched for long-lasting timepieces that remain true to its eco ethos without compromising on style.
To learn more, visit https://2degreeseast.com/.
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