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Stephen Urquhart: Time for environmental responsibility

As president of Swiss watch manufacturer Omega Stephen Urquhart has set up a corporate social responsibility programme that is helping to restore Indonesia's desiccate coral and mangrove eco-system.

Overlooking the Celebes Sea on the northernmost tip of Indonesia's island of Sulawesi, Stephen Urquhart and I are drinking iced tea in the sweltering equatorial heat and humidity. We've just returned from a long drive to the coastal village of Bahoi, where a handful of villagers eke out a modest subsistence fishing among the coral reefs and mangrove swaps. Bahoi, which at 7,500 miles from London seems to be the most remote place on Earth, should be one of the most pristine. But it isn't: it's been degraded by over-fishing and other environmental factors that mean it's in desperate need of conservation.

Urquhart is president of Omega, perhaps one of the most famous luxury watch brands on the market today. Most people will know Omega as the official timekeeper to the Olympic Games and for its high-profile celebrity ambassador programme. Urquhart is probably more used to being seen rubbing shoulders with the likes of George Clooney, Buzz Aldrin, Daniel Craig, Nicole Kidman and Cindy Crawford. But today, he's on another mission. It seems that Omega is widening its portfolio to include marine environmental conservation.

To those suspecting this might be something of a radical departure for the Swiss watchmaker, Urquhart is quick to point out that Omega's link with the oceans goes back a long way, to its first dive watch in 1932, with the classic Seamaster line making an appearance as long ago as 1948. But, says Urquhart, the biggest breakthrough in terms of oceanic health came through an association with "our good friend" Sir Peter Blake, who started the Blake Foundation in 2000, which Omega sponsored.

"Peter inspired all of us with his motto: 'Good water, good life. Poor water, poor life. No water, no life'." Just as the project was gaining momentum, Blake was murdered by pirates while on an environmental monitoring mission in the Amazon. That was back in 2001. An inevitable consequence was that the Omega mission to help with environmental restoration understandably faltered. It was to be a decade before things got moving again.

In 2011, Omega announced its partnership with the GoodPlanet Foundation and by the following year they had collaborated on the production of 'Planet Ocean', a documentary directed by Yann Arthus-Bertrand and Michael Pitiot. "Our projects with the GoodPlanet Foundation are a natural extension of Peter's legacy and we are proud to be playing an active role in the restoration and preservation of these delicate eco-systems while raising awareness of what people can do to contribute to the viability of our most valuable natural resources."

The film had its premier at the Rio+20 Summit. Outstanding aerial imagery from the renowned photographer Arthus-Bertrand was combined with stunning subsea filming by Pitiot "to illustrate and educate the audience about the beauty covering the surface of our planet and the challenges we have forced upon the marine ecosystems we all depend on". As the publicity machine swung into action, Omega hosted some 29 international Planet Ocean events and 28 film screenings in 21 countries, including at the United Nations, where it was screened to Secretary General Ban Ki-moon.

But for the likes of eco-warrior and environmental activist Arthus-Bertrand, merely showing people images was never going to be enough. And so, in 2013 Omega teamed up with the photographer's GoodPlanet Foundation to begin collaboration on two projects in Indonesia's North and South Sulawesi regions. The plan was to concentrate on strengthening the resilience of marine biodiversity and building community empowerment through climate change mitigation. Together, the partners are now plugged into a world where the standard vocabulary is composed of expressions such as 'environmental conservation' and 'sustainable development'.

Established as 'Time for the Planet', the Indonesian projects have been made possible in part by proceeds from the sale of Omega's Seamaster Planet Ocean 600M GoodPlanet GMT wristwatches. Officially the stated aims of the three-year projects are: the restoration of mangroves and preservation of seagrass beds, collaboration with the local communities and authorities to consolidate the protection of the shorelines, and raising awareness among the local players and the younger generation of the issues involved in managing their natural heritage.

For those not used to the density of such eco-jargon in the context of multi-stakeholder projects, it's hard to see what all this might mean. But the bottom line is that Omega is a cash-rich company that likes to spend its money on good causes, while Arthus-Bertrand is one of the biggest names in conservation, which means that he can get the attention of people like Ban Ki-moon. And while Urquhart says it's a reasonable enough proposition to give away money in order to satisfy a commitment to corporate social responsibility, what he wanted to do was get directly involved, which is why "today is a little bit different. It is the first time we have got involved with a hands-on operation with the GoodPlanet Foundation. We made a product called the GoodPlanet watch and the idea is that the proceeds fund the projects in Indonesia. But it was never really about selling watches. It was about working with someone like Yann to make a difference".

Time for a conversation

Urquhart is slightly reluctant to call Omega a technology company, simply because the watches his organisation manufactures are totally mechanical. For him the word technology implies the presence of electronic components in the design. And so he's happier with the expression 'precision engineering'. For Omega to be associated with environmental fieldwork is a departure because "this is not show business or a sporting event. It's not going to the Moon either. It's none of the things that people think of when they think of the brand: none of them".

Urquhart goes on to describe the association with GoodPlanet as more of a 21st century approach to corporate social responsibility. Its critics will undoubtedly say that during a time of global economic recession shifting the emphasis from red-carpet celebrities is something of a PR obligation, while on the other hand boosting a corporation's green credentials has the potential of going down well with even the most sceptical of international media. But Urquhart says that there was no sinister calculation involved here: "The project came about by accident. We weren't looking for it.

"We had a watch called Planet Ocean and it is a lovely name. We wondered if we could do more with the idea. So we contacted Yann who we felt was the right man for the job, and we made the film 'Planet Ocean' together. I'm hoping that will be the beginning of a long-standing relationship. It is something that is very new for us. It's different from just supporting some foundation somewhere financially. It's more active and we can see the results."

When you cast your eyes around Bahoi, where the subsistence level of life has changed so little over the centuries, the first thing you notice is that it isn't a pristine paradise. There are plastic bags, cups and bottles everywhere, washed in on the tide: in fact one villager has the full-time occupation of sorting and grading the plastic flotsam for recycling, for which he will receive a few dollars.

"It's incredible, isn't it?" says Urquhart, adding that it is this relentless contamination of the environment that is leading Omega to become more environmentally responsible as a manufacturer.

Currently under construction in Bienne, adjacent to its existing premises, Omega is building a state-of-the-art facility where the emphasis is "to do everything with clean energy. This is also very important for the quality of the product that we are making. Where we can we are working off solar energy".

He also enjoys pointing out that because his watches are mechanical "we are also making a very eco-friendly product. The only thing they consume is gravity and a bit of lube oil. It's funny to think that living in such a technologically developing world we have such a pure product". Urquhart then goes on to tell an anecdote about how a few years ago he received a delegation of three technologists from probably "one of the biggest tech companies on the planet today. It was just one of those fact-finding visits where you talk about different materials and so on. Now two of those three people were wearing an Omega manual-winding watch. This amazed me. They weren't wearing them because they were trying to impress me. Why would they do that? They were wearing them because that is what they wear".

Urquhart describes one of the attractions of the mechanical watch – without a trace of irony – as "the completely useless range of functions that they give. You can understand why people love motorcars: the speed, design, road-holding and all that. But a watch? Well that's poetry".

The last time I interviewed Urquhart was in Canada prior to the Winter Olympics in Whistler in 2010. In that meeting he told me that people don't spend $60,000 on a watch because they want to know the time. Since Whistler, things have moved on at a dramatic pace, one of the most notable developments being the smartwatch. As we look around the table where we are sitting, we count at least six electronic devices that have essentially free digital timekeeping on them as a taken-for-granted feature. "These days we don't need a watch to know what the time is. Does it bother me? Well it could do, only I see that it's not working that way. This is because I think we are making a product that people seem to need. Now, this need isn't really that of time telling. Is it an emotional need or social need? I don't know. But it's there. To see the interest in watch making today on every level is unbelievable."

Lasting value

For Urquhart it seems that there has never been more demand for fine, mechanical, high value, limited quantity watches. "I've been in this business for a long time, and there is definitely a niche aspect to it. In the 1980s we thought that this side of the business would disappear when the Japanese arrived with an onslaught of quartz watches. But the luxury aspect is coming back. In today's world there is an interest in objects of lasting value that you can use in a meaningful way. You can buy a work of art and put it in your home, and that's it basically. But a watch is something that is so easy to appreciate, and you can share that appreciation."

Urquhart is the driving force behind bringing a new eco-flavour to a company that in the 20th century was unashamedly led by its association with the worlds of sport and glamour. Is this a reflection of any personal changes in Urquhart's approach to the world we live in? "Personally, I didn't go on a crusade on my own. The entire company is in sync with this. Peter Blake was, of course, the person who really opened my eyes to the possibility of doing something in the CSR area to help to restore the environment. And it is because of his link with the world's oceans that we chose the sea as the basis of our message."

For Urquhart, the opportunity to collaborate with Arthus-Bertrand is a meeting of minds. "Yann is a perfectionist and there is excellence and dedication in his work which seems to really line up with what we do as a brand. When Yann speaks it is from the heart and he's not always an easy guy to work with. We're now working on a second film and we have started to put the basics down on that. To really understand what we are doing with Yann you need to see the 'Planet Ocean' film. You can see that on YouTube or download the GoodPlanet app. What we're trying to do is to inspire people to go out and really get something done." 

'Planet Ocean' can be viewed in its entirety on YouTube: www.youtube.com/planetoceanthemovie

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