Remarks by Richemont's Matthew Kilgarriff to the World Wildlife Day Panel

Updated on 11 March 2020

"Swamps, meadows, and apex Creatures"
Remarks to the panel on World Wildlife Day

Matthew Kilgarriff, Director of Corporate Social Responsibility
Richemont International SA.

3 March 2020, Geneva

Good morning and thank you for inviting a private sector representative to today’s event.

I will take this opportunity to describe how one company – Richemont – is addressing the biodiversity topic. Some of what I will say may surprise you. Some of what I will not say may disappoint you. In any event, I hope that it will be of interest.

First, just a few words about Richemont, a Geneva-based Trans-National Corporation. It employs over 30’000 Homo Sapiens, who create and distribute beautiful objects: Cartier jewellery, Montblanc pens and IWC watches to name just a few. The process is one of continuous creativity, with most of the companies being in the same business for more than a century. Such long-lived companies, making everlasting products, know a thing or two about sustainability.

Turning now to our Moderator’s question, “How to reconcile conservation with the needs of humanity?”, I’ll provide some answers in the form of historical background and current actions.

First, historical background. Almost sixty years ago, when the IUCN first realised that it would need non-governmental support, the result was the World Wide Fund for Nature, better known to us as WWF. Among the founding members of WWF was Dr Anton Rupert, a businessman and a conservationist. His interests spanned from Cartier jewellery to Trans-Frontier Peace Parks. His family continues to control Richemont. The family’s quiet preservation of craft skills and natural spaces drives many of the company’s actions.

Rather than provide a long list of current actions, which may be found online, I’ll mention just four regarding the reconciliation question.

  • First, Richemont offsets its carbon footprint via a vast REDD+ scheme along the Zambezi River. The scheme preserves the wild forests by bringing a steady flow of cash to the Homo Sapiens who live there, on the condition that the forests which surround them are conserved. In that way, Richemont increases its running costs, but reconciles those costs to natural capital preservation. By publicising our long-term agreement with the agents of the forest, who have the blessing of Peace Parks Foundation, Richemont has motivated much larger companies to follow. Just yesterday for example, a twenty-year agreement covering one million hectares of Zambezi forest was announced.
  • A second example relates to gold supplies. After giving the pros and cons of gold sourcing a great deal of thought, we decided to use recycled gold most of the time. We still leave space for artisanally mined gold, provided the social and environmental conditions are clean. This demanding approach certainly costs us more, but we believe it’s worth every cent. Moreover, in 2005 Richemont established a certification standard for gold and diamonds. The standard has attracted more than a thousand companies, which employ a third of a million people. Thus, Richemont contributed to a leading standard, which reconciles conservation with the needs of people working with the precious material used in jewellery.
  • A third example relates to WWF, which I mentioned earlier. WWF is not only a fundraising vehicle, it is also a campaigning organisation. Two years ago, it targeted the Swiss jewellery industry. The results, which included plenty of naming and shaming, put Richemont under the spot light. Well, Richemont did . . . quite well, and I survived the experience. Otherwise I might not be speaking to you today. To do better next time, especially when they come for me, Richemont is working with WWF to be better conservationists of both natural and manufactured beauty.
  • My fourth and final example is probably the most controversial: alligators. Specifically Louisiana alligators, which we use to make long-lasting watch straps.

Let me take you to the swamps of Louisiana. There, the alligators only lay eggs in the wild. Farmers harvest the eggs, hatch them, return some of the hatchlings to the wild and grow the rest for their great economic value. The farms are certified using standards which place animal welfare first.

The fact that the alligators only lay eggs in the wild is what conserves the swamps as swamps. Otherwise the Louisiana landowners would continue to convert, not conserve, their properties and would destroy the biotopes on which 8’000 species depend, including the alligators. This creates swamp work for the people of Louisiana, among the poorest in the USA.

Now, I’ll be honest with you. I hadn’t made the link between ecosystem services and watch straps until quite recently. But it appears that the demands of luxury customers – the apex shoppers – are conserving the alligators – the apex predators. This wake up moment made me open my school books and re-read the work of Dr Meadows on system thinking and leverage points. Well hello: from Swamps to Meadows and back again.

And another thing: such wetlands are critical for climate change mitigation as they sequester a phenomenal amount of carbon. Yet they are disappearing even faster than forests. I suggest that the topic of voluntary carbon credits for wetlands has been neglected and that should change. If anyone’s interested to develop that quickly in Louisiana, then please find me afterwards.

In an ideal world, the Louisiana swamps and others wetlands would all be preserved forever, with no human intervention at all. At the other extreme, such wetlands will all be drained. Somewhere between those two extremes, we have the ‘state of play’ I just described: a thriving ecosystem service. One which reconciles the conservation needs of 8’000 species, including humans, at a high price but one which luxury watch buyers are willing to pay. My friends at the IUCN’s Crocodile Specialist Group tell me this system is almost too good: it sets a very high bar for swamp projects around the world. Well, I’m sorry for raising the bar.

I hope that these examples have provided a glimpse of what one company, with deep roots in conservation, is able to achieve. Most of what Richemont does follows the logic of Dr Meadows and her leverage points. That has taken us to gold decisions which needn’t cost the Earth, and watch strap decisions which help conserve the Earth for future generations.

Thank you for your attention.