Explorer Bertrand Piccard On Building Towards a Cleaner, Safer and More Sustainable Planet

Lindsay Judge   |   04-11-2020

Bertrand Piccard has dedicated his life to demonstrating the opportunities lying in sustainable development and raising interest in profitable solutions to protect the environment. He is a pioneer of new ways of thinking that reconcile ecology and economy and uses his exploration achievements to motivate governments and industries to take action. His most notable moment came in 1999, when the explorer, doctor and visionary was the first person to fly non-stop around the world in a balloon. The Breitling Orbiter 3 flight was a ground-breaking and an iconic moment that has been an inspiration to many. Subsequently, Piccard wanted to pursue his vision to demonstrate the immense potential of renewable energies. So he initiated the Solar Impulse challenge and circumnavigated the globe in an aeroplane powered only by the sun. This was the first exploration of its kind and highlighted the capabilities of often-overlooked renewable energies. With a quest to preserve the life of our planet and live more sustainably, Piccard launched the Solar Impulse Foundation. The Foundation is highlighting 1,000 solutions that can change the world. Selected by Piccard, these solutions range from products to services, to new ways of thinking and working, all of which will help to preserve our planet and provide a better quality of life for humankind.


One of these 1,000 solutions is devised by luxury watchmaker Breitling. Piccard is a long-term partner and friend of the watch brand and has worked closely with the Breitling team for the last three decades including becoming a member of Breitling’s Explorer Squad. In 2019, to mark the 20th anniversary of the Breitling Orbiter 3 flight, the brand unveiled the Cockpit B50 Orbiter Limited Edition watch, which paid tribute to Piccard’s great achievement. Today, it is Piccard recognising the innovative work of Breitling as the brand unveils its new sustainable packaging.


The new Breitling packaging is created entirely from upcycled plastic bottles. The foldable, reusable watch box highlight’s the brand’s commitment to reducing its environmental impact and replacing the large, heavy watch boxes that have been an industry standard for decades with a small, smart, modular alternative. Piccard’s Solar Impulse Foundation has awarded Breitling the Efficient Solution Label. This certificate is awarded to the 1,000 solutions outlined by the organisation that have a positive impact on the environment and the economy as a symbol of recognition.



Breitling’s new watch box is made from materials that can be recycled and reused in future projects. From the fabric to the push buttons that open it – the box is made from 100% up-cycled PET bottles, which is among the most widely recyclable types of plastic. This is the first 100 per cent recycled and recyclable packaging in the industry and is just one of the steps Breitling is taking to help protect our planet. Here, Bertrand Piccard shares more on Breitling’s quest towards a more sustainable planet and his personal goals and aspirations for the future.


How do you think the experiences of this year have changed the mindset of people moving forward concerning sustainability and climate change?

Before the COVID-19 crisis, the world was very inefficient. There was a lot of waste, people were not taking care of natural resources, they were wasting 75 per cent of the energy produced, and half of the planet’s food was wasted. Waste is a resource in itself and it was not being used efficiently. It was an unfair world, a lot of inequality existed. There was a lot of danger, it was fragile, unstable and this was highlighted by how it could be destroyed by a virus.


So moving forward, we need to build a world that is more sustainable, fairer, more efficient, and safer and I hope we manage to do it. There will be people, who forget about this crisis as soon as it’s over and go back to their old lives, but we need to stay within the mindset of improving our planet and I deeply hope this is what happens moving forward. I hope that the trillions of dollars that are being injected into the economy are used in the right way. For example, it would be completely ridiculous to support the car industry in continuing to make cars that are polluting the environment when we could be supporting clean mobility. But we will see what people do after this crisis. Everyone is afraid but that is not enough, we have to take action and now is the time to do it.


Your Breitling Orbiter flight in 1999, of course, captured the interest of the world – how do you think this iconic moment has influenced science and technology in the years since? 

The Breitling Orbiter 3 non-stop flight around the world was my personal first big achievement and the most important moment in my life. I have a family who has had a lot of successes; my grandfather was the first man in the stratosphere, my father, the first to touch the deepest part of the ocean, so for me, this was the first moment when I got my own credibility. It gave me the authority to speak about exploration and the protection of the environment and it also allowed me to launch the Solar Impulse project. This project saw me fly around the world in a solar-powered aeroplane. To date, the Solar Impulse Foundation has been very active in identifying solutions to protect the environment.


Breitling has been a close partner of yours for a long time now – how do you believe your values align with the brand?

There are two types of values that we share; Human values such as loyalty. I’ve been working with Breitling for such a long time and when I failed the first two attempts to fly around the world, the brand kept supporting me. They were really loyal. Like attracts like. The second thing is the pioneering spirit. Breitling is a pioneering brand. Throughout its entire history, the brand has always invented new technologies and products and they continue to do that today with their new packaging.


What can you tell us about Breitling’s new sustainable packaging?

I find it clever because the watch brands are always focusing on the watch, but the watch is not alone. You have the packaging that comes with it and it needs to be special as this is a luxury product. This new packaging is very innovative because it’s not only lighter and smaller, but it also uses upcycled PET materials. So it is made from plastic bottles that end up in the ocean. I find it really interesting and promising that it is a luxury brand and it’s setting an example.



What do you think is the role of today’s big organisations in raising awareness of sustainability in their communication?

Luxury brands have a huge role to play in protecting the environment and a responsibility for educating their customers. I believe that when the protection of the environment is promoted by environmental activists it remains in a closed circle. Only ecologists are listening to ecologists! But when it’s an organisation in the industry, be it the financial world, or a luxury brand that speaks about protecting the environment, then everyone is listening. Because it’s not a closed circle, it’s open to the entire world and it presents ecology as a way to go forward and it enables them to reach people who would not previously have been aware of these issues. When you have a luxury brand showing that we can do better in relation to sustainability, I think it’s a very good sign.


If you could put out a request to ask all those with means from the luxury industry what would you ask them?

I would like all luxury brands to do something similar to what Breitling is doing. To educate the consumers about the necessity to protect the environment but in a clever way. What Breitling is doing with the ECONYL Nato straps is also very clever because it’s not only a question of making recycled bracelets, it’s also the fact that the brand is raising awareness about the plastic and fishnets that are drifting in the oceans and having a devastating effect on marine life. So it’s a case of explaining how to do better, raising awareness and finding solutions. It’s also about proving that sustainability can be fashionable and luxurious too.


What is your favourite Breitling watch of all time and what are you wearing on your wrist today? 

My favourite Breitling watches are the 20 Breitling watches that I have! It’s impossible to choose just one. There are several brands where there is just one watch model that I would like, but with Breitling, there is such an interesting combination of styles that I like most of them! Today I’m wearing the Navitimer with a grey dial and it’s something I like very much, but I also like completely different styles like the Cockpit B50 Orbiter Limited Edition watch that was made for the 20th anniversary of the Breitling Orbiter 3 flight. I am constantly adding to my collection of Breitling watches so I can’t choose just one! There are so many I like for many different occasions. I recently bought an old watch at an auction sale; it was a Chronomat from 1945. I also found another Chronomat in my father’s archives after he passed away and I didn’t even know he had it. So that’s a very special watch. I like old watches as well as new ones and I think it’s very special that they can be passed on through generations – and it ensures their sustainability too!

As this issue is about the future – tell us what is your vision and outlook on the future? 

There are two possible futures. One is a future where people continue business as usual and do not react to the crisis we have in the world. They will continue to waste natural resources and energy, continue to pollute the environment, to allow inequality in an unacceptable way. This will create a future where the quality of life of humankind will collapse. It’s a future where there will be civil wars, millions of climate refugees, tropical diseases because of the increase in temperature, there won’t be enough energy for everyone and it will create more inequalities and wars.


Or the second future is one where humankind will be reacting to the problems that we had before the global pandemic, to become more efficient, fairer and more just. This will include switching to renewable energies and reducing the waste of resources and energy. If we do that very actively and put a priority on it, we will create more jobs and we will see economical growth because all the things that are polluting today will be replaced with products and solutions that protect the environment. This is really the only way to ensure a good quality of life for moving forward and this will be a future worth living. We, as humankind, need to choose this future and not the other one.


Tell us about the work you are doing with the Solar Impulse Foundation and how has it progressed in the past year? 

The Solar Impulse adventure to fly around the world with a solar-powered plane was symbolic. For me, it was a way to demonstrate that you can achieve the impossible with renewable energy and new technology, pioneering spirit and exploration. Of course, it’s not practical for everyone to travel like that (not yet anyway), but it was an iconic moment in history. After this flight, The Solar Impulse Foundation was set up to select 1,000 solutions around the world that can protect the environment, but in a financially profitable way. I want to prove that the protection of the environment can be more profitable than the destruction of it. So today we have 765 solutions that we have already selected. This means a group of experts have accessed these solutions, under the angle of credibility, (meaning it works today and can go on the market today), profitability (that it is profitable for the company who designs it), and it protects the environment. My goal is once we have this portfolio of 1,000 solutions, we will travel the world again but this time to meet heads of states, governments, big company leaders and key decision-makers to show them that the tools of the environmental issues and the solutions of protecting the environment already exist. We just need to highlight them and use them in the right way, find investors and support them.


How do we prioritise the solutions that are needed to help our planet and what is your current focus right now? 

We took five United Nations sustainable development goals; water, energy, mobility, agriculture and industry and construction. And we launched this call to solutions where we have started working with big companies. We have segregated everything so we can prioritise all at the same time. One of the solutions is the new sustainable packaging by Breitling! We presented a certificate to Breitling’s CEO Georges Kern after our experts accessed the solution and it met all of the criteria that we have been judging our solutions against.


What is something everyone can do to help improve our planet and build towards a better future?

Everyone must understand the value of the resources we use. We need to save energy. We need to turn off lights when we’re not in a room, stop overheating or over-cooling buildings. We need to switch to electric mobility. We need to support the efforts of the governments in trying to reach a place where they are carbon neutral. Very often you have politicians who have technological goals and then you have the media or the people who don’t want to change anything, but we need to support the efforts of governments in order to do it. We also need to consume more local products. It’s crazy to give priority to products that come from the other side of the world when people in our own regions are struggling to sell their goods. We also need to stop buying things that have crazy multiple layers of packaging. The consumer has a role to play, but the major role, of course, lies in the regulations, because as long as the regulations allow people to be inefficient and wasteful, then they will. So we need to modernise regulations around the world.


What is a challenge you would currently like to undertake or something that you would still like to do that you haven’t had the chance to do yet?

I would like to continue doing things with renewable energies that were previously done only with thermal engines and pollution. I flew around the world with a solar-powered aeroplane but with stopovers – I would love to do it non-stop. Of course, we will need to invent new technologies in order to have batteries that can hold more weight but things like this can definitely be done. We can re-write the history of the 20th century but with renewable energies and new technology.


What is the motto you live by?

I would like to have an exciting and useful life – not one without the other.


What is a lesson you have learned from this year that you will take forward with you?

This year has been a very different life for me because in previous years I was travelling all the time. I was meeting people, I was giving speeches and interviews physically, and now I have seen that we can be very efficient with video conferencing. We don’t need to travel as much. It’s interesting because I never thought we could be so efficient virtually but I even did speeches for the United Nations and the European Commission over video calls. These changes mean that instead of travelling 24 hours to give a ten-minute speech, I can do ten speeches in a day! I am much more efficient and I meet a lot more people, but I do have to admit it’s not as fun!


What I also learnt this year is how fragile our society has become and the way that we have been delocalising a lot of production just to save a few cents is ridiculous. It’s better to produce more locally and have the people around you have work and be able to sell what they need, rather than delocalise at the other end of the world where they are creating more pollution and people are often treated very badly. I truly believe that our world still has a lot to learn.