EXCLUSIVE: A sustainable ocean for a profitable shipping industry

Lee Kok Leong, our special correspondent, talks to Paul Holthus, founding president and CEO of World Ocean Council (WOC), about the sustainability of ocean and how ethics and transparency are keys to its future.

Paul works with the private sector and market forces to develop practical solutions for achieving sustainable development and addressing environmental concerns.  His experience ranges from working with global industry associations, directors of UN agencies, to working with fishermen in small island villages.

Paul has been involved in coastal and marine resource sustainable development and conservation work in over 30 countries in Europe, Asia, the Pacific, Central America and Africa.

The WOC is a global, cross-sectoral ocean industry leadership alliance committed to “Corporate Ocean Responsibility”, developed by and for the private sector, with a unique and multi-sectoral approach to address cross-cutting issues affecting sustainable development, science and stewardship of the seas.

The WOC believes that responsible and coordinated Ocean Business Community efforts are essential to a healthy and productive global ocean and its sustainable use.

Why is corporate ocean responsibility important to the shipping industry?

The concept of corporate ocean responsibility is to help create a sense of the special role that the shipping industry has in shaping the future of ocean.

There are companies that are leaders or want to be leaders in understanding and addressing challenges concerning the health and productivity of the ocean.  We want to reach out to all the ocean business sectors including shipping, oil and gas and fishing, to identify those leadership companies, both big and small.

Leadership, in that sense, is wanting to be a part of the solution and recognizing that the ocean challenges are connected because the ocean is a three-dimensional global ecosystem.  These companies see that they have a responsibility.  They’re out there depending on the use of ocean space and resources and leadership is about making sure that they’re good steward. We work to find these companies and connect them with each other on a global multi-industry scale.

Shipping companies, including ship owners, should care because business drivers are inter-connected to being active in corporate ocean responsibility. Their future access to the ocean will increasing depend on the social license of the acceptance of the community they operate in, where the employees live, and where local livelihoods are affected by them.

Moreover, if there are negative effects from the shipping companies and the movement of their vessels, for example, pollution incidents or biofouling, all these will have consequences. And it will help the team to better manage the crisis if there already exists a longstanding active policy on corporate ocean responsibility.

So, the smart companies will be out in front to help shape the agenda, show their leadership, gain brand recognition, and improve their value proposition by saying we recognize and will address these issues and we have a responsibility to do so.

In doing so, they will create a more stable and predictable operating environment moving forward, in the sense that they’ve seen the issues and started to tackle them already in advance of being hit by external pressures and outside regulations.

How do you see ethical business practices and transparency in the world of profit-driven shipping companies?

Well, I think the values we should have on dealing with the environment and sustainable development issues should also be part of the overall package on corporate social responsibility. The values should guide how a company is run operationally, and also in formulating their social policies and practices, for example, relating to gender issues, fair employment, etc.

Moreover, I think business leaders must understand that they have multi-dimensional roles and responsibilities to employees, communities, shareholders, ocean stakeholders as well as to governments and intergovernmental bodies.

And underlying the roles should be the values of ethics and transparency.  Smart leaders are recognizing the importance of ethics and transparency and they are applying these values throughout their companies and ecosystems.  So, there’s no doubt about their importance in business.

But the crucial issue is how to develop an implementation plan to raise awareness of these values industry-wide.  In this regard, the best way forward is to have a coalition of like-minded business leaders coming together to develop initiatives for the industry, by the industry.

One aspect to note is that there should be third-party facilitators to lead the execution and move things along so that the leaders are not seen as having a vested interest.

In other words, this coalition should have a group consensus approach with a third-party intermediary to help create a neutral and equitable platform so that it is not seen as just some companies driving it to their own benefits.

In your opinion, are economic progress and sustainability, mutually exclusive or can they be balanced?

They can be balanced and leaders just have to find win-win opportunities.  Increasingly, there is evidence that practicing sustainability can lead to longer term viability and continuation of companies. For example, one of the initiatives of the WOC is Smart Ocean-Smart Industries (SO-SI). Under this program, ships, during their voyages, carry instruments that collect ocean and atmospheric data for scientific uses.

The SO-SI fosters and coordinates collaboration among the diverse Ocean Business Community, government agencies and scientific community.

The data collected will contribute to monitoring, managing ecosystems, understanding currents, weather and climate conditions and trends, improving ocean health and management, and improving the safety and sustainability of commercial activities at sea.

The shipping companies, in turn, are putting the data to good use in the form of better weather forecasting, vessel routing, countering biofouling and reducing fuel cost, among others.

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