How the Shipping Industry is the Secret Force Driving the World Economy

What percent of goods are shipped via the sea? It’s much higher than you think

Ninety percent of all goods travel via the shipping industry. Evan Leeson

From laptops to clothes and almost everything in-between, how do the goods needed to power the world get from one place to another? Even in our modern, speed-driven and globalized economy, 90 percent of everything still travels as it did almost 500 years ago: by ship. The shipping industry carries necessities like food and clothing all over the world, and yet it’s an industry that goes largely ignored by people outside of it. Hoping to break the barrier between shipping and the outside world, author Rose George spent several weeks aboard the container ship Maersk Kendal, sailing 9,288 nautical miles from England to Singapore. What resulted was her book Ninety Percent of Everything, a sweeping glimpse inside all aspects of the shipping industry, from the isolation of a shipping crew to the complicated business of flags of convenience. George spoke with about what compelled her to take the journey on the boat, why shipping goes unnoticed and why she thinks that no matter what the future holds, the world will always need shipping.

What compelled you to write a book about the shipping industry? When did you first have the idea?

My last book was about sanitation and toilets, The Big Necessity, and it came out in 2008 and it did pretty well getting attention – I spent about 18 months talking and giving lectures. The point being, it was a really fascinating topic to – excuse the pun – fall in to. And so when it came to writing another book, I was a bit stuck. I’d taken a trip in 1999, a ten-day trip in a container ship across the Atlantic in mid-winter with 21 Indians. And we’d gone down the St. Lawrence River breaking the ice all the way down to Montreal, and I remembered that as being the most alien environment that I had ever really encountered, even though I’ve traveled a lot. And I don’t mean alien in that it was unpleasant or the crew was unfriendly – I just mean it was so outside anything I’d ever experienced, and so outside of most people’s experiences, and so I thought, “Well, that’s just one ship.” And then I found out there are about 100,000 ships and I thought, “I’m going to go back to sea.”

The title of the book is Ninety Percent of Everything. How do you put the magnitude of the shipping industry – its sheer size – into terms that the public can understand?

I tell them to guess what percentage of world trade travels by sea, and no one ever gets it. They usually think maybe 40, 50%. I think most people in industrialized countries, where we’ve become less nations of producers and more nations of consumers, don’t really think about it that much. When they do think about it, they might think that it comes from a sweatshop somewhere, but you’d be surprised at how many people think that everything comes by plane, which it doesn’t because it’s so expensive. Even a freight plane can carry an absolute fraction of what a ship can carry. My understanding is that people think that shipping and ships are old-fashioned, and it’s kind of the docks with their longshoremen, and their crazy colorful world, and they just don’t think it’s what it is, which is a vibrant, vital and in a way cutthroat industry.

I notice a lot of tension in the book between old and new – this very old tradition of sailing trying to maintain footing in a postindustrial world. What do you make of this tension?

Shipping is a very, very modern industry. It has to be to keep up with the pace and efficiency of containerization. Go onto a ship, and you go onto the bridge, and you won’t see any brass or a wooden wheel – it’s all beeps and machines and electronic charts. But at the same time, a ship has to be controlled by a very old fashioned thing: a human being. And you can’t get away from that, so no matter how modern a ship becomes, it always has to rely on a human being. Sea faring has always been a very dangerous life. You’ve got weather; you’ve got all sorts of hazards, and there’s not a lot that modernity can do to alleviate that. We can do everything we can to make our ships safer, but they still sink at the rate of two per week. So you’ve got seafarers who, in this strange world that is at the same time quite technologically advanced, have the second most dangerous job in the world.

Another thing that struck me was the contrast between the technology of the industry – these huge boats, super-efficient containers – and the technology allowed to the people on board. You mention that even though the ship you were on was only four years old, the seafarers weren’t allowed Internet access of any kind. How do you explain this divide?

Well it’s very simply a question of cost. The economic margins in shipping are very tight and obviously a ship owner is going to try to keep costs as low as possible. And satellite Internet access, which is what you have on a ship, is very expensive. Seafarers are on these incredibly advanced machines, living in sort of preindustrial, pre modern communications conditions. Kendal, which is what I was on, does now have Internet access for its seafarers, and there are a few more ports, which now supply free Wi-Fi. When I say a few, really a few—fewer than half a dozen.

One thing I found so interesting was the lives of the men aboard the ship -- it really seems like for all their experiences, and for the entire world they’ve seen, they are still really limited. You talk about a seafarer, Marius, who had been through treacherous storms and sailed around the world, yet felt completely out of place in Le Havre.

It has been researched that for shipping, the average amount of time that they have on land is two hours, and so many of them just stay in the port. Marius, who had never been to France even though he’d been at sea for 10 years or so, he’s probably set foot in a French port but he’s never been farther than a seafarers’ mission of wherever he can get free Wi-Fi. And that’s true for a lot of these guys, because they don’t want to risk not getting back to work on time and they don’t want to spend a hundred dollars each way to go into town for an hour and come back. A lot of them end up essentially living mostly on their ship for nine or 10 months. The Filipino crew on my ship, some of them had six-month contracts and they do get ashore, but not for long. They go, use Skype, call their families and then get back on the ship.

Another theme that runs throughout the book – in the same vein as old vs. new – is this sense of the tension created by increasing globalization. You talk a lot about the multiple layers of nationalities involved in any shipping endeavor – the country that owns the ship, the country that owns the company, the flags and the sailors. What kind of dynamic does this create?

Well, you’ve got 70 percent of ships now which fly a flag that has nothing to do with the nationality or residency of their owner. That came about quite simply because, around Prohibition and more so during the Second World War, American ship-owners discovered that they could rent the flag of Panama or Liberia. They could pay a fee and fly the flag of Liberia or Panama, and then they wouldn’t be subject to U.S. labor laws, because initially they were trying to void Prohibition restrictions. Then, of course, their costs reduced dramatically. The operating costs—not the operating costs, really, but wage bills and such between a U.S.-flagged ship today and a ship that’s flagged-out is $1 to $2 million a year. They have these ships that are technically Panamanian, or Liberian, and subject to the laws of Panama or Liberia.

It’s quite strange to me that many people will go on a holiday on a cruise ship without checking what flag the ship is. It’s like going to a country and not noticing what country you’re in. If you go to see on a Bahamian ship, a ship that’s flying the flag of the Bahamas, if anything happens on that ship there are some international laws that the ship is subject to, but essentially you’re on a piece of the Bahamas even if it’s near Alaska. So that leads to some pretty interesting situations. Most of the big open registries like Liberia are reputable--they have a lot of good ships, they have a lot of good ship-owners—but when someone wants to be disreputable, when someone wants to ill-treat their crew, it’s pretty easy. The biggest global seafarers union, the ITF (International Transport Workers Federation) every year has to chase at least 30 million dollars in wages that are simply not being paid. They will tell you about lots of shady practices, like double booking. When times are really bad, it’s pretty easy for ship owners to abandon their ship, so you have men stuck on the ship for nine months, ten months sometimes without food, water and money, and they start having to take out loans for money lenders because they have money obligations back home. And they end up in a really desperate state.

At those times, it’s really only the seafarers’ welfare organizations who step in and get them home, and sometimes they don’t want to get home because they want to stay on the ship because they hope they’ll get their wages, so they're on there for months and months and months. If you look at the International Labor Organization’s list of abandoned ships, it’s really long. And they're always adding new ships.

Shipping seems to be a middle kind of industry – the workers aren’t necessarily exploited, but they’re certainly not treated extremely well either. Is this because of the industry’s low visibility?

It took a long time for people who were campaigning to better conditions for people in garment factories to make their case to the general public, or for us to realize where our stuff comes from, who was producing it and what their conditions were like. Shipping has been so out of sight and a little invisible for such a long time, and I understand why that is. Since most ship owners will get crews from the developing world or from Eastern Europe, we often wont know a working seafarer anymore. The other thing is that ports are now so big, so huge, that they're often not in cities anymore, they're outside of the cities and kept very secure so it’s very difficult to go visit them. There are those practical impediments to people knowing more about shipping, and there’s this sort of disconnect that we don’t notice it. We don’t really need to notice it. It’s a business-to-business industry. So as long as the things keep appearing in our supermarkets, I guess we’re just content with that.

What about a ship’s negative impacts on the world – pollution, both into the air atmospherically and into the sea, acoustically? In the future, do you think these drawbacks will mortally harm the industry? Or will they find ways to work around these issues?

These are pretty interesting times, because I do think things are changing. That Maritime Labor Convention, the Bill of Rights for seafarers, that’s a really huge deal. If it’s properly enforced, that’s going to hopefully make a big improvement to working conditions and welfare of seafarers. If you’ve got a bored or depressed seafarer, you’re not going to get the best quality of work out of him or her, so it’s important that they start considering seafarers’ welfare. In terms of environmental issues, acoustic pollution is very tricky because it would require all the current ships, the 100,000 working vessels which are currently working on the sea somewhere, to be retrofitted with more efficient propellers, and that’s just going to cost way too much money. That said though, recently California has moved its shipping lanes because of concerns with whale strikes. The understanding of acoustic pollution is there, but I don’t think that that’s as high on the agenda yet.

In terms of atmospheric pollution, there is much more movement, or at least more talk, of making ships greener and more environmentally friendly. So Maersk has this Triple E ship, which is the largest container ship that’s ever been built—it can carry 18,000 containers. And they claim it’s more efficient: it’s got a more efficient propeller, it uses less harmful fuel, so it’s quite current for shipping to talk about sustainable shipping and sustainable technology, and to look at their impact. And so they should; it hasn’t been looked at for decades, and while everyone talks about air miles, no one talks about ship miles. It does have an impact, and the big environmental campaign groups are now starting to talk more about shipping and more about the impact of shipping. So these are quite interesting times, and it will be interesting to see the kinds of technologies that come through and whether they are applied or enforced. But it’s all a little bit up in the air at this moment.

You approach the boat in a really romantic way – your prose certainly reflects that. You also invoke a lot of literary figures throughout the book, especially Joseph Conrad. Is there something about the sea that begs to be written in that style?

I had been on a container ship for ten days, but I didn’t know what it was going to be like being on there for over a month. I didn’t know what the crew was going to be like, I didn’t know what the captain was going to be like—it could have been an absolute disaster. But I found that I had a great crew, I had a wonderful captain who treated me with grace and kindness, and he liked to teach me things, like the principles of the sextant and how to watch for things at sea. I am romantic about it because, even though it’s a heavy industrial machine, you’re still in the middle of the ocean, you’re still surrounded by immensity on all sides. You can’t not be romantic.

I mentioned Conrad a few times because he’s just the best writer about the sea, and I took a load of sea books with me because I had a lot of reading time. But I just didn’t find anyone better than him to describe it. He’s also really good at describing the emotion of people who are at sea.

I really loved looking at the ocean, or watching the bow slice through the water, I never tired of watching that. I loved it when the dolphins finally turned up. But I also loved being with the crew and hearing their stories, and learning to run in the gym—I’m very good at running with a 20 degree sway each way. I just liked being on that peculiar environment, where it’s just you, on a machine, in the middle of hundreds of thousands of miles of water.

For the people who work on the ships, and live that life, do they maintain that same sense of romanticism?

Oh no, god no. They think I’m mad. I kept trying to ask the captain, “Don’t you love the sea?” And he liked to pretend he was very practical and pragmatic about it, but he did love the sea. He used to, because I said to him, “Why don’t you walk on deck more?” And he said, “Because I’m here all the time.” But he did go out to the bridge, and he did stick his head out, and he did just kind of greet the ocean, and he greeted the ship everyday. And he was more romantic about it then he let on.

But most of the ship, they're just too tired to have any romantic feelings about it. What they want, they call it “dollar for homesickness.” They want to earn their salaries, get home to their families, have as much time with their families, and then get back to sea for however many years they’ve calculated they wanted to be at sea for. But none of them wanted to be at sea, none of them loved their job. It was just a job. But that said, sometimes I’d go on deck and I’d meet a couple of crewmembers and I’d be like, “What are you doing?” And they’d say they were just looking, just looking at the sea. So I think that sometimes—I don’t know if they were being just hard-nosed with me—but generally they're so exhausted, and they’ve got such a punishing schedule, I don’t think they’ve got time to be romantic. If you see the way they eat, for example, there’s no pleasure in eating, its just fuel and then they leave. They just want to get the job done, and go home.

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