How Cargill is making shipping cleaner 

Although shipping is the cleanest form of transport, it’s not quite perfect. Here’s what Cargill is doing to make it better. 

By Tom Vandyck April 02, 2015

An estimated 90 percent of the world’s exports travel by sea. From an environmental point of view, that’s a good thing, because transporting a ton of goods on a tightly packed ship emits significantly less pollutants than putting the same ton on a plane or a truck. That doesn’t mean that shipping is perfect, however. Ships, too, emit CO2 and other pollutants. Because they’re so big, they actually emit a lot.

But not all ships are created equal. Some run much cleaner than others. In other words, just by picking the right vessel, you can avoid a lot of pollution. Recently, Cargill became the first player in the industry to publicly commit to staying away from the crafts that cause the most pollution. It’s better for the planet, it helps customers hit their own sustainability targets – and, above all, it’s working.

Making positive waves

When Cargill’s shipping business changes course, it’s sure to make waves in the industry. Cargill Ocean Transportation  doesn’t own any vessels, but it does charter over 500 of them, making it one of the biggest players in the sector. And Cargill is a member of several groups that promote sustainability on the high seas.

“Charterers will play an increasingly significant role in defining how the shipping industry integrates sustainability into strategy and operations,” said Alastair Fischbacher, the director of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative. “Demonstrating how shipping can strengthen, not compromise, their customers’ supply chains has the potential to become an increasingly powerful commercial tool.”

According to Anda Cristescu, global operations manager for Cargill OT, integrating sustainability into the company’s business isn’t just the right thing for people and the environment – it also makes business sense. “We want to be successful in the long term, protecting the people who work on our vessels and the environment at the same time. Choosing the vessels that meet high safety and environment targets allows us to do just that,” said Cristescu.

Cargill started chartering cleaner ships preferentially in 2012. As a benchmark, it used the EVDI Index  developed by RightShip, a company that Cargill partially owns, and the specialized NGO called the Carbon War Room. The EVDI scale goes from A to G. Cargill decided to no longer use the most polluting vessels (those in the categories F and G on the scale), unless there is no other ship available.

Cargill has been an integral part of developing this standard. As Carbon War Room’s President Jose Maria Figueres, former President of Costa Rica, pointed out, “By using the EVDI rankings and not chartering F and G rated vessels unless there is a management override, Cargill is playing an instrumental role in transforming the shipping industry to operate more sustainably.”

Hurry slowly

Because climate change is top-of-mind, many people may think of CO2 when they think of “emissions.” But the shipping industry has to worry about other sustainability risks, too. Because they run on bunker fuel, a much cruder, heavier oil than what’s found in cars, cargo ships emit a lot more nitrous and sulfuric oxide. Even ballast water, which is used to stabilize the unloaded cargo ship, is an issue. If you take it in at one port and dump it in another, you risk contaminating coastal waters with non-native, potentially invasive species.

Cargill is discussing all of these issues, and many more, with other shipping leaders that are members of the Sustainable Shipping Initiative, including Maersk, Unilever, Akzo Nobel, Wartsila and others. They’re working together to find common solutions to help the industry thrive and protect the environment at the same time.

In addition, Cargill has co-funded experiments with SkySails, a German-designed giant kite that acts like a flying sail and is projected to save modern cargo ships a lot of fuel. The project has encountered obstacles that demonstrate the challenge of making wind-powered vessels a reality, but it does underscore Cargill’s commitment to investing in innovative shipping solutions that aim to transform the industry.

Unsurprisingly, newer ships are often more fuel-efficient than older ones. In recent years, many older ships have been eliminated from merchant fleets as repairing and operating them becomes uneconomical. The remaining older (and not-quite-that-old) vessels can often be improved significantly with relatively minor upgrades, such as using new vessel paints and altering propellers.

A steadfast commitment

All these practices have ensured that Cargill remains in a good position to lay a claim to sustainability in its shipping business.

“We’ve been able to use specific examples and data to show our customers, employees, suppliers and partners in general that the topic of sustainability is important to our business. We’ve heard from our customers that our focus on environment and community is something they really appreciate, and we’ll work together to address some of their sustainability concerns,” said John McCluckie, head of sales and marketing for Cargill OT.

However, in a business as volatile as shipping and a world where oil prices have dipped dramatically in recent months, the basic assumptions of sustainable shipping – namely that the high price of oil is an incentive to act sustainably – don’t necessarily hold water any longer.

“While oil prices significantly impact the cost of chartering a vessel, we’re committed to operating responsibility and sustainably in all circumstances. Our focus on the environment and communities is core to our business strategy,” said Roger Janson, president of Cargill OT.

According to Janson, Cargill OT is dedicated to using its expertise in a manner that serves its communities in addition to protecting the world’s oceans, and has partnerships with local and global organizations, including the Sailors’ Society  and the Antinea Foundation.

Published: April 2, 2015