Ninety Per Cent of Everything: The Global Shipping Industry

Ogni giorno, migliaia di navi mercantili solcano gli oceani per trasportare i beni di consuno di cui abbiamo bisogno. Il 90% dei prodotti da cui dipendiamo, come il cibo, la benzina o i vestiti, arriva via mare. Eppure questo tipo di trasporto rimane ancora un mistero.

Molly Malcolm

Speaker (American accent)

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Cargo ship in the port of Barcelona

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The oceans cover more than 70 per cent of the surface of planet earth. Every day, thousands of ships sail great distances from port to port. Some of them are the size of small towns. Around half of bulk carriers, transporting cargo such as grain, ore, coal or steel. Others are laden with containers filled with products and goods: food, toys, engine parts, fuel, paper, clothes, cosmetics, and computers. Our economies depend upon these vessels. Without ships, the world as we know it would no longer function.


Asian countries dominate the world fleet, most notably the shipbuilding nations of China and Japan. However, the number one country for ship ownership is Greece, which owns 18 per cent of the global fleet. For tax, regulatory and legal reasons, many commercial ships are registered under a flag that differs from the nationality of the owner. In 2019, for example, half of all Japanese-owned ships were registered in Panama; while 20 per cent of Greek-owned ships were registered in the Marshall Islands, and another fifth in Liberia. This system is called an open registry, more commonly known as ‘flags of convenience.’


Shipping is a major employer. People work on the ships themselves, but also in docks and customs, road and rail transport to and from ports. There are around 1.8 million sailors employed at sea, of whom some 800,000 are officers and the rest crew, known as ‘ratings’. The five countries supplying most of the world’s sailors are China, the Philippines, Indonesia, Russia and Ukraine. The Philippines is the world’s biggest supplier of ratings. Global demand for experienced sailors continues to outstrip supply. 


Shipping is often overlooked during discussions about global warming. However, it is already responsible for more than three per cent of the world’s total CO2 emissions and far higher amounts of pollution from diesel engines. As the shipping industry expands, pollution is a cause for concern.


The size and growth of the world’s shipping industry also causes problems for marine life. Toxic waste, oil spills, and the transfer of alien species from waste water held as ballast, all cause problems. Congested shipping lanes, noise pollution, the use of sonar (which disturbs the communications of fish and marine animals) and collisions with cetaceans are also issues identified by the World Wildlife Fund. An essential part of modern human life and commerce, shipping makes a significant impact on the environment.


On any given day, there are thousands of giant freight ships sailing on the oceans of the world. Without freight ships, life would be very different. And yet for most of us, the global shipping industry is shrouded in mystery. Award-winning journalist and author Rose George spent three years, including many months at sea, researching her critically acclaimed book Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, the Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. As she explained, shipping is a mysterious industry.

Rose George (English accent): It’s a business-to-business industry, so we’re not going to encounter it… The seas are really vast and the people who work there, they’re just very mixed, they’re foreign, it’s a globalized industry. I don’t think we have any occasion to encounter them. As far as I know apart from ‘Captain Phillips’, there’s not really that many films about the life at sea or working sea. There’s no percpetion of who these people are and what their life is like and what life is like at sea. Most of us have no idea.


The vast majority of all shipping is legal and law-abiding. However, the current regulatory and registration system leaves loopholes for criminals looking to exploit shipping for smuggling drugs, weapons or illegal goods. In addition to that, piracy is a real danger. Heavily-armed, violent pirates operate around the world. They seize control of ships, hold crews hostage and steal valuable cargo. The coastal waters off Nigeria are currently a high-risk area, says George. 

Rose George: Piracy is always real and dangerous somewhere in the world. It just moves around. So when I was at sea, it was Somalia. And it used to really, really enrage me. You asked why I wrote a book, was it to shine a spotlight? Well, piracy made me really, really angry. Because at the time the general perception was that it was what was called a bloodless business. So it was just an economic transaction. The pirates would take the ship, no one would be harmed, money would be paid, ships would just call upon their insurers. And everyone went on their way really happily. And the reality was very, very different. And there were seafarers who were appallingly treated, tortured, killed, kept for years sometimes on these ships, fed very badly. It was, it was really, really awful practice. And yet the pirates were seen as glamorous.


Life at sea is tough. Sailors face long voyages, difficult working conditions, and stormy seas, far from family and friends. We asked George what the experience was like for someone who lives nowhere near the sea and doesn’t know how to sail.

Rose George: I didn’t want to disembark at the end of it. I would happily have turned around and come back for another five weeks. In today’s world, there are very few places where you can be removed from things. But I think a working ship… not as a working seafarer, then you just going to be knackered. But if you’re a passenger on a working ship, I think it’s a very, very peaceful place to be.

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