The blood flow of the global economy

Denis Delestrac‘s ‘Freightened: The Real Price of Shipping’, screened at the Frontline Club on 18 October, seeks to shed light on the 60,000 container vessels supplying goods to seven million people around the world; the ‘blood flow’ of the global economy. In the Q&A after the screening, Delestac revealed how the film originally came about by ‘pulling the thread’, trying to find out where his clothes, and the objects around him, came from. The scope quickly expanded, however: ‘What’s the real story behind this industry?’ the film’s narrator asked, ‘what’s its impact on the environment? And how does it influence our lives?’

The fact that most of our consumer goods come from container shipping aside, the influence this industry has on our lives is significant, if not immediately apparent. The shipping industry makes up a significant chunk of the global economy, with an annual turnover in excess of $500bn. Delestrac’s film describes some of the largest companies that make up the industry as ’empires’, and ‘omnipotent’. One such company, the Danish conglomerate Maersk, employs over 90,000 people in 130 countries. In addition to container shipping, Maersk is also in the oil industry, and operates ports across the world. Yet the owners of such ’empires’ prefer to ‘avoid the spotlight’.

‘Most of them are privately owned, most of them are family businesses,’ Rose George said, ‘we are dependent on a very private, in both senses, industry’. The flag on many ships can be used to a ‘wrap a veil of secrecy’ around a shipowner and their business, allowing them to ‘vanish from the legal frame of his country of origin’. Whilst certain areas of the sea are under the jurisdiction of coastal states, whether within their territorial waters, or an Exclusive Economic Zone, no state exercises law over the high seas. So, when sailing the high seas, a ship is subject to the laws of its flag country. This leaves the door wide open for less than scrupulous shipowners, eager to circumvent taxation, regulations, or minimum wage laws, to register their vessels in countries with little regulation. These ‘flags of convenience’ see scores of ships registered in Panama, Liberia, and even the landlocked Mongolia.

On average, according to the film, one shipping accident occurs every three days. Whether this leads to lost containers scattered across the seabed or an oil spill, the environmental impact of shipping is considerable. Accidents aside, massive amounts of pollution are generated from burning dirty fuels every day. ‘Shipping has a carbon footprint equivalent to a country like Germany…’ the narrator explained. Shipowners have had little incentive to make their vessels more environmentally friendly, said Alastair Pettigrew (an interviewee from the film, who joined Delestrac on stage for the Q&A). With each vessel having an economic life time of up to 30 years, significant change in the industry will take sometime. The film gravely asks, ‘Can the planet wait 30 years?’