Greenwashing: What Others Can Learn from the Shipping Industry

“Greenwashing”: the act in which a business or individual inaccurately casts its products, services or operations as environmentally friendly to influence a favourable perception amongst its stakeholders. Greenwashing can occur in any industry, and the marine and energy markets have the unenviable tag of being among the most prolific, resulting in heightened mistrust of clean technology companies and the results they claim to produce.

Taking the shipping industry as an example, as it moves to curb its environmental impact, it’s coming under increasing scrutiny to ensure that every green initiative must produce tangible results, or face being discredited. While shipping has routinely been criticised as slow to adopt environmentally-friendly processes, the resulting journey presents some key lessons which other sectors would do well to emulate in their own environmental endeavours.

In conversation with BLUE Director Alisdair Pettigrew, we identified three areas where shipping is keeping pace with other sectors on the green-brick road.

Data collection and reporting

“Greenwashing has created a sceptical perception of green initiatives, which has contributed to a genuinely impactful misunderstanding of proven clean technologies. However, this is not necessarily a bad thing,” explains Pettigrew. “Sadly, this scepticism was born out of the industry dealing with ‘snake oil’ salespeople. In response, pioneering clean tech companies have had to go the extra mile to ensure their tech has credible support; partnering with academics, monitoring companies, shipowners and others to demonstrate robust methodologies and proven savings.”

He continues, “Proven – and ideally third-party endorsed – data is now crucial for the authenticity of clean technologies in shipping. To support this, we have witnessed in recent years a spike in the number of companies developing monitoring and sensor technologies which can analyse data in real time. This is critical in assessing the fuel and emissions savings of anything from hull optimisation and propeller improvements to trim optimisation software and weather routing navigation. Monitoring and sensor technology still has some way to go; most monitoring companies will attest that current monitoring systems operate with a plus or minus differential, so we don’t yet have the capability to secure finite measurements. But the increased demand for accurate reporting will certainly push innovation in this direction.”

Transparency

Data collection is only useful, however, if the information aggregated is used transparently. “There have been a number of instances where false claims of fuel efficiency and reductions in SOx and NOx have been made,” Pettigrew continues. For example, a few years back, a number of emulsification companies claimed they could reduce fuel consumption, SOx and NOx by blending fuel with emulsifiers, however many of these claims were soon hampered by a high proportion of resulting engine failures, and – critically – unproven test results.

“Realistically, the level of scrutiny among shipowners tends to be so severe that anyone attempting to fluff their numbers is likely to be caught out. At BLUE we work with a number of clean technology companies, and – as with all PR and communications – we always advocate to our clients that every claim should be grounded in the truth, and we’re seeing a similar push for transparency across the industry.”

The case of hull coatings is a prime example here. While hull coatings have a crucial role to play in reducing emissions and saving fuel, a lack of transparency in the measurement of competing solutions meant that adoption of more efficient coatings among ship owners and operators was low. With no common yardstick to judge by, the industry was tending towards cheaper coatings that would end up being costlier for them and the environment in the long run.

This changed with the establishment of ISO 19030, which consolidated the latest academic and industry knowledge and understanding into an agreed and standardised method to measure the performance of a vessel through the water. This meant that competing claims could be accurately assessed, and coatings could be selected based on accurate, transparent data. This information has been included in several digital applications, such as AkzoNobel’s Intertrac, allowing owners and operators to accurately measure and verify hull performance predictions.

Commitment across the industry

“Shipping is demonstrating admirable commitment to the green cause,” says Pettigrew, “Albeit at a slower pace than many would prefer to see, both in terms of legislation and in the actions of individual companies and partnerships. Regulations such as IMO DCS, EU MRV and the 2020 sulphur cap prove that industry regulators are taking the emissions case very seriously, and corporations have risen to meet the challenge.

“There is some disparity between the use of technology to measure and monitor this commitment, and what regulations can enforce and deliver. Current regulations, for example, still allow for the use of bunker delivery notes (BDNs) to assess fuel, which do not always accurately reflect the fuel on the ship as they are open to manipulation, which is an ongoing issue for the industry. For example, bunker fuel can be pumped with air which gives the false effect of increased bunker volumes – the cappuccino effect – a practice which still occurs. So, while there remains a gap between the technology to measure and monitor compliance and what regulations can deliver, there is still an opportunity for less scrupulous organisations to exaggerate environmental claims undetected.”

The increasing demand for data collection and transparency across the shipping industry is evidence of the sector’s commitment to combating issues in the regulatory landscape, and a sign that the industry is on the right track. We’re starting to see good signs indicating how digitalisation and improved use of data can accelerate positive change and increase efficiencies, including in environmental terms, and continued R&D efforts in this area will eliminate the legislative vacuum.

Across the shipping industry we’ve seen a considerable improvement in standards around evaluating, proving, and accepting the benefits of clean technologies, and the assessment systems and practices used in this process. Between developments in reporting methods, transparency in data sharing, and the sector’s commitment to these initiatives, it’s becoming easier to delineate between technology which does provide the environmental benefits it claims to, and technology which falls short of the mark.

“For any industry to successfully launch a coordinated effort to reduce its environmental impact, that industry’s key players must unite over their common cause, identify barriers, and develop solutions,” Pettigrew concludes. “It’s also important for large, consumer-facing companies – those who have the power and influence to demand change – to drive cooperation with legislators and commit to green initiatives. This coordination is perhaps the primary learning others can take from the shipping industry.”

By Lisa Davison, Account Executive