A Sustainability Compass for Ocean Issues

February 28, 2012
  • Laura Ediger

    Former Associate Director, BSR

Last week at the Economist World Oceans Summit in Singapore, it was widely noted that oceans don’t get much attention, perhaps in part because we humans are (now) a highly terrestrial species. But the topics were clearly relevant to the humans in attendance, who ranged from representatives of conservation NGOs, to leaders of small island states, to people from companies like Google, Tiffany & Co, Shangri-La Hotels, and Electrolux, and ocean-oriented businesses such as Maersk Line, APL, Norpac, and China Fishery Group.

Although most businesspeople don’t spend a lot of time thinking about their reliance on the ocean, the ocean does provide essential support through ecosystem services like climate regulation and oxygen production, along with more visible services such as enabling marine transport and hosting incredible biodiversity.

Company leaders should consider how three key ocean issues may be linked to their own sustainability impacts on this important ecosystem:

  • Supply chains from the deep: From tiny creatures like krill, which are harvested for pharmaceutical purposes, to the much larger and more recognizable organisms like algae that are used in toothpaste and paints, there are many links back to the sea. As the climate changes and oceanic systems are increasingly stressed, protection and restoration of the aquatic environment will be an important challenge.
  • Feeding the world sustainably: Not all fish (or fisheries) are equal when it comes to sustainable management. The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has set standards for sustainable fisheries, which are allowed to use the MSC label on their catch. Walmart and other companies, including some hotels and restaurants, have made commitments to selling and serving MSC-certified seafood products. Considering fisheries management in sourcing decisions can help contribute to more healthy ecosystems, which are better able to support both local communities and distant diners.
  • All rivers flow to the sea: Much of the damage to marine systems comes from terrestrial sources in the form of agricultural, industrial, and municipal runoff (nutrients and toxins) as well as solid waste streams. Single-use plastics such as disposable PET bottles, and the nurdles that are used to make them, are major contributors to marine pollution, both in coastal areas and in the Plastic Vortex, which continues to accumulate in the Pacific Ocean. Companies can reduce and improve the wastewater from their operations and supply chains, and work to reuse more plastic materials.

Despite the intense concern about ocean health, the meeting ended with a focus on solutions, from ideas about “blue-screened” investments to increasing the implementation of rights-based fisheries management. The World Bank also announced its new Global Partnership for Oceans, which aims to raise US$1.5 billion for governments, scientists, NGOs, and companies to collaborate on ocean initiatives such as improving marine-protected areas, reforming fisheries management, and expanding sustainable aquaculture.

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