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The Costs for the maritime transport of non-essential goods


The Costs for the maritime transport of non-essential goods
The Costs for the maritime transport of non-essential goods

The global shipping industry is a cornerstone of international trade, responsible for transporting approximately 80% of the world’s goods. While the movement of essential products such as food, medical supplies, and raw materials is crucial, the environmental cost of shipping cheap and non-essential products has raised significant concerns. This issue underscores the importance of United Nations Sustainable Development Goal 12 (SDG 12), which advocates for responsible consumption and production.


The scale of the problem

Shipping by sea is often perceived as a cost-effective method for transporting goods. However, this mode of transportation has considerable environmental impacts, particularly when it comes to the bulk movement of cheap, non-essential items. These products, often produced with minimal regard for sustainability, contribute to a cycle of overconsumption and waste.


Environmental impact

The environmental footprint of shipping cheap products includes several key areas:

- Greenhouse gas emissions: The maritime industry is a significant source of greenhouse gases (GHGs). According to the International Maritime Organization (IMO), shipping was responsible for about 2.89% of global GHG emissions in 2018. The burning of heavy fuel oil by ships releases carbon dioxide (CO2), sulfur oxides (SOx), and nitrogen oxides (NOx) into the atmosphere, contributing to climate change and air pollution.


- Marine pollution: Shipping activities lead to marine pollution through oil spills, ballast water discharge, and the release of hazardous substances. The transportation of non-essential goods exacerbates these issues, as the volume of shipping increases the likelihood of accidents and pollution incidents.


- Resource depletion: The production and shipping of cheap products often involve the extraction and use of non-renewable resources. This unsustainable extraction depletes natural resources and causes environmental degradation.


- Waste generation: Many inexpensive products have a short lifespan and are quickly disposed of, contributing to the growing problem of waste management. This waste often ends up in landfills or, worse, in oceans, further harming marine ecosystems.


Economic and social implications

Beyond environmental impacts, the shipping of non-essential goods has economic and social implications. The focus on producing cheap products often leads to poor working conditions and exploitation in manufacturing countries. Additionally, the economic model that prioritises low-cost goods can undermine local industries and economies, perpetuating cycles of poverty and inequality.



Promoting responsible consumption and production

Addressing the environmental cost of shipping cheap, non-essential products requires a multi-faceted approach that aligns with SDG 12. Here are some strategies to promote responsible consumption and production:


- Consumer awareness: Educating consumers about the environmental and social impacts of their purchasing decisions is crucial. By fostering awareness, consumers can make more informed choices that prioritise sustainability over convenience and low cost. Organisations like Fair Trade International and Ethical Consumer provide valuable information and resources to help consumers make sustainable choices.


- Support for local economies: Promoting local consumption reduces the need for long-distance shipping and supports local economies. Organisations such as Local First and the Business Alliance for Local Living Economies (BALLE) advocate for the benefits of local economies and provide support to local businesses.


- Sustainable production: Encouraging manufacturers to adopt sustainable practices can significantly reduce the environmental footprint of products. This includes using eco-friendly materials, reducing waste, and ensuring fair labour practices. Certifications like B Corporation and Cradle to Cradle can guide companies in implementing sustainable production methods.


- Regulatory measures: Governments and international bodies can implement regulations that limit the production and shipping of non-essential goods. Policies that promote the use of cleaner fuels and technologies in the shipping industry can also help mitigate environmental impacts. The European Union's Green Deal and the IMO's 2020 sulfur cap are examples of regulatory efforts aimed at reducing the environmental impact of shipping.


- Corporate responsibility: Companies should be encouraged to adopt corporate social responsibility (CSR) practices that prioritise sustainability. This includes reducing packaging, improving product durability, and promoting recycling. Initiatives like the United Nations Global Compact help businesses align their strategies with sustainable and socially responsible practices.


- Innovative solutions: Investing in technological innovations such as more efficient shipping vessels, renewable energy sources, and advanced waste management systems can help reduce the environmental impact of shipping. Organisations like the International Chamber of Shipping and the Global Maritime Forum are working on initiatives to promote sustainable shipping practices.





The environmental cost of shipping cheap and non-essential products by sea is a pressing issue that highlights the need for responsible consumption and production. By adopting sustainable practices and promoting awareness, the environmental impacts of maritime transport can be mitigated, paving the way towards a more sustainable future. Achieving SDG 12 requires a collective effort from consumers, manufacturers, governments, and international organisations to create a balanced and sustainable global economy.


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