Sustainable Shipping and the Greenheart Project

For a long time, as well as being concerned about the welfare of workers in developing nations, people have also been concerned about the fact that we are spending so much fuel and resources to ship products half way round the world.

While Fair Trade seeks to improve the lot of the workers who make our goods, as well as minimizing environmental impact of their operations, the goods still have to be shipped from the country of origin into the European and North American markets where they will be used.

Impact of shipping

At present, this shipping of goods round the world by sea or air has an environmental effect in terms of:

  • Using up fossil fuels
  • CO2 emissions from container shipping is estimated to be 4-5% of the global total.
  • Sea pollution from oil spills
  • Sound pollution affecting marine populations
  • Ship impacts are known to be a large factor in whale mortality
  • Waste water – grey water from washing ad showers etc. discharges chemicals into the oceans.
  • Bilge water – smaller volumes of unclean water contaminated with leaks from machinery and engine spaces.
  • Solid waste – Paper, cardboard, glass, plastics, metals.  Much of this waste is incinerated at sea and the ash discharged.

To read more about this please see the Wikipedia article on the Environmental impact of shipping.

Local Trade

So ethical trade also encourages people to purchase products with fewer air miles or sea miles.  There is currently a large emphasis on trying to source food locally, and those who can afford it do so.

While both types of ethical buying are commendable, they are incompatible.  In the UK you can’t have Fair Trade products that are locally produced.  Fair trade is, by definition, trade that seeks to improve the terms of trade for workers in developing nations.

At present the ethical way to shop is to purchase locally produced goods where possible and Fair Trade goods otherwise (if possible).  But for most types of goods there is no ethical alternative.

The Greenheart Project

One project that seeks to reduce the environmental impact of cargo ships is the Greenheart Project. This project is in the process of developing a hybrid sail and solar powered cargo ship for use by the poorest and least developed communities.

The design criteria for this ship include:

  • Very inexpensive to build, operate, maintain, and recycle
  • Extremely simple technology  ( low training ratio )
  • Robustness
  • Lowest possible impact on environment
  • Versatility (universal platform for approximately 200-ton commercial applications such as merchantman, fisherman, ferry, tourist ship)

The prototype under development is designed to carry 2 standard 20 foot shipping containers in the hold.

One reason that cargo ships have got larger and larger is that the fuel economy per container is better.  e.g. a 50 container will not use 10 times as much fuel as a 5 container ship so the fuel cost per container is lower.

If the fuel cost is taken out of the equation it becomes more economically viable to operate small vessels with fewer containers.  This in turn would bring about opportunities for smaller businesses in developing nations to play a larger role in the transport of the goods.

The masts of this vessel are designed in an arch shape so that when lowered they will not take up deck space.  The vessel has a number of other innovative ideas attached to it, including:

  • Using the mast as the crane hoist point
  • Hatches and wheel house covered in solar pv panels
  • Solar pv windows in all wheel house windows
  • All mechanical gear is capable of manual operation with electric motor backup


Another feature of the Greenheart Hybrid ship is that it is being designed to dock at a harbour or to be stable if beached, meaning remote islands with no docks could be served by this type of vessel.

Environmental and social impact

The three main areas that this type of ship will be an improvement over traditional cargo ships are:

  • CO2 emissions very low / zero
  • Sea pollution from sunken boats of this type would be much lower since there is no fuel tank
  • Sound pollution – the vast majority of the time these ship will operate under sail power, reducing noise pollution.
  • Once the ship is purchased, operating costs are minimal compared to ship that requires fuel

While the development of this first version of the Greenheart boat will not be able to do away with the giant container ships that ply the seas today, we hope that, given development time and technological advances, this will be the first step towards the environmentally friendly fleets of the future.


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