10 Fascinating Facts About The Hidden Industry That Touches 90% Of What You Own

How much do you really know about the shipping-industrial complex that brings your cheap sneakers and pricey gasoline across the high seas?

The average person on the street might guess his cheap shoes were made in China, or that the oil in his car comes from the Middle East. But almost no one understands how these goods end up where they are.

In her new book, Ninety Percent of Everything, investigative journalist Rose George examines the global freight shipping complex—the all-but-hidden mess of an industry that undergirds the entire global economy yet somehow manages to avoid major scrutiny for its environmental and labor practices.

"We’re all worried about our fair-trade coffee and about sweatshop workers, so we want to buy ethically sourced clothes. But none of that applies to how the goods are shipped," George tells Co.Exist.

George managed to get access—extremely rare for an outsider—to travel aboard a container ship belonging to Dutch Danish shipping conglomerate Maersk. In the book, she describes several high-seas journeys as she called in ports from Singapore to Rotterdam and cruised the Indian Ocean on patrol for pirates. What struck her the most was how truly isolated the seafarers were aboard their ships for months at a time—far from any free communication, and, really, any rule of law.

Here are 10 of the most fascinating facts and statistics she highlights:

  • The biggest container ships can hold 745 million bananas in 15,000 containers. That’s one for every European and North American.
  • Line up the containers belonging to Maersk alone, and they would stretch nearly halfway around the planet. Stack them up, and they’d reach to 7,530 Eiffel Towers. Unload their cargo onto trucks, and the traffic would stretch 60 miles.
  • In 2009, the largest 15 ships emitted as much greenhouse gases as 760 million cars—or about two cars for every American.
  • Right now, there are at least 20 million containers crossing the world.
  • Two-thirds of ship crews have no means of communication off the ship. Only 12% have freely available Internet.
  • Females make up only 2% of seafarers. Filipinos make up more than one third of all crews worldwide, with 250,000 at sea.
  • In 2010, Somali pirates held 544 seafarers hostage. Every year, 2,000 seafarers die at sea, with more than two ships lost each day. In 2012, the attack rates on seafarers exceeded the rate of violent assaults in South Africa, the highest-crime country in the world.
  • Worldwide, between 2% to 10% of containers are physically inspected. U.S. ports typically inspect 5% of the 17 million containers they receive a year.
  • Shipping is cheap. So cheap that, rather than fillet its own fish, it is cheaper for Scotland to send its cod 10,000 miles over to China to be filleted and returned to Scotland.
  • The 360 commercial U.S. ports took in international goods worth $1.73 trillion in 2011. The U.S. relies on shipping to bring in two-thirds of its oil supply.

George sheds much-needed light on the global shipping trade in her full book, with the aim of bringing about change through transparency. Since the book was published, 30 countries have signed onto a UN treaty to set basic labor standards for maritime shipping. The U.S., however, is still holding out.

[Image: Container Ship via Shutterstock]

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  • 4Brian8

    The reason the U.S. hasn't signed a UN Treaty for labor standards is that we already have one. As does most of the world. There are standards put in place by the IMO (International Maritime Organization), the MCA (Maritime and Coastguard Agency), and the US Coast Guard. The problem are not the standards, the problem is enforcement. Many crew that attempt to enforce the guidelines for crew rest are blacklisted from the industry. As a result, very little enforcement of the standards is being done. 

  • Keith Maw

    Maersk actually has about 3.8 million TEU (twenty foot equivalent) containers - 3.8M*20ft= ~14,000 miles.The 15,000 containers (probably measured as TEUs) on a single ship would be nearly 60 miles in traffic.The FAQs are a bit muddled, but striking none the less.  How would shipping be impacted by a sharp increase in fuel costs or a carbon tax?  A lot.

  • swing40

    There seem to be a few math errors;

    15000 40-foot containers lined up end-to-end would be 113 statute miles long... far less than 1/2 way around the world.
    (15000 container X 40 feet per container) / 5280 feet per statute mile = 113 statute miles

    The traffic, bumper to bumper style, would probably stretch somewhere around 160+ miles (assumes that the truck pulling the container is less than 20 feet long with basically no space between trucks)

  • Birger

    15000 containers are just one ship ! Maersk owns more than 700 ships and some can now take 18000 container. At any given time approx 33 % off the companys containers are held up in harbours or on trucks. Maersk group owns 1,3 millions 40 feet containers.(now do the math again) More than 10 % off all goods in the world is shipped by Maersk. What the Vikings started, simply kept growing !