Maritime shipping is integral to the global economy. Over 80 per cent of traded goods travel by ship. While states and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) have stalled in the regulation of the environmental impacts of ocean transit, new private ‘green shipping’ initiatives are emerging. These are supported by powerful corporate actors, in particular the largest container shipping customers – multinational brand retail companies. As debated in the private governance literature, this can be both a global governance opportunity and a worrying trend. This article traces the importance of retail power in influencing the rise of private environmental governance in shipping as a business strategy for market certainty and advantage. In evaluating the implications for the architecture and effectiveness of the regime, the article argues that the well-established, focal authority of the IMO offers it the potential to orchestrate ‘green shipping’ private initiatives alongside international efforts to spur policy innovation, coordination and state regulatory cooperation. In conclusion, the article offers guidance to the IMO on the importance but also caution in governing private governance to ensure, as Susan Strange appealed for almost four decades ago, the management of maritime shipping in the public interest and not just for private benefit.
Greater state response and global policy coordination is required to address the lag in regulating the environmental impacts of international shipping.
Private initiatives are shaping transnational green shipping standards, and governments and the International Maritime Organization (IMO) need to monitor and better understand the politics driving these efforts (motivations and power dynamics among nonstate actors; convergence or divergence of norms) and the global policy implications (alignment with IMO goals; environmental outcome effectiveness).
As the central, global environmental regulatory authority in shipping, the IMO has the potential to cautiously orchestrate private ‘green shipping’ initiatives as a supplementary governance mechanism alongside international processes to spur policy innovation, coordination, and greater state regulatory cooperation.