The UN Global Compact and the Business Case for Healthy Oceans

It can be daunting to look at the macro issues facing our oceans — with so many people and factors across so many countries affecting our global ecosystem, it hard to see the ways that individuals and organizations can make substantive improvements. That’s why the United Nations Global Compact is such a vital initiative, bringing together stakeholders across a wide array of companies and governments from across the world to try to protect some of our most vital resources.

Wenche Grønbrekk, who serves as senior advisor to the UN Global Compact, will be joining us as a speaker at the upcoming Global Bluetech Summit in New York. She caught up with SeaAhead recently to talk about ocean-related initiatives at the UN Global Compact and the business case for healthy oceans.

Tell me a bit about your background and what led you to the work you’re doing at the UN Global Compact.

I’m head of sustainability and risk at Cermaq, a wholly-owned subsidiary of Mitsubishi Corporation, headquartered in Oslo, Norway. We have operations in Canada, Chile, and Norway, and we produce salmon. I have previously worked in the UN system doing internships and have been working in the field of sustainable development for almost fifteen years. Before this, I worked as a management consultant focusing on governance and sustainability strategy, design, and implementation for a range of industries.

The reason why I continued working in this space is because I believe very strongly that we need to have the business sector involved in developing solutions for the future that not only consider what’s good for the bottom line, but also what’s good for society and the SDGs [Sustainable Development Goals]. My work now focuses very much on coupling innovation and sustainability. The work in the UN Global Compact specifically is focused on developing commercial solutions for the SDGs so that we can have a lasting impact.

How does the UN Global Compact operate? What’s your mandate and who is part of that?

This initiative was launched last year on World Oceans Day (June 8, 2018). Cermaq was the first company to join, and we also have government partners including Norway and Portugal. In total, forty organizations are involved in this work. It’s an action platform within the UN Global Compact called “Sustainable Ocean Business.” The mandate is to take a comprehensive view of the role of the ocean in achieving all seventeen of the SDGs, for not only the ones linked to our oceans, but all seventeen goals. We work globally.

Another part of our mandate is to explore viable solutions, innovate, and scale technical solutions and business solutions in general for the SDGs, with a focus on ocean health and governance. We’re working together with our partners — and we have several research partners doing a lot of great work because it’s a science-based initiative. 

So it’s a mix of private organizations as well as government stakeholders?

The UN Global Compact has about 10,000 business members globally. It was started in 2000 and it is the world’s largest corporate sustainability initiative. It’s anchored in the UN which makes it unique, and this action platform in particular focuses on the ocean.

It’s business-driven, but it’s a multi-stakeholder, multi-disciplinary approach to finding solutions to improving ocean health and sustainability. So there’s researchers involved — we have the Stockholm Resilience Center involved as one key partner. As corporate partners we have Cermaq, Maersk, we also have a lot of big banks such as DNB and ABN AMRO. We have insurance partners, and we are also moving into the seabed mining space because that’s an industry that will grow in the future and we want practices in that industry to learn from the other ocean industries so it can be sustainable from day one.

It ranges from fisheries and aquaculture to shipping, offshore energy, seabed mining, technology, and finance. It’s a very broad platform, and the interesting part is that it’s really well-aligned to find comprehensive solutions both within the business world and also in the governance space because we are providing best practices in these industries for them to develop policies that support sustainable practices. 

What is the UN Global Compact doing that can impact SeaAhead's work with ocean-related startups and SMEs (Small and medium-sized enterprises). Tell us about the Ocean Accelerator Network that you have formed, how do you envision using it? 

To give you an idea of how we are structured, we have three action tracks: one is “governance,” one is “opportunities,” and one is “business principles.”

What we just launched on World Oceans Day this year is the innovation part of the work we are doing. We just finalized our analysis on ocean opportunities, which you can find online. It defines five areas we are going to work on in the coming year and beyond in the ocean industries, which we call tipping points for the ocean. If we find solutions to these tipping points, we can really solve a lot of issues related to sustainable development in the space.

The five tipping points are: Set Sail for Zero / Zero-emission Shipping; Fully Traceable Seafood; More Ocean Electricity; Zero Plastics Entering the Ocean; and Mapping the Ocean. We’ve defined these as the five key tipping points we are working on, and this is where the accelerator network comes into play. 

The UN Global Compact website states that "by 2050, the oceans are expected to contain more plastic than fish, and more than 90% of coral reefs are at risk of dying off." How does the UN Global Compact Sustainable Business platform intend to address that? What are the areas of focus for the platform?

This is related to the work we’re doing on the business principles, where we are really now pinpointing best practices in each industry. This is very much aligned with operational excellence and improving and strengthening operations in the different industries. For example, for the “Set Sail for Zero” tipping point, if you have zero-emission shipping, it will obviously help ocean health a lot, as well as having zero plastics enter the ocean. Of course there are other areas as well where we can do a lot to mobilize and put the attention on the importance of ocean health, bringing awareness to the importance of ocean sustainability.

That’s an important part of the work we are doing, we are working with UNESCO to bring awareness and spread knowledge about the importance of our oceans. Every second breath we take is produced by oxygen in the ocean, and we need to bring this knowledge out there so people can start thinking more about how they impact the ocean. It’s not just the marine industries that have an impact — most of it comes from what we are doing here on land. It’s a big global task. 

We’re all dependent on a healthy ocean, for fisheries and aquaculture — that’s pretty straightforward; without a healthy ocean you can’t have a business there. There’s a very strong business case for healthy oceans. 

Are there business opportunities for something less obvious than fisheries / aquaculture? Business that might not immediately consider how healthy oceans can support their business?

Climate change impacts are some of the greatest threats to ocean health. With the power production we have today, you can certainly argue that more can be produced via the ocean — from wind and tidal energy, for example. There’s a huge potential in that space. 

Your work with Cermaq also ties into this idea of sustainable development. Tell me about the sustainable development work you're doing in the salmon industry.

I’m working on our partnerships. We’re working very strongly on strengthening our operational sustainability, and it’s also about collaborating with others to really, really have a significant impact. We’re doing that on three levels: the global level (through the work with the UN Global Compact); we’re working on an initiative called Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) which has gathered 10 of the largest seafood companies in the world, across fisheries, fish feed, and aquaculture, working on similar challenges but improving and lifting the standard of fisheries and the seafood industry as a whole. And we’re also looking to raise the bar for the salmon industry through the Global Salmon Initiative, which has been running for five years, and represents half of the world production of salmon — working on three specific challenges for sustainability in that industry. 

Taking a step back, what are the most important things we need to do in order to conserve our oceans today? 

I think one thing is related to food — today we throw away almost a third of food produced at sea (seafood/seafood production). Food waste, thinking about how we buy and throw away food if you think on the consumer side of things.

Improving governance of our oceans, at a national and local level, and also globally — making sure actors are aligned on sustainable development goals. When we have the same goals, it’s easier to move in the same direction and everyone benefits from healthy oceans. There is a consensus and increasing awareness about that now, and hopefully governments and businesses and move in the same direction and work toward those SDGs. 

What advice would you give to young entrepreneurs looking to break into the bluetech space?

I think it’s important to start out looking at whether or not there’s a market for your idea, or for what you’re developing. Getting to know the industries and companies in those industries, and what they’re working on. There’s a lot of good innovation going on in companies but there’s also potential for bringing ideas in. Doing research on the market side — what is needed — is an important first step. 

Have you come across anything in particular that has stood out to you as innovative and critical in helping to achieve healthy oceans?

Using an example from my industry, I see there’s a lot of development going on right now in sustainable fish feed. Having algae replacing a lot of the ingredients that now only come from marine sources.

Succeeding in really changing that space, you’d have a significant impact on future seafood production. There’s a lot of potential in looking into the value chain of seafood. 

 Anything else you’d like to add?

 I think the work SeaAhead is doing is great — there’s a lot of traction and innovation in the ocean space. There’s a lot of good things happening right now and it’s great to be part of it. I’m happy to have SeaAhead as a partner. 

 Hannah Armstrong is an associate editor at SeaAhead. This interview has been edited for length and clarity.

Hannah Armstrong