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Communicating Sustainability at Maersk Line:
Striking a Balance Between Silence and Greenwashing

Maersk Line has traditionally not been known for its sustainability efforts. Why? Well, because the company used to have a habit of hardly communicating anything externally. Previously, there had been little perceived need for communicating — and this combined with a strong value around humbleness kept the company quiet. This has changed in the last 5-6 years where departments dealing professionally with both communications and sustainability have been set up.

Good stories kept as a secret

Maersk Line is a big company, especially by Danish standards. And because of that all Danes have a (more or less informed) opinion about Maersk Line, including myself. But my first real encounter was in 2008, when I engaged in a meeting with Maersk Line on climate change in my previous role as Conservation Director for WWF Denmark.

This was at a time when several large Danish companies were being accused by NGOs of overselling their sustainability efforts — greenwashing, as it was later termed. In light of the upcoming COP15 Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen, companies were keen to show that they were doing their bit to protect the climate. But often the NGOs found green claims to be overstated or outright wrong.

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Entering the meeting with Maersk Line I didn’t know what to expect as the company was still completely silent on climate issues. I came out surprised — by the fact that Maersk Line was actually doing quite a lot to reduce its CO2 emissions, and even more so by the fact that the company had never told anybody about it outside the company.

Abandoning silence, opting for openness

Half a year later, I joined Maersk Line to be part of a team tasked to improve its sustainability performance and, at the same time, increase the sustainability profile of the company through communication. When we developed our first strategy in 2009-10, materiality and transparency were the key themes. Why? When a company burns 10 million tons of fuel every year and emits 0.1% of global CO2 emissions, it creates trust among customers and other key stakeholders when you speak openly about it and are able to explain clearly how you see this challenge.

So, breaking our silence while avoiding the trap of greenwashing was the communications task back then, and it still is. It is a balancing act more than an actual communications strategy.

Let others to do the judgment

It’s important for us to be transparent both when we have good news to tell and when we are facing challenges or experience incidents. Maersk Line will continue to emit millions of tons of CO2 every year for the foreseeable future. There is no way we can change that in the short term, but we can explain what we are doing to bring down our emissions and how we stack up compared to other shipping lines, as well as trucks, planes and trains.

But we deliberately try to avoid using words such as ‘eco,’ ‘green’ or ‘environmentally friendly’ — how can a ship that burns 100 tons of fuel every day be ‘green’? It might be a far better choice than a ship that burns 200 tons, but ‘green’? No.

We are also trying to put pressure on others in our industry to be more open on their sustainability performance as well, and we are pushing for development of standardized ways to report sustainability performance in shipping so that benchmarking becomes possible. That’s when transparency becomes actionable. Customers can make different choices based on transparency.

For us the benefits of open communication on sustainability are clear. When people know who we are and what we do, we think they are more likely to engage positively with us — as customers, regulators, suppliers or future employees.


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