The HRAS Interview: Steven Jones – 5th Annual Capital Link Shipping & Offshore CSR Forum

5th Annual Capital Link Shipping & Offshore CSR Forum “Best Industry Practices- A competitive advantage”

Steven Jones HRAS 300dpi sml sizeDoing “good”, and the “right thing” are fine and noble concepts, but for an industry as diverse as shipping it is unclear what can, should and will be done in the name of corporate social responsibility. We spoke to Steven Jones on the latest thinking on the challenges, but also the opportunities ahead.

HRAS: It is positive to hear issues of social responsibility being discussed, but do you think there is a widespread understanding of CSR?

It is fantastic that CSR is being brought to the forefront of discussions, but that is only the beginning. The very concept of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) in shipping is perhaps as nebulous as the concept of the shipping industry itself. With so many different players, trades, and stakeholders, challenges, and opportunities across the industry, finding a united front is hugely difficult.

Since CSR first came into vogue it has been a thorny and difficult concept for shipping. Companies, academics and all kinds of associations have wrestled with definitions – but it is hard to find the message that resonates with all. There is clearly no current one-size-fits-all answer to this issue.

As such there is both a need and desire to do the “right thing” –but deciding what they actually constitute is proving nigh on impossible. Ultimately until the industry is either compelled or cajoled into universally doing these “right things” and understanding what they are and what they need to deliver, then there will be no real change.

Without the levers to drive an evolution, to provide a real catalyst for change and to provide tangible benefits for doing good – then shipping will continue to be trapped in its paper bag of compliance, without trying to collectively punch its way out.

HRAS: The Capital Link events bring together a diverse mixture of interests, do you feel there is progress with CSR as a result?

Talking is good…but translating it into action is perhaps a little harder. I have attended a few of these Capital Link CSR in shipping events, and they really do get people thinking about wider issues and of how problems can be faced. This was the 5th time they have gathered the great and good of the industry together in London to tackle the issue of what they now term, “operational excellence”.

Whether it is excellence or just doing things as they should be done is a moot point. Shipping is heavily regulated, and there are more demands coming all the time. Simply operating a ship comes at huge costs, and with enormous risks and incredible challenges to deal with. Some believe that just being safe, secure and clean is a form of social delivery.

It isn’t of course – being a good corporate citizen is about more than taking dirty boots off when walking into someone’s house. Cleaning up and minimizing pollution while avoiding sinking, or abandoning seafarers seems to be the least the industry owes the world, its people and itself.

Trying to find and develop best practice, and to find this elusive excellence in operations is hard. Identifying problems and weaknesses, but also pointing those who may be floundering in the right direction are the first challenges. So too, though, is reminding shipping that it is in the spotlight and needs to step up.

HRAS: Given the nature of shipping do you think the industry can embrace CSR and the duties it will impose?

Shipping can embrace CSR – most definitely…but it needs to be packaged in such a way that it can be clearly understood and delivered against. One of the most persuasive and emotive speeches was from George Tsavliris – speaking on his near 50 years in the shipping industry, he pondered CSR and seemed concerned that it was perhaps too vague and even “glamorous” for shipping.

He felt that shipping is not a glamorous industry, it is a business which is down to earth and hard. He seemed to be suggesting that in wrapping up what are longstanding and consistent concerns in the extravagant language of management speak that the message becomes confused and lost.

Searching for a more simplistic and obvious message, Mr Tsavliris felt that for him CSR comes down to two simple words “WE CARE”. It received a rousing response from the crowd and much nodding from the collective.

While caring is vital, this is a message which is important, but troubling too. Until we perhaps are able to really identify who “we” are, and what it is we “care” about, and how we do so, then it will be hard to really convince the world beyond shipping’s own inner circle that enough is being done.

HRAS: The issue of who, what, why and how does seem to be key. Do you feel that there is some confusion or lack of clarity?

There is both confusion and a lack of clarity – and shipping does not work well under those kind of terms. For some, CSR is about the need to be nice, for others it is about protecting the environment, while there are those for whom the money is all that matters, and they roll their eyes, catch up on emails and wait to be told what profits will come, and how. Money drives not only the good, but the bad and ugly too.

At the event there was much talk of evolution – and of the need to keep companies and the industry moving forward. If you are not in step with evolution, progression and development, then it will become increasingly difficult to operate we heard.

Bankers, insurers and charterers all claimed that demonstrating a positive CSR profile is one of the primary expectations when looking to access capital, cover or charters. While the exact benefits were vague and intangible, and even a little unconvincing, they collectively all claimed the doors only open to those they deem worthy.

Which all sounds very good in practice – but it is perhaps a little harder to pin down real figures or data. It seems that CSR and doing the “right thing” are still rather esoteric and conceptual. However, these organizations are vital facilitators of business and so what they want soon becomes not just “nice”, it becomes vital too.

HRAS: Does a new business landscape beckon in which shipping is forced to embrace CSR and do you feel CSR is understood well enough to allow that?

The benefits of CSR are probably not obvious, immediate or widely enough understood or communicated. In many industries it is appreciate that a business which looks to “People, Planet and Profit”, is one that will go beyond survival. It will be capable of thriving in the new commercial landscape of the future.

For shipping the message is not so clear, even as transparency, accountability and reputation matter ever more, the move to act on social issues does not seem to move above the Maritime Labour Convention and doing what the rules say. It may be clear to some that a company that pays lip-service, or says it cares but doesn’t show it, will struggle. For others the downfalls of not trying above and beyond the call of law do not appear frightening enough.

Even with legislators, investors, politicians, and clients, all demanding more, it is not wholly clear as to how a foundation of good, honest and realistic CSR can really make a difference to the business. That has to change, and there has to be a clear understanding of what CSR actually means and what it does.

Without definitions, without standards or of a means of benchmarking the steps which go above and beyond compliance and legal requirements, it is very difficult to really measure or manage CSR. The lack of a CSR definition in the shipping context is problematic.

For many of the shipowners speaking at the event, it was about a gut-feeling of doing good. This of course differs from company to company, even culture to culture. Some companies looked to build on the traditional philanthropic models of the past, some looking to more modern views of sustainability. The problem remains, that without defining the questions it is next to impossible to find the right answers.

HRAS: Shipping is often criticised when things go wrong and ignored when things are going well. Do you think that the message that shipping is working to do the right thing is heard often and widely enough?

Shipping has made some incredible strides, but these are all at the top end of the market. We need to shout about the importance and positives of shipping, but while forcing the bottom market feeders out.

The challenge of delivering on the technical and operational aspects of shipping remain, but so too do the need to communicate the real value of shipping, and that has to be told with a parallel reality of an honest effort to apply the base tenets of CSR.

To really engage with the concept of CSR we perhaps need to “care enough to care enough”. This is about a corporate leap of faith on one hand, but also being held accountable on the other. It is not enough for banks, insurers and charterers to vaguely state that they demand companies to be doing things right, they need to openly, transparently and clearly state what they expect and of how they will assess it.

There needs to be pressure from the top down – without this, the bottom players will simply carry on regardless. A mechanism which delivers real benefits for positively enacting CSR is vital. Preferred terms for doing good means that we create a positive spiral. Now we just need to define what “good” truly means.

Steven Jones

Steven Jones is inching towards shipping industry veteran status, having stepped on his first ship over 25 years ago. In this time he has worked across shipping companies, shipmanagers, insurers, trade associations and professional bodies – having also lectured, written books and played a key role in establishing a number of industry organisations. This has given him a diverse and wide view of the industry. In addition to his maritime experience, he has a Masters’ degree in Communications and Public Relations, which has meant him taken an interest in the “softer” areas of the business – the reputation of shipping, and the role it plays in society. This has brought him into the arena of corporate social responsibility and accountability – where he is seeking to identify the weaknesses in the current regime while developing answers and solutions.

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