On a grey and damp day in Oslo 30 years ago, a new business was launched that has shone a bright light on the changing face of the global shipping business.
That three-decade journey carries clear lessons as this global community embarks on what is likely to be an era of unrelenting upheaval.
It was 5 October 1990 when the first issue of TradeWinds hit the streets. The 3,300 subscribers who signed up before they had even seen a copy greeted it with a mix of excitement and bemusement.
With its approach and style it challenged the cosy world of shipping’s existing publications. Tabloid in form and attitude, it was printed on blue paper and soon christened ‘Lille Bla’ or ‘Little Blue’.
Founder Kare Valebrokk barely hid his contempt for the existing competition. Alongside Founding Editor Trond Lillestolen, the mantra was: “Our only friends are our readers.” And that remains at the heart of TradeWinds to this day.
Valebrokk had made his name helping create TradeWinds’ parent, the successful Norwegian financial daily Dagens Naeringsliv, and was on the hunt for international growth.
As an iconoclast, he took pleasure kicking sand in the face of TradeWinds’ establishment rivals. He saw them as uncritical and too close to their audience. He viewed it as corporate capture, before the term was born.
Even TradeWinds' promotional advertising didn’t pull punches. One carried a picture of a page from Lloyd’s List with a pair of white male middle-aged executives whispering to each other: “If we only printed lists, some people would be very pleased.” Another read: “A shipmate knows how to get through old rust. So do our writers.”
A lot has changed in three decades. Repeatedly, shipping was caught off guard when its system of what was effectively self-regulation failed, leaving society to step in and impose higher standards.
First it was oil pollution, with the US Oil Pollution Act 1990 signed into law by President George H W Bush two months before TradeWinds launched. It became the template for international rules. Oil spills have been cut hugely as a result.
Next was the rise of modern port state control, first in Europe and the US, before spreading globally, as the failure of national flag and classification society controls were laid bare.
On 5 October 1990, a Norwegian publisher launched a blue paper with a vision to cover the global business of shipping and its unique characters. Now, you can look back over more than 1,500 weekly editions to see who was making the news and why at key times in the industry’s history.
National governments saw they had to make their own checks, to hold to account industry institutions. Shipping could no longer mark its own homework.
In parallel were efforts to heighten safety for types of ships where cavalier operations appeared endemic. Many crew members lost their lives on bulk carriers before rules were tightened.
Throughout it all has been an increase in transparency, facilitated not least by the arrival of the internet and digital culture, which has defined a new global communications landscape.
Now, looking to the decades ahead it is perhaps this new radical transparency that promises to deliver the greatest impact.
Transparency lies at the heart of delivering on today’s zeitgeist of the environmental, social and governance agenda. It is essential for benchmarking improvement.
Charterers are demanding transparency from shipowners on carbon emissions, with even the major trading houses now falling over themselves to make good on past poor performance. Seafarers and their communities are demanding transparency of employment conditions, while broader society is demanding transparency on diversity.
Financiers and investors are demanding transparency as a non-negotiable element in governance. The corporate veil that has often been pierced has now been wholly ripped down.
As shipping faces decarbonisation and the transition to non-carbon polluting fuels, the industry will need to invest between $600bn and $1trn over the next decade, according to Clarksons Research’s Steve Gordon.
Transparency of operations will be a prerequisite to access the finance and charters to rebuild the world fleet.
I was there on that day in Oslo when the first printed copies arrived. We, the launch staff, were nervous with anticipation but relieved to have got the edition across the line.
In those first few weeks, the full scale of the challenge we had set ourselves became apparent, but over the years, the TradeWinds' team has built something of deep value.
An industry friend said to me recently: “I was telling someone today that I can't imagine what the shipping industry would be like without TradeWinds. It really is a form of public service to the industry that keeps people connected and informed. It's so important and valuable.”
Plaudits are always welcome, but our mission is what really matters. Rest assured, we’ll continue to put our readers first.