A map of the polar shipping routes also shows the average ice extent from 1981-2010. Photo credit: Rodrigue, J-P (2017), ‘The Geography of Transport Systems’, Fourth Edition, New York: Routledge
A number of fashion firms and ocean carriers are taking a stand against the potential opening up of trans-Arctic shipping – but just-style has been told these routes are unlikely to ever become economically viable for the textile or apparel industry.
US sporting goods giant Nike is leading the charge after teaming up with environmental group Ocean Conservancy to introduce an Arctic Shipping Corporate Pledge at the end of October.
They have been joined by Bestseller, Columbia, Gap Inc, H&M Group, Kering, Li & Fung and PVH Corp, alongside ocean carriers CMA CGM, Evergreen, Hapag-Lloyd and MSC Mediterranean Shipping Company, in pledging not to intentionally send ships through the Arctic Ocean.
Cargo traffic through previously unnavigable ocean routes is becoming increasingly feasible as climate change causes Arctic sea ice to diminish.
Among the main maritime paths through the polar region are the Northern Sea Route, which runs along Russia’s arctic coast, and the Northwest Passage which joins the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific via Canada’s northern shoreline. In addition, the currently hypothetical Transpolar Sea Route would link the two oceans via the centre of the Arctic.
Though these routes can offer faster transit times, the possibility of increased vessel traffic across the Arctic poses great risk and potentially devastating environmental impacts for one of the world’s most fragile regions, the companies say.
According to Dr Jean-Paul Rodrigue, professor of geography at Hofstra University in New York, the Northern Sea Route would reduce a maritime journey between East Asia and Western Europe by more than 8,000 km – cutting transit time by ten to 15 days. The Northwest Passage, meanwhile, which connects the Atlantic Ocean with the Pacific across Canada’s northern shoreline, would offer a saving of more than 10,000 km.
Yet despite the potential reduction in lead times, Rodrigue says he does not see polar shipping routes ever becoming economically viable for textile or apparel trade.
One reason is that despite receding ice around the North Pole as the effects of climate change take hold, the main maritime paths are still only open for a couple of months a year maximum. On top of this, the window of opportunity varies each year, making it difficult to plan in advance.
So for continuous trade such as textiles and apparel, where demand is relatively constant, “I don’t think that the Arctic shipping routes fit in any reasonable fashion within this industry,” says Rodrigue, author of ‘The Geography of Transport Systems.‘ “It’s only a short block of time available every year where you can gain a few days compared by rail, and also you have air freight operations.”
As he points out, the apparel and textile industries are already served by regular shipping services to Southeast Asia, across the Pacific, and also now, to a smaller extent, with rail services as part of the Chinese Belt & Road Initiative.
Another factor is cost.
“The cost of shipping across the Arctic is actually fairly high because you have to have specially equipped ships, convoys, and icebreakers so you gain some time but the cost is higher and I think since the margins in the [apparel] industry are very narrow, I don’t think it fits very well,” Rodrigue adds.
What’s more, he believes there are two other options that could compete effectively with trans-Arctic shipping in terms of reducing speed to market so significantly.
“The Chinese are now offering rail services directly from China to Europe which fits very well with a lot of the requirements of the fashion industry which requires things to be moved very quickly with a decent lead time.
“That is an option that could compete effectively, but the best option remains the near sourcing strategy where you locate your plant in North Africa, maybe the Middle East, maybe Eastern Europe, and with this, you have very short lead times that could service the European market – I think that is one of the best solutions.”
Click here to read more on the Arctic Shipping Corporate Pledge.