Life Below Water: A Perspective into Sustainable Business Practices

Introduction to SDG
The oceans cover 75% of the planet earth and contain 200,000 identified species. The market value of the marine and coastal resources and industries is USD 3 trillion, approximately 5% of the world GDP, with 3 billion people dependent on it for livelihood. Apart from the tangible benefits, oceans absorb 30% of the CO2 produced by humans mitigating its effects and buffering the impact of global warming. The oceans maintain and drive the global systems making the Earth habitable through their unique ecosystem.
However, humans in their greed of consumption and development have led to a 26% increase in the acidification levels of oceans’ post-industrial revolution levels. On an average, 13000 pieces of plastic litter can be found every square kilometre of the ocean. Over-fishing by humans has pushed many fish species beyond the sustainable levels of yield and to the brink of extinction. All these anthropogenic factors have immensely impacted the ocean ecosystem, endangering not only the marine life but the future of prosperity.
The Sustainable Development Goals focus on mitigating the impact of anthropogenic factors on marine systems, climate, etc. The idea of focusing on sustainability, Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), was conceived at Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio de Janeiro 2012 by the United Nations. Millennium Development Goals conceived in 2000 to tackle the ubiquitous issue of poverty were replaced by the SDGs. The member states of the United Nations formally adopted the SDGs in 2015 to achieve the future targets of eliminating poverty, protecting mother earth and ensuring the people of the planet enjoy peace and prosperity by 2030.
The SDGs are a collection of 17 intertwined goals and focus on development in equilibrium with social, economic, and environmental sustainability. The 17 SDGs have targets, monitored using 2-3 indicators, totalling 169 objectives. One of the most crucial SDGs is SDG 14: Life Below Water. The SDG 14 aims to protect the marine and coastal ecosystems from pollution, acidification, and exploitation by creating an environment where the focus is on conserving and sustainably using the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development.
The SDGs also aim to increase economic benefits to small islands developing states (SIDs) and least developed countries (LDCs) from sustainable use of marine resources that aims to enhance the conservation and sustainable use of oceans and their resources by minimizing and addressing the impact of ocean acidification including enhanced scientific cooperation

Relevance for India
As India competes with its neighbour China to become the fastest growing economy, it is all the more important for it to keep a check on the negative impact that its rapid economic growth can create on the environment. India has a 7500 km long coastline, 14,500 km of navigable waterways and a strategic location on key international maritime trade routes which sustains and provides employment to more than 250 million people, with a large contingent of them engaged in fishing.
The maritime sector has been the backbone of India’s trade and the government is taking huge steps to promote Blue Economy. In 2016, the government launched one of its flagship projects “Sagarmala” at the Maritime India Summit with an aim to promote port-led development and industrialization through modernizing infrastructure, enhancing their capacity, adding new ports and inland waterways; developing industrial clusters and Coastal Economic Zones (CEZs) to reduce logistics cost and time. At the same time, it needs to ensure holistic and sustainable development of coastal communities through skill development and livelihood generation activities and promote coastal tourism.
India’s burgeoning population, lack of environmental awareness and archaic law enforcement mechanisms in relation to degradation of water bodies and loss of life below them make it difficult to adhere to this SDG. Oil spills, dumping of microplastics, hazardous chemicals and ocean acidification (Andaman and Nicobar Islands, Lakshadweep Islands) due to release of CO2 emissions by Indian companies into the atmosphere, coral bleaching and over-fishing have an adverse impact on the living organisms below water which further leads to negative reinforcement on the food chain and atmosphere.

Business Implication and Response
Marine life and human activity have become closely interlinked, with each having profound effects on the other. As mentioned previously, almost 3 billion people are dependent on marine life for their livelihood. This indicates that conserving marine life while promoting their sustainable usage is of utmost necessity.
The involvement of industries upon the marine ecosystem is in two parts, the upstream and the downstream. A number of business sectors viz. manufacturing, chemicals, FMCG, Oil & Gas, etc, are involved in polluting and affecting the ecosystem in course of their business activities, forming the upstream part of the problem. Meanwhile the industries directly and indirectly associated with the marine ecosystem that directly face the brunt of a degraded marine environment are at the downstream of the problem. Often the industries on both parts are common, and hence have an even higher incentive to rationalise and regulate their business practices.
1.     From chemicals and manufacturing industry
Operation Clean Sweep (OCS), coordinated by the American Chemistry Council, the Plastics Industry Initiative and Plastics Europe, supports plastic resin handling operations to work towards achieving zero pellet, flake, and powder loss in order to keep plastics out of the marine environment. Many chemical companies have taken the OCS pledge and the program has now developed beyond its origins in the USA and established a significant global reach.
The Gulf Petrochemicals and Chemicals Association (GPCA) established its Waste Free Environment campaign in 2013. It has evolved from being a clean-up activity to an advocacy initiative and in 2017 it had 29 companies participating in initiatives to change people’s attitude and mind-sets towards litter disposal.
2.     FMCG and microplastics
In 2010, India dumped 0.6 million tonnes of plastic into the ocean, and was the 12th largest dumper in the world. China topped the list, contributing to about a fourth of the total global plastic dumping. 80% of all plastic is mismanaged, and most end up in landfills or the ocean, where the latter become a part of and affect the marine ecosystem. Problems arise from discarded fishing nets and other plastic waste which can entangle marine life. Fishes and other life forms can also accidentally feed on them, mistaking it to be food. Both can be fatal. This affects fishing too nets can catch plastic more than fish, and this has to be manually dumped back into the ocean leading to loss in overall productivity. In 2017, Kerala govt started Suchitwa Sagaram to help stop dumping plastic waste and discarded fishing net.
Microplastics are defined as plastic with length less than 5mm. These are often formed when larger plastic pieces degrade down due to various forms of corrosion. These float and are found in air and water. In ocean, they affect the marine life such as plankton and algae. Since these are the creatures that are found at the bottom of the food chain, microplastic affect the very stability of the marine environment and threaten its collapse.
 3.     Overfishing
According to the UN, almost 75% of world fisheries are either ‘fully exploited’, ‘over exploited’ or ‘significantly depleted’. Overfishing is a recent phenomenon which arose due to the availability of better technology like sonar and deep sea fishing which allowed for fishing in much larger quantities. Unscientific methods of large scale fishing like drift netting and trawling also contribute to the problem. This is clearly unsustainable and can lead to commercial extinction which is defined as leaving large swatches of land unviable for fishing and other marine activities. Overfishing also destroys the marine ecology as it changes the population balance and thus destabilises it.
4.     Ocean acidification
Oceans are usually slightly alkaline, with a pH of 8.2. Ocean acidification is the process by which this pH value is slowly lowered over time. This happens because CO2 is absorbed by water bodies, making it acidic. The process can also be strengthened by events like volcanic eruptions and acidic rain. However, recently, the rate of ocean acidification has been exponential, and much faster than the natural rate over the last 20 million years. The ocean pH has currently dropped to 8.1.
At lower pHs, marine life are affected. Shells and exoskeletons of these creatures dissolve at lower pH. Damaged shells need to be regrown and thickened to prevent further damage – the animals lose energy doing this, thus hindering their survivability and reproduction chances. Animals may evolve to adapt to more acidic, but this happens over a long period of time - at a rate much smaller than the current rate of acidification. This affects food chain in process and can lead to ecosystem collapse.
 5.     Oil and offshore mining
Spills cause massive damage to marine life as well as coastal livelihoods. Oil contaminated fish and shrimp can cause harm to people eating them. Seismic surveys used by exploration teams can harm fish and dolphins.

 Analysis of Current Efforts
We take a look at the major industries whose operations affect, and are majorly affected by changes in the composition and quality of aquatic life, and also at how they have made changes to their business goals in line with the announcement of SDG14.
The chemical manufacturing industry - the largest contributor of effluents, have set up the Responsible Care initiative to improve performance in terms of environmental protection. BASF - the world’s largest chemical manufacturer managed to reduce wastewater emissions of organic substances by 800 metric tonnes, heavy metals by 2 metric tonnes and phosphorous by 200 metric tonnes in 2018. The Dow Chemical Company has similarly achieved a 2.5% reduction in waste intensity (lb of waste per lb of production) over the past year.
Furthermore, there is also a commitment towards the development of products aimed to reduce the negative effects of wastewater generated by individuals as well as other industries. BASF today spends 50% of its R&D budget on developing better forms of bacterial nutrients, coagulants, defoamers and sludge dewatering polymers. Dow has recently launched ECOFAS Pure Sustainable Textile Treatment, which reduces the chemicals and water used to dye cotton fabric.
The proliferation of plastic waste has had a profound impact on aquatic life, due to which Dow have developed and recently started pilot deliveries of renewable low-density polyethylene (LDPE), which is based on renewable feedstock. To further aid disposal of existing plastic waste and promote a circular economy, they have also developed proprietary solutions to enable the use of these end-of-life plastics in road construction. The composite material was successfully used in projects in India, Indonesia, Thailand and the United States, and has also shown higher durability and skid resistance, which will incentivise future road constructors to prefer this composition to traditional asphalt.
In the FMCG space, companies like ITC with a proven record and credential for sustainability initiatives has made water security a part of their evaluation process while considering new projects for execution, both in case of greenfield and brownfield initiatives. Unilever also recognised that at the current rate of plastic dumping there will be more plastic than fish in the ocean by 2050. In this regard, an area of direct concern to Unilever is that less than 14% of plastic packaging is recycled. Apart from simply ending up in landfills, plastics end up in oceans and are shredded due to dynamic motion of wind and tide, chemical action etc into small particles (microplastics) which then end up severely damaging the ocean ecosystem.
In 2017 Unilever committed to ensuring that by 2025, 100% of its plastic packaging will be reusable, recycled or compostable. This is to move from the current make and dispose model to a more circular plastic economy, where resources are reused and recycled in a closed loop. Progressing to a more circular economy also makes economic sense. According to the World Economic Forum, plastic packaging waste represents a loss of $80–120 billion to the global economy every year.
Also to complement the progress towards a circular plastics economy and to create a market for this product, Unilever also committed to increase the percentage of recycled plastics in its packaging to 25% by 2025. These measures along with the resolution to halve the amount of virgin plastic used in their packaging as well as help collect and process more plastic packaging than they sell (also by 2025) is a significant step towards a more eco friendly strategy as the company is moving towards a more sustainable business model. The company has so far reduced its plastics load by 31% in 2018 compared to 2010 levels.

The Way Forward
We have seen encouraging initiatives being taken up by various corporations to tackle the ever-expanding threat of ecology collapse due to the severe harm human activities have caused to the other members. However, it must be kept in mind that even the steps taken currently are insufficient to arrest the decline of aquatic life, let alone start to reverse it.
To improve the scale and effectiveness of sustainability goal adherence, it is proposed to target the consumers and corporations simultaneously, albeit through different strategies.
Not for profit organizations should create campaigns highlighting how underwater life has been affected and calling out for them to only use products carrying a certain label to show responsible production. This way, they can create awareness in the mind of the consumer and also build a brand label to serve as a proxy for environment-friendliness. This label can be subsequently licensed to all major corporations, provided their business processes meet the SDG14 guidelines. In this way, the market can be influenced to favor products whose pollution footprint is minimal, while simultaneously raising funds for further advertising, research and conservation activities. Apart from raising awareness and public pressure on corporations, changes are required in the foundational level, in the form of rethinking business models to creating sustainable value chains, like the circular plastic economy Unilever is adopting.

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6.     Solenis. (n.d.). Industrial Wastewater Treatments: Wastewater Management. Retrieved from
7.     Dow. (n.d.). Dow 2018 Sustainability Report. Retrieved from

Abhishek Chawla, Angshuman Pal, Athul Krishna A, D Harish, Raj Gopal Tripathi, Siddhant S Nair

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