Report 2019:
Focus on the Mediterranean
Business for Ocean Sustainability: One Ocean Foundation's multi-year research on the Blue Economy
Image by ©Kurt Arrigo
Objectives of the Report

This report offers a new perspective on the analysis of the relations between the sustainability of the ocean and the economy, with a novel focus on business organizations' awareness, strategies and innovative practices.

More specifically, this Report extends the traditional boundaries of analysis in order to include not only the direct, but also the indirect pressures determined by production and consumption activities on marine and coastal ecosystems, highlighting the contribution that innovation, both technological and organizational, can bring to the development of more sustainable production and consumption models.

The analysis is based on primary and secondary data and information, collected, analyzed and elaborated through qualitative and quantitative research methods: more than 50 companies, startups, business associations and NGOs were interviewed, and the quantitative survey analysis is based on 170+ valid responses, from companies belonging to 13 industrial sectors, both ocean and non-ocean related. On aggregate, the sample represents companies with a total turnover of almost €1 trillion, with companies headquartered in Italy accounting for 15% of the Italian GDP.

High stakes on the Mediterranean Sea

Preserving the health of marine and coastal ecosystems is paramount due to the many irreplaceable benefits provided by the sea, and the fact that a healthy marine environment is a habitat in which businesses can develop and thrive. Human activities exert pressures on the Mediterranean Sea.

Pressures occur through direct interaction with the marine environment: seafloor integrity is endangered by trawler fishing, grounding and anchoring, while contaminants, in the form of hydrocarbons leaks, biocides and other chemical substances, are directly discharged or spilled into the sea.

On the other hand, indirect pressures occur through indirect interaction with the marine environment: pollution and contaminants, including heavy metals or plastics and microplastics, indirectly reach the sea through land-based sources of discharge, or atmospheric deposition. All industries exercise pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems. Indeed, evidence suggests that the pressures exerted by land-based activities exceed those of direct ocean industries.

Unlocking awareness and activation to ensure marine sustainability

According to our analysis, companies are on average aware of 35% of their industry's potential pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems.

The most acknowledged issues are those targeted by extensive campaigns and social movements (e.g. marine litter and, by extension, contaminants), while awareness of indirect pressures or less "mainstream" problems (e.g. over-exploitation of marine resources or effects on biodiversity) is more limited, and often accompanied by misinterpretation.

Companies' awareness of the negative pressures that their industries can potentially exercise on marina and coastal ecosystems - Ocean sectors vs other sectors

Several issues, in fact, are not properly identified. Within the ocean sectors, many companies do not recognize their influence on hydrographical conditions (e.g. changes in currents, waves, or turbidity of waters and coastal environment), while others are unaware of the pressures on seafloor integrity (e.g. determined by trawler fishing). Outside the ocean sectors, similar misalignments are registered, sometimes based on a presumed misinterpretation of the different issues.

Companies' awareness of the negative pressures that their industries can potentially exercise on marina and coastal ecosystems - Ocean sectors vs other sectors

On average, companies deploy mitigating activities on the large majority of the pressures that they acknowledge, although there are cases in which awareness does not imply response. The analysis suggests that, besides unlocking "awareness", thus ensuring that companies are aware of the actual pressures produced by their industries or by their specific activities on marine and coastal ecosystems, a second key element is unlocking the related "actions". Through this second unlocking, companies acknowledging the existence of some form of pressure on marine ecosystems, respond with specific actions (e.g. adoption of sustainable technologies, or participation in multi-stakeholder initiatives) to eliminate or reduce these pressures.

Distribution of companies according to awareness and activation (% of companies)

According to our analysis, 34% of the companies in our sample are simultaneously aware and active (sustainability leaders), while 44% are not aware, and not active (laggards). The remaining 22% is equally divided between aware but inactive (locked-in), and unaware but active (concerned). In order to tackle the problem of ocean and marine ecosystem sustainability, it is necessary to unlock both awareness and activation.

Distribution of companies according to awareness and activation (% of companies)
The case for hope: Sustainability leaders exist

Sustainability leaders are more aware and active than other companies, and their attention to marine sustainability is mainly driven by ethical and strategic motivations.

On average, sustainability leaders recognize 72% of their pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems and are active on 78% of the relevant pressures. Although representing about 1/3 of the sample, sustainability leaders can be found in most industries, both ocean (e.g. maritime transport, ports & warehousing, shipbuilding & repair) and non-ocean related sectors (e.g. energy, utilities, textile & apparel, chemicals, food & beverages).

Focus of efforts related to selected GES descriptors – Sustainability leaders vs. others

When we look at the focus of the efforts deployed to mitigate the pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems, sustainability leaders are 3.6 times more likely than other companies to address contaminants issues, and almost 3 times more responsive to tackling marine litter. In addition, they are more active in targeting many other issues such as biodiversity, introduction of energy in the sea, over-exploitation of marine resources.

Focus of efforts related to selected GES descriptors – Sustainability leaders vs. others

Beyond these distinctive features, sustainability leaders reveal other specific characteristics. They appear, in fact, more concerned about their business responsibilities, and they are also more likely to adopt technological innovation and to develop organizational initiatives aimed at mitigating their pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems (e.g. reduction of GHG emissions, waste and wastewater management, adoption of circular economy models, or extending product life cycles).

Top activities undertaken to mitigate pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems – Sustainability leaders vs others
The positive impact from technological innovation and organisational initiatives

Several clusters of technologies have been identified with regard to the ocean challenges. The following 3 clusters appear to be capable of bringing higher benefits:

  • Cleaner sources of energy are key to reducing the pressures on oceans and seas, in terms of contribution to climate change, which has consequences on hydrographical conditions (i.e. increased temperature and acidification of waters). When adopted in marine environments, cleaner sources of energy also contribute to reducing the risk of contamination, leakages, and spills.
  • New materials aimed at providing responses to several of the pressures on marine ecosystems (e.g. contamination, marine litter and pollution) are already available, while others are still at an early stage of the R&D process and will be viable for adoption in the near future
  • Digital, automation, monitoring & control technologies applied to both ocean (e.g. fisheries and aquaculture, ports & warehousing, maritime transport) and non-ocean sectors (e.g. precision farming, energy, chemicals) can greatly contribute to addressing the pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems.

Organizational initiatives (voluntary sustainability standards, codes of conduct and self-regulation; assessment and measurement initiatives; knowledge platforms and partnerships) complement technological innovation, as they contribute to creating more favorable conditions for developing, sharing, and adopting new and more sustainable solutions.

Our analysis shows that many technologies to tackle sustainability challenges can benefit from the development of innovation networks linking the different business organizations and stakeholders. Collaboration is a key enabler both for identifying technological solutions capable of addressing ocean issues, and fostering the adoption and diffusion of cleaner technologies.


The possibility of changing course, preventing or at least mitigating the pressures on marine and coastal ecosystems is real, and business is expected to play a fundamental role in the transition to an economy where ocean and non-ocean-based activities operate in balance with the long-term capacity of the marine environment to regenerate, safeguarding the potential for usage and activities by current and future generations.

However, awareness is not widespread in all sectors and among all companies (awareness unlocking), and there are cases in which the attention to the issues is not followed by coherent business responses (activation unlocking).

We believe that unlocking these two aspects is key for a journey towards ocean sustainability.

In order to do so, it is paramount to raise business awareness, and to incorporate protection of the seas and marine ecosystems as a part of the corporate sustainability agenda.

The following actions are suggested:

  1. Firms' awareness of interdependence with the marine environment and eco-services needs to be strengthened, and companies are expected to build knowledge about the multi-scale nature of ocean pressures.
    Business organizations and multi-stakeholder platforms can play an important role in promoting awareness on ocean issues. Moreover, they can contribute to helping companies in building knowledge about the links between industrial activities and marine ecosystems. Similarly, they can help promote understanding of the business risks related to a mismanagement of this issue.
  1. Transparency and disclosure about actions aimed at protecting the seas and marine ecosystems is envisaged.
    New initiatives aiming at promoting the disclosure of data and information on business pressures on marine environment could favor both an increase in awareness and strategic responses. These instruments are expected to match the growing needs of transparency and disclosure of many stakeholders (e.g. NGOs and the financial community).
  2. Technological innovations for the protection of the marine environment are expected to reach scale, while additional breakthrough technologies are also required.
    Existing technological clusters are expected to fully reveal their benefits with regard to ocean protection. The broad diffusion of these solutions can be enhanced thanks to policy and economic measures that favor their adoption in different industrial sectors. Breakthrough advancements are required to address still-unanswered problems. This means favoring the development of basic and applied research on ocean protection, creating knowledge and competencies. Mobilizing coherent private and public funding is key to reaching these targets (e.g. blue bonds and impact investing).
  3. A collaborative perspective that involves all the relevant stakeholders (private and public) is fundamental to foster sustainable technologies
    Innovation systems that involve stakeholders through collaborative dynamics and link technological and organizational resources are required to respond to the ocean problems. The complexity of the sustainability challenges requires skills and competencies that often go beyond the boundaries of a single business organization and call for the development of partnerships among different private and public actors.
  4. Policy-makers and governments need to engage more to address marine environmental problems, promoting and developing clear and coherent policies, governance mechanisms and incentives
    As is the case for other environmental problems, in the case of marine and coastal protection governments and policy-makers are also fundamental actors. We need the enforcement of clear legal frameworks for the conservation and the sustainable use of marine resources, while policy initiatives need to be deployed to favor the development of clean tech clusters (e.g. through the introduction of both market-based – fiscal incentives to push R&D and innovation, public-private funds, environmental taxes, direct subsidies for cleaner technologies, new mechanisms like the payment for ecosystem services – and non-market based instruments – eco-labels and other reporting requirements and promotion of disclosure and transparency initiatives).
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