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Ninety Percent of Everything…A Commentary-Book Review – Part One

November 19, 2014

Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate. by Rose George. Picador: 2013


I can’t say that either the title or the subject were particularly enticing. “Ninety Percent Of Everything”…hmm, what does that mean? The notes on the cover give more clarity: it is a non-fiction work on the world shipping industry which carries ninety percent of everything from one part of the world to another. Air freight might be faster, but the overwhelming bulk of everything from raw materials to finished products are transported by ship, and a full 60% of that 90% on container transport ships which seem to grow in size with each decade.

Why read it at all?

Well frankly I hesitated and it sat around for more than six months before I finally decided the time had come. I teach more and more in my Global Political Economy class about commodity chains – everything from how a material – mineral, food, water – is mined, stolen from the earth – to how the product is transported, refined, manufactured, retailed and then recycled, or more likely simply turned into garbage. I have long been interested especially into the labor that goes into each step, how much (or how little) it is paid, the working conditions that exist a long the way. Shipping has long been a gap in my understanding of the process, and so…it was time. I figured that Rose George’s Ninety Percent of Everything: Inside Shipping, The Invisible Industry That Puts Clothes on Your Back, Gas in Your Car, and Food on Your Plate (Picador: 2013) might  sugar-coat what I suspected to be a generally boring subject, and so I started there. A fortuitous accident. It wasn’t boring at all. George writes extremely well, is a careful and detailed researcher and I dare say, a humanist. Her exploration of container shipping done by taking a trip from Rotterdam to Singapore on APM-Maersk’s Kendal, a container ship with a capacity to embrace some 6200 containers on board was not just a bird’s-eye view of today’s shipping industry, it was also very much of probe of the human dimension of the industry: what it means to be what the British refer to as “a seafarer”, what we Americans more likely to call a merchant marine sailor.

It is all told, a fascinating book, well written, well told, not boring at all and more likely than not to appear as a required text in one of my classes in the not too distant future.


Since the birth of the modern world economy sometime in the early 1400s, the heart and soul of the global economy has been maritime trade. Yes, the Silk Road across Asia to Europe was not insignificant, nor the caravan trade linking North and sub-Saharan Africa, but these overland routes cannot really compare to the bulk and profit generated by the world’s merchant marine. The countries that historically have dominated the sea routes – the Dutch (United Provinces), the British and the United States – have also essentially ruled the world as well, if admittedly, ever so briefly in each case.

Containers – those huge standardized rectangular packing boxes – have made the transport of goods worldwide that much more efficient as cargo can be transported from train to truck to ship and back again (or any combination thereof) with a minimum of time, effort and labor, driving down transportation costs to a bare minimum and making “globalization” that much more profitable. The containers are measured in “TEUs” or ‘Twenty-foot Equivalent Units,’ the industry standard to measure containers. A 20-foot container’s dimensions are twenty feet long (6.09 meters), 8 feet wide (2.4 meters) and 8 feet six inches high (2.6 meters). These dimensions have been set by the International Organization for Standardization (ISO). The Economist noted, “new research suggests that the container has been more of a driver of globalization than all trade agreements in the past 50 years together.”

George contrasts the cargo of a classic non-container merchant ship of the mid 1950s with its modern container version. Using an example from Marc Levinson’s The Box, one of the best histories of the container revolution, she details the cargo of the SS Warrior in 1954 which contained 194,582 items, totaling some 5000 tons in all, all unloaded over a course of several weeks by hand by dock workers. SS Warrior’s cargo included 74,903 cases, 71726 cartons, 26,036 bags, 10,671 boxes, 2,881 bundles, 2,877 packages, 2634 pieces, 1538 drums, 888 cans, 815 barrels, 53 wheeled barrels, 21 crates, 10 transporters, 5 reels and 1525 “undetermined articles.” APM-Maersk’s Kendal, its cargo all in containers, can unload just as varied and sizable a cargo in less than 24 hours using a labor force of less than ten. Gone are the dock workers, up are the profits. Prior to container shipping, transport costs on merchant vessels added up to some 25% of the value of whatever was shipped. Those costs have been reduced to a pittance. George relates “a sweater can travel 3,000 miles for 2.5 cents; it costs 1 cent to ship a can of beer.” She notes elsewhere in the text that “shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters.”

George relates “a sweater can travel 3,000 miles for 2.5 cents; it costs 1 cent to ship a can of beer.” She notes elsewhere in the text that “shipping is so cheap that it makes more financial sense for Scottish cod to be sent ten thousand miles to China to be filleted, then sent back to Scottish shops and restaurants, than to pay Scottish filleters.”


Container transport is referred to as “liner shipping” and it is much more efficient way to ship goods. Modern maritime trade itself increasingly consists of container ships which first set sail a mere 58 years ago, in 1956. Five years later, in 1961, a set of international standards for containers were agreed upon, paving the way for trade between countries to expand exponentially. It took another five years, until 1966 before the first converted container ship sailed from Elizabeth, New Jersey to Rotterdam Netherlands with 236 containers. As George notes, largely as a result of the growth of liner shipping, maritime trade has grown fourfold since 1960 and continues to expand today. In 2011, just three years ago, in the United States alone, 360 commercial ports took in goods from around the world worth $1.73 trillion, or eighty times the value of all U.S. trade in 1960. Of the approximately 100,000 merchant vessels plying the world’s waterways today, 6000 of them are container ships; the more recently built ones make that first container vessel appear like a midget in comparison. Some of the newer ships can hold 15,000 containers and one, scheduled for completion this year (2014) is estimated to have an 18,000 container carrying capacity.

According to the World Shipping Council website,

“In one year, a single large container ship might carry over 200,000 container loads of cargo. While individual ships vary in size and carrying capacity, many container ships can transport up to 8,000 containers of goods and products on a single voyage. Similarly, on a single voyage, some car carrier ships can handle 7,600 cars. It would require hundreds of freight aircraft, many miles of rail cars, and fleets of trucks to carry the goods that can fit on one large liner ship.”

The website goes on to elaborate on the growth of container shipping:

“Cargo transported by the liner shipping industry represents about two-thirds of the value of total global trade, equating each year to more than US$ 4 trillion worth of goods. Workers at ports world-wide loaded and unloaded cargo for more than 10,000 liner vessel-stops per week, with the average ship making 2.1 port calls per week. Liner shipping companies deployed more than 400 services providing regularly scheduled service, usually weekly, connecting all countries of the world. In mid-2008, there were more than 17.8 million containers in the world fleet, which cost the industry US$ 80.1 billion to purchase. In the United States alone, the industry spends US$ 869 million per year to operate the fleet of chassis used to move containers over land. The liner shipping industry has spent over US$ 236 billion in more than a dozen countries on the purchase of new vessels.”

That was in 2009. Five years later, today there are close to 6000 container ships (5985 to be precise) schlepping some 18,749,172 TEU (standardized containers) around the world. The three largest companies are the Danish APM-Maersk (with 606 ships carrying 2,887,423 containers), the Mediterranean Shipping Company (497 ships carrying 2,530,961 containers) and the CMA CGM Group (448 ships carrying 1,647,060 containers). APM-Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, has subsidiaries and offices in 135 countries and employs 117,000 worldwide. Its 2011 revenues stood at $60 billion, just behind Microsoft whose name, needless to say, is far better known. In 2014 APM=Maersk ranked 142 of the Forbes 2000 richest multinational corporations. In 2006, the company launched the beginning of its super tankers, the Emma Maersk, capable of carrying 15,000 containers. On its maiden voyage it shipped 150 tons of lamb, 138,000 tons of cat food, 12,800 MP-3 players, 33,000 cocktail shakers, and 2,000,000 Christmas decorations among its goods. The Mediterranean Shipping Company, founded by Gianluigi Aponte, is Geneva-based Italian company which operates in all the world’s major ports.Its most important port is Antwerp in Belgium. The CMA-CGM Group is a French-Lebanese company with headquarters in Marseilles. It ships to 400 ports in 150 companies.

To be continued…


NY Times Review of the book.


Part Two


3 Comments leave one →
  1. Gordon Flowers permalink
    November 19, 2014 10:03 am


    Found your book review of interest. I worked for the shipping industry in Montreal and St John in the early 1960s. At the time most shipments were non-container. I had an office job but did work with the longshoremen and learned to drink at lunch and after hours as hard as they did. When the Montreal harbour would freeze over we were sent to St. John. I started to work with the Canadian Brotherhood of Railway, Transport and General Workers to,organize the office workers. I picked them because they were progressive and Canadian. Most of the unions were International or more correctly American like the SIU headed by Banks a known gangster. We had to get permission from the Canadian Labour Congress first and I did worry they would want the SIU. We did get the okay but had to end the effort as another job came up.

    Memories started to come back after reading the review. In some cases I am surprised to be alive. The SIU was in control as they had destroyed the communist Union in the country with the help of the government. Anyway I was a radical young person out of school and active in the NDP. When the left wing took control of the youth wing, I was asked to take the full time job of Federal Secretary and ended my employment moving to Ottawa.

    As you know the SIU was run by gangsters. I remember some drinking buddies telling me they could not understand why the SIU local chairman had not kicked my ass. I told them he seems like a nice fellow when he has been at our table drinking. They then told me he was discharged from the Canadian Army in Korea for killing civilians. I was shocked because I spoke out regularly against the war in Vietnam. I never had a problem with him. In one case we had a group drinking in one of our hotel rooms (as we are based in Montreal) when one guy told us his son had joined the U.S. Military and was fighting in Vietnam. I told him, I hope he gets killed. As you can expect he went after me. His co-worker jumped between us and told him he agreed with me. That ending any fighting were I would have been on the losing side. I doubt they ever drank or worked together again.

    All the liquor was shipped in wooded crates so they could easily be opened. The company would have special bricks that weighed the same as a 40oz bottle. As the cargo was only weighed when the Railways picked up the shipment they would not find a missing bottle (most likely many) until it reached its destination. This way the Railways would pay for the lost or their insurance company. This ended with the containers.

    Lots of stories come to me with your review. My oldest brother died a couple weeks ago. We were not close as he was ten years older. When I was eight he finished high school and moved to Montreal as there were no employment in our area. When I moved up to Montreal he had moved to Toronto. I only moved to Toronto in my thirties. I didn’t see him much until the last twenty years.

    Take care and hope family are well.


    Sent from the iPad of Gordon Flowers


    • November 19, 2014 10:45 am


      What a fascinating history, very little of which I knew. Having built up the shipping industry in this first entry, I intend to show its seamier side in the episodes that follow. I’m beginning to think that “efficiency” in the world capitalist economy translates into more and more members of the working class getting screwed, laid off, mistreated, etc and there is plenty of that the merchant marine…

      Regards to the family.



  1. Ninety Percent of Everything…A Commentary-Book Review – Part Two |

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