Sustainable goods transport: Fair Transport is taking the helm

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As we walk through the centre of Porto, Ivar reads out an email. "The Tres Hombres is on her way!" he exclaims. A volunteer working for the Fair Transport shipping company has just written to say their sailing cargo ship is about to drop anchor here. Walking back to our own vessel, the Lucipara2, we look on as a pilot boat helps to moor the ship. Since the Tres Hombres has no engine on board, it has to be towed up the river Douro. We sail out and ask if we can come alongside. That way, we can meet the ship's crew - and save on port charges. "Sure!" yells Andreas Lackner, the ship's captain.

Back on the Atlantic again, we can’t believe our eyes. The brownish-yellow exhaust left in their wake shows us exactly where the cargo ships have gone Ivar Smits Skipper

Clean transport for organic products

Andreas is proud of Fair Transport, the shipping company he founded with two friends back in 2007. He says, "We're the world's biggest shipping company using sailing cargo ships. Our two ships sail the Atlantic Ocean and the North Sea without motors. They're powered entirely by the wind. Solar panels and wind generators provide power for our communication and navigation equipment. In the event of an emergency, we also have a generator that runs on recycled cooking oil."

Sailing against the current

"Our aim is to show people that clean transport is possible," explains Andreas. "Sea transport generates huge levels of pollution. When fuel oil is burned, it releases a toxic mix of carbon dioxide, carbon black, sulphur and nitrogen dioxide, all of which pollute the air and the environment." Drawing what would seem to be an obvious conclusion, we ask, "So your aim is to transport goods in a way that's different from any other in the industry?" "No, not at all," Andreas replies without missing a beat. "We see what we do as normal. The others, they're the ones doing things 'differently'! Not only are they polluting the planet, but they're also shipping far too much stuff - most of it's junk nobody really needs."

"Acting" more important than making money

Fair Transport ships goods as sustainably as possible, but the same goes for the products on board. Not only do the shipowners know the producers, but they also know first-hand that their production practices are fair and respect the environment and workers. "Plus since we only ship luxury goods like coffee, cocoa and rum, we're meeting a need without harming the environment. Other products are best produced locally, meaning they don't need to be shipped at all," says Andreas. So, a transport company that wants to ship fewer goods… Wouldn't that eventually put Fair Transport out of business?

"Obviously, we are a business, and we work to make money," says Andreas. "The difference is there's no correlation between that money and how what we do impacts on people's hearts and minds," he beams. "We get people thinking about what they buy and how they treat the environment. If people see that sustainable transport is possible, hopefully we'll all start thinking more about the longer term. The luxury goods we ship aren't things you eat or drink that often - they're to be enjoyed in moderation. Only then will there be enough left over - only then will we save our planet."

Co-captain Lammert adds, "The key is we need to learn how to live with, not from, nature. That's why it's important for us to lower our consumption levels and slow down. We hope to see only cargo ships sailing the seas of tomorrow, all carrying luxury goods which can't be produced locally."

Polluters benefiting from unfair competition

Still, like any other business, Fair Transport does have to keep an eye on costs. "Our prices are based on the cost of maintaining a sailing ship," Andreas says. "All we need is wind, so we save on raw materials and do no damage to the environment. It sounds incredible, but despite this, we still have higher costs than polluting carriers do. Fuel oil is cheap, but they take no account of all the environmental pollution they're causing." Regardless of the competition's unfair advantage, Fair Transport is still turning a profit. And that's because of another source of income altogether…

Trainees for today and tomorrow

There's room on board for ten trainees, who learn all about sailing this square-rigged two-master, and help load and unload cargo. They're free to choose which leg of the journey they want to sail on, and they pay to take part. What's most striking is the range in ages - we see trainees who are eighteen years old, while others are well into their seventies. Conditions on board the ship are far from luxurious. While all the crew members have their own bed, everyone sleeps in one big space. Electricity and water are scarce. Despite the rough conditions, all the trainees are excited to share their experiences with us and are proud to be actively working to promote this type of sustainable transport. While some are looking for adventure, others truly want to learn how to sail in order to become bona fide crew members later. As Andreas points out, "Traineeships ensure not only a source of income, but also the continuity of our business."

A circular flow of goods

The Tres Hombres also happens to be transporting a commodity from the Netherlands which they desperately need back in the Dominican Republic - phosphate. Andreas points to a stack in the hold and says, "The plantations there can make good use of phosphates from purified water. Coffee plants absorb a lot of phosphates from the soil. So Dutch coffee drinkers are helping to offset this shortage. It's a truly circular process."

Empty port casks are loaded in Porto and filled with rum in the Caribbean, a practice which gives the rum an even fuller body. We're also introduced to Irma, a Dutch woman who's come to drop off a load of olive oil. She lives in Portugal and personally knows the farmers who make it. "It's all one hundred per cent organic and produced by my neighbours," she smiles. The crew loads the stainless steel vats one by one into the cargo hold, a space always used as efficiently as possible.

Sailing side by side under the Eiffel Bridge

A little further upstream, there's a free berth for us, right next to the bridge Gustave Eiffel once designed, opposite the port houses and in front of the colourful Ribeira, an historic neighbourhood on the riverbank. We couldn't wish for a more central location, and Andreas smells opportunity. He says, "As long as we're here in the tourist district, we might as well take advantage and advertise our mission." Then he asks us point-blank, "How strong is that auxiliary motor of yours? With the slack tide up ahead, you should be able to tow us a few miles, right?" Hmm... The Tres Hombres is one serious ship, measuring thirty-two metres long and weighing in at a whopping 128 tons. We hesitate for a moment, then decide to rig her up to the Lucipara2. Moments later, we're sailing up the Douro together.

Some quayside shopping

The Tres Hombres draws a lot of attention from passers-by in the heart of Porto. The crew hang banners printed with information and display their wares. Captain and crew are enthusiastic ambassadors, happy to talk to lots of tourists about the ship and their mission. We, too, do our bit and buy a supply of coffee and rum, not to mention a few bars of Chocolatemakers chocolate (all to be consumed in moderation, of course!). The Amsterdam-based chocolatier uses cocoa shipped by the Tres Hombres herself.

Back to reality

After we leave Porto behind and encounter the first cargo ships on the Atlantic Ocean, we can't believe our eyes. The brownish-yellow exhaust left in their wake shows us exactly where they've gone. Most consumers never see all this pollution, but here at sea there's no escaping it. As far as we're concerned, sailing cargo ships can't replace these polluters soon enough!

Getting creative with cork

For our next blog post, we'll be sailing to the Portuguese province of Algarve. That's where the cork oak grows, a tree which plays an important role in the local economy. But how sustainable a material is cork exactly, and can you do more with it than just plug wine bottles?


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