“There is a good business case for protecting the environment” Wietse van der Werf, Founder, the Sea Ranger Service

Active in conservation since the age of nine, Wietse van der Werf, describes himself as an “accidental entrepreneur”. He founded the Sea Ranger Service to support government implementation of environmental policy in the Netherlands and would like to encourage more IoD members to reframe sustainability as a business opportunity.

Having been part of a youth ranger programme as a child, I went on to work as a marine engineer in Antarctica in my 20s. I witnessed first-hand the level of human destruction that was happening from illegal fishing and the impact of climate change with sea ice breaking up earlier each year.

The gap between environmental policy change and its implementation was clear. Policy is one thing, but we need impact. While awareness of climate change is high and laws are changing, governments lack the resources to put policy into practice, so the damage continues. Unfortunately, NGOs and charities are not equipped to support governments structurally.

I recognised that a disregard for new legislation, say from illegal fishing, can be the born out of communities facing poverty and unemployment and I began to wonder if we could connect people who desperately need work, with governments who lack skilled workers to implement policy. I was inspired by the Civil Conservation Corps which mobilised three million unemployed young men in the 1930s to restore nature, plant millions of trees and establish 800 national parks in the US.

I set up the Sea Ranger Service as a company to support governments in the same way. We train young unemployed people in areas where there isn’t much work, employ people for a year, pay them while we train them, and provide them with a commercial sailing endorsement so they can work in the maritime industry after their time with us.

What is unique about our approach is that while training, we have capacity to undertake, and get paid for, government monitoring and surveys. And we do this in the North Sea from a special sailing work ship – so we are cleaner and cheaper compared to traditional offshore motor vessels.  In the Netherlands we have serviced 13 government contracts, and we are now preparing to replicate this programme in the UK, France and Spain.

Our approach has also proved to be inclusive and of social value. Globally only 1% of the seafarers are female, but 72% of our recruits for the Sea Ranger programme, are women. We provide a safe and secure environment and women seem particularly drawn to our sustainable and social purpose. I know that our programme has also helped young people who might have been struggling with lifestyle, drugs, and the pressures of the modern world, like social media. Being at sea puts things into perspective and you have to confront your weaknesses, but you work as part of a team – trusted, appreciated and valued.

We have proved that there is a good business case for protecting the environment. Being part of the IoD means we can plug into key business institutions as well as encouraging the wider membership to think about regenerating communities. I hope that IoD directors and the UK business community will join us in exploring sustainability, not just another little fire to deal with – but instead a business opportunity. Rethinking sustainability, we can turn things around and make impact pay.

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