In this article, we examine the relations between global value chain governance and environmental upgrading in maritime shipping. Drawing from interviews with global shipping companies and major buyers of shipping services (cargo-owners), we reveal the key issues and challenges faced in improving the environmental performance of maritime transportation. Contributing to the Global Value Chain (GVC) literature, we compare and analyze the influence of three main external drivers on environmental upgrading in the tanker, bulk and container shipping segments: regulation, cooperation and buyer demands. Our findings suggest that environmental upgrading is more likely to occur when global value chains are characterized by unipolar governance and where the lead firms are consumer-facing companies with reputational risks. Furthermore, environmental upgrading in shipping is not likely to materialize without clear and enforceable global regulation and stronger alignment between regulation and voluntary sustainability initiatives.