Caveat emptor with eco-labels


Last September I noted that the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) had drawn the wrong kind of attention when it certified the Fraser River sockeye fishery despite opposition from scientists and environmentalists. The MSC tried to counter its critics, but the controversy instead joined a growing litany of complaints about the substance of its fish labeling program. Environmental advocates suggested that the MSC had become biased toward the industry, while scholars expressed concerns about the Council's tangled relationship with the fishing industry and counterproductive effects, its labeling of another highly threatened species, and its opaque and sloppy certification processes.

Beyond the MSC's issues, there are basic problems with

consumer eco-labeling. Last June I described how the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) politicized its labeling criteria by downgrading some Oregon stocks because of a dispute with federal officials over the status of a California stock. The MBA’s ratings on many other fish stocks also blur ecology and sovereignty in problematic ways. Marine policy analysts Anne Hayden and Philip Conkling discuss similar problems in their column this month in National Fisherman. The criteria used by the MBA, MSC, and Blue Ocean Institute differ markedly, at times leading to contradictory recommendations on fisheries. Because MSC makes private fisheries pay for accreditation, we see the strange situation of lobster and haddock from Canada’s Maritimes now labeled sustainable while Maine’s fisheries in the same ecosystem are not because they have not ponied up.

Perhaps most disconcerting is the suspicion that certification programs have invested their credibility and consumers’ faith in projects that cannot deliver. As Paul Greenberg, the author of the book Four Fish, has remarked, “Consumer choice alone won't get us to a sustainable ocean.” A multi-authored opinion piece came to the same conclusion: “Working with household consumers alone cannot save fish.”

This sentiment applies to other forms of consumption-oriented environmentalism. The Forest Stewardship Council, a lumber certification program founded in 1993, has charted an uneven path. While it influences some markets effectively, it has had little impact on large markets such as the United States.  More disturbing is its lack of effective follow-up in tracking approved companies that actually operate contrary to the spirit of its eco-label.

A fundamental conflict of interest plagues all these efforts. The history of self-regulation can read like a recipe for cynicism. The tobacco industry remains the classic example of how self-regulation has been perverted, but the food industry has its own pattern of deceptive, predatory behavior, especially concerning the advertising of junk food to children. Business doesn't deserve all the blame, though. Although many industries seem impervious to eco-labeling, the underlying reasons for labeling's failures run the gamut from consumer apathy in floriculture to a lack of quality incentives in parts of the textile and apparel industry. There's also consumer exhaustion and confusion because of the proliferation of eco-labels, such as the problems with such labels like organic fish, since USDA rules for organically-certified fish devalue wild-caught fish in favor of farmed ones.

Ecolabels abound in today's marketplace. Image courtesy Flickr user Paul Kim.

And then there is the outright distrust. In 2008 two high school students did what New York City’s food and health inspectors could not. Running simple DNA tests on fish from local markets and restaurants, they exposed major problems with mislabeled fish that fisheries scholars Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly claim [PDF] are global in scale.

Although segments of the fishing industry do desire ecologically responsible products, the industry as a whole is still about catching and selling as much fish as possible.  Expecting this fractured, often poorly regulated global industry to reconcile its contradictory interests in any comprehensive and consistent way is to indulge in fantasy. (And I say that as someone who fished for fifteen years.)

Not that long ago fisheries problems seemed to vex only a small and shrinking portion of society hunkered at the continent’s edge, but globalism and consumption have bound us to them. When not only urbanites in Denver and Boise but ranchers in the Gallatin Valley and tourists in Mammoth can eat ocean harvests without too much labor or cost, then this is no longer just a coastal problem. It implicates all of us.

The challenge now is not just a matter of ethics but of deciphering a proliferating array of advisories that are anything but transparent. This is partly due to the certification industry itself, which has intentionally or otherwise made a mess of guiding consumers toward ecologically responsible products. But we should also recognize that after a couple decades of intervening in the market to protect consumers, neoliberal governments have in the last three decades delegated their regulatory duties back to the private sector, not that the Food and Drug Administration was ever particularly diligent in protecting consumers from the venalities of the food industry. Thus ethical consumers have returned to the condition that prevailed when I was born: caveat emptor.

Essays in the Range blog are not written by High Country News. The authors are solely responsible for the content.

Joseph Taylor teaches in the history department at Simon Fraser University, in Vancouver. He is the author of Pilgrims of the Vertical: Yosemite Rock Climbers and Nature at Risk, which won the National Outdoor Book Award, and Making Salmon: An Environmental History of the Northwest Fisheries Crisis, which won the American Society of Environmental History’s best book award. He lives in Oregon.

Marine Stewardship Council label image courtesy IIED.