My view on: Ecolabels / by Francisco Blaha

Lately, some of my opinions expressed on this blog have put me in hot water with people from various organisations, so I thought about explaining clearly my position in regards some topics, as I don't like to be misunderstood! 

With Fisheries Ecolabels, my view is the following: let me use a scenario to explain.

 from a WWF - Accenture report

from a WWF - Accenture report

 In most countries of the world, to drive a car, you need to go trough a process of getting a driver's license run by an official institution in that country. Once you have that licence, you can legally get on the road and drive a car.  How good is that system, is depending on a varied number of reasons; like human resources, cultural values, rule of law, transparency, etc.

Obviously, there would be countries that are better than others at this. So let say that a country has a bad rate of accidents by licensed drivers, in comparison with other countries. So what you do? 

For me, the most logic, democratic and cost-effective solution is to set a program to strengthen the institution that is legally entitled to do that job in the country, standardise the licensing systems, exams and controls under auditable standards and reward conformance in some way.

What I would not do, is to create a privately owned parallel system on top of the already existing national system. Hence I, as a driver need to get trough the hurdles of the official systems, and then get in contact with this private companies ( working at least at cost recovery but most probably for profits) and go over a whole set of new exams and tests (at my cost) to prove people I don't know, that I know how to drive.

And that is what in my opinion Ecolabels do, create a parallel system. And is not that if I’m a good driver this extra private certificate will diminish my insurance cost or guarantee me a fare increase.

So that is my “problem” with Ecolabels. I would not mind their existence if they were based on a model pushed by consumers that want extra guarantees and are happy to pay for them… but is rather on a model for retailers offloading to a ”commercial brand” their decision-making capacity and expecting the producers to pay for the bill.

I do have the feeling (and I got this from data we collected working with Globefish) that we are being told that is a “consumer” requirements, when seems that is a retailer imposition to create a “firewall” around them by saying… we sell fish with ecolabels so it should be good!

Many governments have introduced at national, regional and international levels (with different degrees of success and capacity), and diverse policies and mechanisms to ensure the sustainability of fish stocks. And I have seen that the better the performance of the organisation the easier the Eco-certification is… so it seems that the fisheries that are certified are the ones that needed it the less.

The idea of that a certified product may get a price premium is not a golden rule, furthermore the logic of that assumption is flawed, in NZ we have argued that the industry should not even expect a price premium for certification noting that: “No plausible case can be made for a premium for ‘sustainable seafood’. I anything, a well-managed fishery should also be a cheaper fishery to harvest as the fish should be more abundant and easier to catch!” as said by my friend Alastair MacFarlane

Furthermore, the “explosion” of fish-related labels and certification, has created what has been described as “eco-label noise”. Consumers may find the wealth of different messages confusing; they increasingly put their faith in trusted retailers to define the boundaries of their ethical purchasing decisions.

For example, The NZ Hoki fishery managed under an internationally peer review Quota Management System (QMS) has been certified by MSC since 2001, nevertheless, since 2010 Greenpeace added it to its seafood red list, as Greenpeace believes “the stocks of Hoki are now considered to be overfished”… so who you believe?

On top of that different certification schemes certify different things, have different standards, and use different assessment methodologies. There is significant variation between schemes in the scope of the assessments conducted. And after knowing some of the people behind them, I have seen people with very dubious moral standards taking moral high grounds on the goodness of their brand of Ecolabels in comparison to the others.

The Ecolabels session in most tuna conferences I have been, is always an embarrassing cat fight.

Personally, I think that if all the money behind those logos and labels that retailers in rich countries want (or say they want) was to be used to support and strengthen the organisations in the sourcing countries who’s job is to manage the sustainability of the fisheries, we would achieve much better results.

Otherwise, we seem to push towards a potential the scenario where the official organisations become irrelevant and we rely on the opinion of business and brands (which is what ecolabels are) to "run" fisheries management. 

Ecolabels have a space in the fisheries world, a space we gave them by not having a strong fisheries management systems and they took using consumers ethics as a reason… and like anyone else in the fishing business they want to make money.

Some people try to push them as a condition of market access (which is not!) in the best case scenario is a tool for market success, hence adhering to then should be approached as a business decision. 

Would you really get something from having label X or Z?. If the answer is yes, choose based on the market presence of the labels in the country you are targeting… and be ready to spend a lot of money.

Interestingly the one that I respect the most of those Ecolabels (MSC because they certify fisheries and no companies) has landed itself in problems with a russian based fishery as you see here