The (Flawed?) Promise of “Certified Sustainable Seafood”

By controlling the definition of “sustainability,” eco-labeling schemes could do harm as well as good.

Published May 11, 2016

In identity politics, labels matter. Labels can empower, by offering words around which ideas can coalesce. Labels can serve as shorthand for particular communities or perspectives. But labels can also be restrictive, reductionist, and exclusionary. And when it comes to formalized sustainability certification schemes, which seek to label certain commodities as “sustainable,” labeling can be similarly double-edged.

Two fisheries policy experts—Maria Hadjimichael and Troels Jacob Hegland, both from Aalborg University in Denmark—recently published a skeptical assessment of the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) “Certified Sustainable Seafood” eco-label. In their paper, the researchers argue the brand’s driving mentality is structurally at odds with a sustainable and equitable future.

“When you start putting sustainability in a box you can tick, you’re going to lose out on all the ecological and social complexities that can’t be detached from each other,” Hadjimichael says. “The more entrenched these kinds of labels become in the way we manage the environment, the more difficult it is for society to see that this is not the way forward.”

Top-down ecolabelling schemes like the MSC’s incentivize commercial fishers’ conformity to their sustainability standards, providing consumers with simple means of choosing products marked accordingly: they facilitate “voting with one’s wallet.”

But Hadjimichael says that even non-profit labeling schemes are susceptible to the marketplace logic through which they operate, threatening to monopolize the very definition of “sustainability” while overlooking potentially relevant factors in the process.

Carbon costs, for example—from harvesting to shipping—do not figure into the MSC’s standards, Hegland says. Nor do questions of social sustainability, such as the preservation of ways of life liable to vanish under heightened industrialization. By formalizing the definition of sustainability, then, eco-labeling schemes run a risk of fostering exclusivity.

“If you come in with a different idea of sustainability—and it might actually be more sustainable from some perspective—you’re up against a big, powerful organization which has a clear market interest in keeping the idea of sustainability linked to their brand,” Hegland says.

Hadjimichael first took a critical interest in the potential problems with eco-labeling after speaking with small-scale Scottish fishermen who felt they were being squeezed out by larger bottom-trawling local competitors who had put up the cost of MSC accreditation, which typically runs from US $15,000 to $120,000, depending on magnitude and complexity, not including improvement costs. The larger players’ catches, now bearing the MSC’s label, could fetch higher prices in a market increasingly informed by consumers’ environmental goodwill.

The small-scale fishermen “felt like they were actually the most sustainable fishers in the area, yet they were losing out in the name of sustainability,” Hadjimichael says. “It didn’t sound fair.” She says it’s a sentiment she’s heard repeatedly since.

In their research, Hadjimichael and Hegland investigated how commercial fishers and other relevant actors in three disparate MSC-certified fisheries felt about the eco-label. They found that stakeholders’ attitudes ranged from enthusiastic to cynical.

Associates of a large Australian prawn fishery, for example, had eagerly anticipated the increased market share they could garner by undergoing accreditation (despite the fact that the fishery’s harvesting method yields a particularly large amount of by-catch). Many of those working within a smaller-scale Faroese saithe fishery, on the other hand, remained unconvinced that certification standards really improved the sustainability of their operations, but felt they had little choice but to seek certification in light of the label’s popularity.

Camiel Derichs, the MSC’s regional director in Europe, says that the organization “isn’t the silver bullet” when it comes to environmental issues in fisheries. But he says the MSC has been a positive force since the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever established it in 1996.

Derichs says that the organization is “starting to explore social sustainability” as a possible criterion for certification, and that it has given consideration toward carbon impacts, though it isn’t a priority for now.

“The MSC’s not static,” Derichs says. “We have a standard that’s evolving all the time.”

Derichs notes that while the NGO cannot forcibly prescribe fisheries management strategies, it has exerted indirect pressure on policy. Some European governments, for example, have subsidized accreditations, and the organization effectively mediates between scientists, fishing companies, industry organizations and associations, and state officials.

Derichs also stresses that the MSC is “going a long way to cater for small-scale developing countries’ fisheries,” for which, he says, the biggest hurdles to certification often involve an absence of management infrastructure, such as comprehensive catch records and coast guards. The organization’s capacity-building program and its Global Fisheries Sustainability Fund (launched in 2015) are meant to address such obstacles.

Still, Hadjimichael emphasizes eco-labeling schemes’ inherent limitations.

“It’s a market-based tool, and in today’s free market, the most vulnerable are almost always going to be left out from the system. It’s something consumers need to appreciate, at least,” she says. “Consumers cannot leave these decisions to be taken for them.”