Do Eco-labels Help or Hurt?

“USDA Organic” and “Marine Stewardship Council-certified”
are the two most prominent “eco-labels” that ensure a measure of environmental
responsibility consumers can count on for agricultural and wild seafood
products, respectively. Developed by third parties with significant input from
thoughtful advisors, these labels provide a certain hedge against spurious
claims of environmental responsibility that cuts through the growing clutter of
‘green marketing.’ But how valuable are eco-labels and are they doing more harm
than good?

In the current issue of Conservation
, Jennifer Jacquet and Daniel Pauly argue that market-based
initiatives, though well-intentioned, “unduly discriminate against small scale
fishers for their lack of resources to provide data for certification.” The
Marine Stewardship Council’s seal of approval for wild-capture fisheries, which
is emerging as the ‘gold standard’ certification, draws particular attention.
“The MSC bias against small-scale fisheries is neither intentional nor
unacknowledged, and it stems from real technical difficulties in defining
sustainability criteria for fisheries that are data poor.”

Jacquet and Pauly show that small-scale fisheries produce as
much annual food for human consumption and use less than one-eighth the fuel of
their industrial counterparts, but are being undermined by well-intentioned
eco-labeling initiatives because only large-scale operations can afford the
certification assessment fees and costs to gather appropriate data to measure
performance. The label is a type of ‘product promotion’ that drives purchasing
decisions; on the flipside, smaller producers don’t have a tool to “prove” that
their products are ‘sustainable.’

Insert the word “farmers” wherever “fisheries” is mentioned,
and it is easy to see how local, small-scale agricultural (and aquacultural)
producers suffer from the same fate. 

Consumers choose products with reassuring labels because they don’t trust
marketing claims. They also don’t trust policymakers to support the most
environmental responsible food producers. They’re justified in their
skepticism. Hungry to do the right thing, many will respond to eco-labels,
despite their weaknesses. As a responsible business engaged in continuous improvement,
however, we must heed this criticism and remember to educate our customers
about the limitations as well as advantages of using eco-labels as indicators
of sustainability. If we don’t, we’re unlikely to create lasting environmental
change and may leave real opportunities behind.

-Helene York, Director, Bon Appétit Management Company