Jan 302012

Some rather troubling news for eco-labels this month with the decision by the Alaskan salmon fishing industry to withdraw from the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) programme. A decade ago, Alaska salmon became the first fishery of serious scale (with due apologies to Western Australian rock lobster and Thames herring) to become MSC certified and supermarket chains dutifully snapped up this welcome sustainable alternative to its tasteless and ecologically devastating farmed cousin.  It was a great moment. Or so we thought.

The reason for the decision to leave, says the industry, is that the process of having the fishery re-certified every five years is too cumbersome and expensive. It cites a 50-year history of responsible management, and claims that there are other ways in which it can demonstrate its product’s sustainability credentials. Importantly, some seafood companies argue that the competitive advantage of certification is waning as more and more products bearing the MSC stamp hit the marketplace.

At first sight, this decision seems totally kamikaze from a commercial point of view.  Just as supermarket plans, some of which I have had a hand in designing, call for 100% certified sustainable seafood by this year or that, one of the flagship products that will them help meet those targets pulls out of the most respected certification programme around. But no industry would be stupid enough to pull out of an eco-labelling system without gauging market reaction first. Would it?

Groups like MSC spend most of their working hours being attacked. The industry complains the standards are too rigorous. Environmentalists scream they are too lax. Retailers seek clarity so they can plan for supply. Governments snooze. Certifications stall for months or even years as objections are filed, conditions are negotiated and political wrangles threaten progress at every turn.  You don’t join the MSC for an easy life, and the Alaska salmon industry (made up of some of America’s largest seafood processors) has clearly decided life in the programme is just too tricky.

In the five years during which I ran the MSC, governance rows and standoffs between conflicting parties (including those who should have been on the same side as each other) started life as irritating squabbles and ended up as one big, giant, monstrous farce. I have still never shared in public the manoeuvring and shenanigans that marked my final year at the MSC, and will not do so for fear of undermining the organisation that gave me my start in the conservation world. It would also embarrass far too many people. No-one, myself included, emerges from it unscathed. It represented the conservation movement at its most self destructive and imbecillic, fuelled by foundations spending other people’s money who should have known far better. It was an ugly period that preserved entrenched prejudices but very few fish.

There is a serious point at stake here. Although anyone at the MSC will anticipate regular tantrums from hard line conservationists and frustrated mutterings from seafood buyers and sellers in a hurry to make a profit, I certainly hadn’t banked on a (relatively) uncontroversial MSC fixture like Alaskan salmon throwing in the towel. In my day we spent hours trying to work out how to kick a fishery out of the programme so Greenpeace and others might stop thinking we were a front for the industry or a Satanic incarnation.  We failed, because there was, at the time, no compelling argument to do so. We did not spend even a second preparing for industry itself to say ‘Enough is enough – we’re leaving’. I suspect the current MSC did not either. It’s important to understand that the Alaksa salmon certification is among the least controversial and polarising of all major MSC certifications. That’s why we should be taking this development very seriously indeed. This isn’t a predictable storming out by a college candidate about to fail their exam.

The worrying thing is this sets a precedent and others may be tempted to follow. There is nothing like safety in numbers. There are even bigger fisheries in the programme with bigger complaints about the insane structures that at times make it impossible for the MSC (and other certification groups) to function effectively. And the reality is that supermarkets need high volume fisheries to supply the products they sell. Alaskan salmon is a better sustainability bet than its rivals any day. With or without a label. This is the calculation they have made. What will a retailer that delists the product replace it with? Greenpeace still refuses to support the Marine Stewardship Council, so that often welcome kick up the backside to the big chains doesn’t exist either. A good fishery is refusing to use a label granted to fisheries that everyone knows are a lot worse than Alaska salmon. It’s not a sustainable proposition, in this form. 

Some will argue that as more and more MSC products flood the marketplace it won’t matter either way, and the Alaskan salmon industry will look like ignorant and hasty rednecks for withdrawing from the programme. Time will tell. But if others follow, it will prove once and for all that the paralysis and bureaucracy inherent in the MSC’s governance (which was light touch by design until it was hijacked by those more concerned with process than outcome) is a multi million dollar death sentence, administered slowy and painfully. If not for the organisation then for the real issue at hand: sustainable seafood.  I have no doubt that the auditing the Alaska salmon industry says will replace MSC will be inferior to the system used for the last ten years. But I’d be hard pushed to tell a retailer to delist the product just because it didn’t carry the blue stamp of approval. And that is something I never thought I’d say. I’ll be watching other fisheries with great interest. Especially in Alaska.

Conservationists are right to attack bad certifications and stand up to big busines and its lobby groups. But if their gift to the oceans is the mind numbing governance that drives progressive and well managed industries away from the MSC table, it will be a poor legacy indeed. 




Jan 172012

One of the best things about a holiday is the opportunity it provides to tackle that pile of books that has been building up menacingly since the last one. What more appropriate place to read Mark Lynas’s latest book, The God Species, than in the Maldives, given the author’s part time role advising the President of that threatened country on climate change and sustainability. Given the amount of technical information crammed into the book, it’s an easy read, if slightly uncomfortable in that it pulls no punches in challenging some of the sacred cows of large parts of the green movement. I think it’s the most important thing I’ve read for some time, although I can hear the knives of some colleagues being sharpened when I say that, by and large, I find the basic assumptions of the book compelling and its recommendations for the green movement and beyond it equally so.

Lynas didn’t endear himself to many environmentalists when he participated in a Channel 4 documentary, What the Green Movement Got Wrong, just over a year ago. Indeed, it was a pretty poor programme, followed by an even poorer studio debate. I don’t intend to get detained for long by the most polarizing elements of The God Species here; the arguments for and against nuclear power and, similarly, GM technology have been well rehearsed by people more qualified than me. Suffice to say I am not dogmatically for or against either, and I don’t think the planet can afford to rule out anything given its perilous state. That peril is brilliantly articulated in The God Species, making the relatively inaccessible research and views of highly respected scientists readable for those of us unlucky enough not to have been born with scientific brains. It’s high time environmentalists thought like engineers and scientists, not policy campaigners, says Lynas. Reading the numbers, it’s hard to disagree.

Lynas is the first to acknowledge the concept of planetary boundaries is not his own, but he views himself as the transmitter of its tenets. He uses his journalistic flair to do so, to great effect. Reading his polemical prose it struck me as odd that in the discourse about business sustainability, the planetary boundary concept has yet to achieve much traction. Laid out as it is by Lynas, it seems so blindingly obvious.

For those unfamiliar with the approach, it essentially identifies nine key planetary boundaries the world cannot afford to breach. These cover climate change, nitrogen flow, land use, biodiversity, aerosols, ocean acidification, toxics, ozone depletion and freshwater.  For each, the Planetary Boundaries Group of scientists has identified the acceptable limit. For climate change, 350 parts per million of atmospheric carbon dioxide, an extinction rate of 10 per million species per year, and so on. The calibre of the scientists involved (led by Johan Rockström of the Stockholm Resilience Centre and including NASA’s James Hansen) suggests one would either need to be supremely confident or utterly foolhardy to challenge their assumptions too much.

As each problem is laid out, Lynas exposes the idealistic wishful thinking that makes progress in limiting our collective footprint seem like a pipe dream. He freely admits to changing his mind on both GMO and nuclear, and it is soon easy to see why. Indeed, one of his strongest detractors in the Channel 4 debate was George Monbiot, who has of course since changed his mind on nuclear too. There is nothing wrong with changing one’s mind and increasingly history may judge those who refuse to more harshly than than those who have. If it is true that opposition to nuclear power is responsible for a billion extra tonnes of CO2 being pumped into the atmosphere, then hardline greens certainly seem to have a lot to answer for.

My interest in the planetary boundaries approach is not in revisiting these old debates, but in what business can do to adopt this commonsense approach when thinking about its own impacts, at both single business and wider sector level. If we accept that the planet can only tolerate so much of a particular destabilizing activity (such as disruption to the nitrogen cycle, black carbon or methane release from the seabed), then it follows that businesses, not just governments, must think in these terms when considering their own activities. The tired old waste and carbon reduction measures won’t really cut the mustard given the challenges we now face. The God Species is one of the best accounts of those challenges produced in recent years.

 Lynas is brutal about the blanket orthodoxies on carbon offsetting, nuclear and GMOs that have in his view made the green movement unfit for purpose. He scorns initiatives such as Earth Hour, and sees little hope for mass consumption reductions in the form of ‘behaviour change’. Here I find myself nodding vigorously. And I share Lynas’s view that hoping that developing world nations will somehow develop their aspirations and wellbeing differently to how we did so is naïve and bordering on the idiotic. As Lynas points out, saying we need two more planets to live as we do now is rather a waste of time, as we aren’t going to find them. The question is how to use technology, policy and, of course, business behavior to make existence on this planet both profitable and sustainable. Lynas is no pessimist – he believes we can still turn the corner (only three of the nine boundaries have so far been breached).

For a business wishing to adopt this way of thinking, there could be rich pickings. Although traditional life cycle assessment is a useful tool in identifying where the big wins are in tackling the footprint of a particular product or behaviour, the planetary boundaries concept, applied globally, may offer a great deal more. It’s something I plan to explore in more detail. If we can adapt the scientific wisdom of the Planetary Boundaries Group to commercial thinking, get the environment movement to drop some of its potentially counterproductive stances, and build a framework for companies based on what we can and can’t sustain, we may yet find a diversion from the catastrophic course upon which we are currently embarked. It’s well worth a try.

Naturally, the planetary boundaries framework remains to be universally accepted. And its implications in terms of ‘techno fixes’ will divide politicians, businesses and the green movement for years to come. But it can’t be ignored. I strongly suggest you read The God Species and draw your own conclusions.