Feb 102012

Struck by the response to my last post on one of the Marine Stewardship Council’s most prized flagships, Alaska salmon, to pull out of the scheme,  (see http://tiny.cc/qaklj ) I thought it would be worth expanding a little on some of the points I raised. Some have suggested that the MSC needs more robust governance, not less. I disagree, which may surprise some people given that since my last post, the MSC has ignored protests from environmental groups and moved ahead with its proposed certification of the Canadian longline swordfish fishery. This despite accusations that it kills up to 500 endangered sea turtles a year, not to mention catching two sharks for each swordfish caught. Not great news for ecosystem diversity, some say. I must confess to being relieved I’m not having to defend this particular fishery.

We are now in the bizarre position where Alaska salmon (highly rated on all ‘fish to buy’ lists such as the Marine Conservation Society, Monterey Bay Aquarium’s SeafoodWatch et al) has chosen to abandon the MSC system, whilst a fishery that would barely pass the smell test of even moderate conservationists let alone hard greens will soon bear the MSC label.

Some would argue I am trying to have it both ways. On the one hand I say that the MSC has become too cumbersome and bureaucratic, leading to the departure of a good fishery that meets its criteria. On the other,  I find myself in sympathy with those who think that a fishery with a decent-sized bycatch of sharks and turtles at least deserves a formal objections process of the kind offered by the MSC governance system but bizarrely denied to the coalition of marine groups campaigning against the swordfish decision. A cynic would say the decision not to grant the swordfish objection was a calculated response to deter other fisheries from following Alaska salmon to the exit gate. I do not believe this, but I am genuinely surprised no objection was granted, given the issues involved. As an architect of both the governance system and its objections process, I thought it was designed precisely for this purpose. 

This tension between lighter touch governance and conservation integrity is inherent in the nature of any multistakeholder initiative. But it doesn’t have to be. You don’t have to be a vast bureaucracy to have integrity. Indeed, some of the largest bureaucracies in the NGO world have the least integrity. One of the MSC’s founders once said to me, ‘The problem with being middle of the road is you just sit there with all the other roadkill’. Too true. But I cannot recall a time when the organisation pleased so few people at one time, which is saying something as I pleased virtually no-one when I was in charge until I resigned. Does anyone think this is working well 8 years on?

Here’s a summary of the problem as I see it:

1. Faced with a choice between Alaska salmon (generally sustainable and well managed) without an MSC logo or Canadian swordfish (generally loathed by conservationists on several fronts) with an MSC logo, any retailer wanting to promote sustainable seafood is going to choose the former. Not that it ever will be a choice between one species or the other, but the point still holds.

2. Confronted with this absurdity, and against a general backdrop of pressure on ecolabels (not just restricted to MSC), retailers and indeed suppliers will be tempted to develop their own criteria (or rather further evolve the internal criteria they already have) and design the policies around the politics – they will create systems that allow them to reject controversial MSC fisheries that may have NGOs climbing on their roof, whilst accepting that not all their fish needs to carry the logo.

3. The NGO movement is split (deeply) on certification and eco-labelling. There are even major splits within conservation groups about programmes like FSC and MSC. When it is divided in this way, the environment movement deprives itself of real influence.

4. Some observers have concluded that certification (which tends only to certify what was already pretty good anyway) is a proven failure as a policy instrument – deforestation continues apace, fishing effort increases as stocks plummet and so on. In a world ruined by market failure, are market based instruments proving themselves fit for purpose?

5.Brands (the most important daily channel to consumers) will communicate in ways they see fit to their customers. Increasingly, independent labels may be seen as irrelevant in some marketing meetings. Especially as most certification programmes cannot supply the volumes required for mainstreaming. This allows weaker labels to emerge, which helps no-one. 

6. Alternative partnership approaches and policy instruments are throwing their weight around, filling the apparent void left by certification’s weaknesses. The notion that to meet the planetary boundaries challenge (see http://tiny.cc/k8jyj ) we must simply create vast swathes of forest and ocean that are left untouched is gaining ground. Ecosystem services and natural capital are exploding as new themes – no one to my knowledge is proposing FSC or MSC style certification as part of the mix. I can’t think why.

There is an important distinction to be drawn here. Certification is a vital system, but is all too often lumped into the same sentence as eco-labelling. I’ve probably done it myself in this post. With certification, one can track, set targets, raise the bar, independently audit and revoke the sustainability credentials of a product. It is a critical management tool, without which measurement is harder to manage and credibility harder to ensure. The problem comes at the labelling end. To apply a label to a product is to imply it represents some form of sustainability excellence. In the case of Canadian longline swordfish, it is hard to make this claim without laughing inwardly. A politician might pull it off, but most couldn’t. Certification should be seen as a means. Too often its advocates see it as an end.  The certification movement must tackle this issue seriously if it is to survive in the long term.

There are many other challenges faced by certification, some of which I documented in this piece in 2010, defending the MSC (see http://tiny.cc/a05jg ) And lest there should be any doubt, I still want the MSC to work. I am, like many others, concerned that the organisation is effectively paralysed. By a bureaucracy and governance that now deters good fisheries. By a conservation credibility deficit that allows less good ones to slip through the net. And by a growing sense amongst those outside the standards and labeling world that it cannot, in its present form, stand the test of time. I don’t mean next year, or the year after. I mean the test of time.  I hope that emerging narrative is wrong. Those of us who helped build the marketplace for certified products are going to have to show courage, adaptability and leadership if our chosen instrument of progress is to be fit for purpose. That process begins with an admission that not everything is rosy in the garden.