New report available from London-based Changing Markets: The false promise of certification: How certification is hindering sustainability in the textiles, palm oil and fisheries industries
Faced with the gravity of today’s environmental and social problems, consumers are increasingly seeking out sustainable products that minimise negative impacts on people and the planet. In the UK alone, the market for ethical products grew to more than £81.3 billion in 2017, with demand for sustainable fish growing by nearly 37% in 2016. Consumers often rely on labels to identify more responsibly made products. This trend has led to the proliferation in the number of different schemes and voluntary initiatives: The Ecolabel Index currently lists over 460 labels in 25 different sectors. But are they any good? This report investigated voluntary initiatives in three sectors where growing consumption and unsustainable sourcing have caused serious environmental problems: palm oil, fisheries and textiles. It shows that, rather than being an accelerator for positive change, the certification has lost its way and its contribution to creating a more sustainable world is minute. In order for voluntary initiatives to become part of the solution again, they need to undergo significant reforms, which should be based on transparency, independence, a holistic approach with high traceability, and a drive for continuous improvement.
Contributors to this report (in alphabetical order): Alina Brad, Alice Delemare, Natasha Hurley, Valerie Lenikus, Rachel Mulrenan, Noemi Nemes, Urska Trunk and Nusa Urbancic
Certification has lost its way and its contribution to creating a more sustainable world is minute.
Excerpt: Have seafood certification schemes made a difference?
Despite the problems outlined above, certification schemes can and do have some positive impacts. Their existence has made industry and government regulators more proactive about sustainability concerns, and can be seen as a catalyst for increased data transparency and improved analysis of fisheries (MSC, 2017c). They appear to have resulted in reduced bycatch in some fisheries, and, at times, better practices in terms of fishing gear and areas being fished (MSC, 2017b). Certification also plays an important role in ensuring that labelled fish has not been caught illegally (MSC, 2017b).
Although the FOS Annual Report (FOS, 2016) says its certification has contributed to the health of the world’s oceans, it does not provide data or cite studies to show how the scheme has achieved this impact. In contrast, using independent stock-assessment data in nine regions of the world, MSC found that certi- fied stocks showed higher biomass in nearly all regions after certification (MSC, 2017b). Some experts who express reservations about certification nonetheless say certified seafood is a reasonable choice, because those fisheries are more likely to reflect healthy, moderately exploited stocks (Froese and Proelss, 2012).
However, these apparent improvements in some sectors of the fishing industry do not outweigh disturbing lapses in fishery certification.
For example, consumers should be able to assume that seafood with sustainable-catch labels is free of significant bycatch and that endangered, threatened or protected species have not been harmed. But the MSC standard allows certifiers to award generous scores to fisheries with high levels of bycatch, because the criteria focus only on ‘avoiding serious or irreversible harm’. In contrast, FOS sets an upper limit of 8% of the total catch in weight for discards and requires strong bycatch mitigation and monitoring – but does not deem it ‘essential’ for bycatch to be free of vulnerable or higher-risk species on the International Union for Conservation of Nature’s (IUCN) red list of endangered species. For example, even though shark finning is not acceptable according to the MSC standard, in practice it is tolerated (Ziegler et al., 2017). The loop- holes in the standards offer certification bodies plenty of room for diverse interpretations (White, 2017).
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