Brendan May examines why even the best certification schemes – though vital – can’t solve everything

When I read about the recent ambush of the Marine Stewardship Council by various scientists in Nature magazine my immediate thought was one of sympathy for my successor as chief executive.

Flashbacks of ferocious rows between environmentalists and the seafood industry, with MSC caught in the middle, raced through my mind.

Two of the attack’s architects, Daniel Pauly and Sidney Holt, are not names that are easily dismissed. The latter is frequently referred to as the godfather of modern fisheries science. The former is an incredibly eloquent and media friendly scientist of the highest pedigree, and hence featured prominently in Charles Clover’s film The End of the Line.

The MSC’s present challenge is one that affects many organisations. Certification is under increasing scrutiny. Some of the pressure comes from groups that have never approved of market-based solutions in any case, but have found better arguments to make their case as more resources have been certified.

The concern around the future of certification as a sustainability tool divides into the following clusters of scepticism:

  • Certification only deals with “low hanging fruit” – produce that was pretty good anyway.
  • Certification is too issue-specific – its narrow focus makes it useless at a time when whole product lifecycles are what matters.
  • Certification cannot be mainstreamed and is therefore of limited value other than in creating sporadic niche products here and there.
  • The money spent on certification organisations could be better spent on global lobbying campaigns and more immediately tangible conservation efforts (eg marine reserves).
  • There are now so many standards that unless there is serious rationalisation, the burden on producers to comply with many differing standards and companies to choose between them will ultimately lead to retailers “doing their own thing”.
  • Certification groups are not dealing effectively with emerging issues – it takes so long to change one sector or issue that the boat is missed on other emerging crises.
  • Certification groups make standards-setting so complicated they depart from the real world and create large bureaucracies that hurt rather than help producers.
  • Certification groups have limited consumer recognition. More suitable partners for business are big global NGOs with high brand awareness.
  • Certification allows for the endorsement of large-scale commercial operations that are willing to pay to be audited.
  • Certification is hard to revoke.

Solutions that work

Some of these concerns are valid. No certification scheme has ever claimed to be the only game in town or the only workable solution. MSC is one of the many instruments that are required to save the world’s fisheries from collapse.

Yet there are valid debates to be had. Is it right that MSC should certify fishmeal used in aquaculture? Can a piece of fish be labelled as the best environmental choice if it has been flown in from thousands of miles away? Should the MSC consider what packaging encases its eco-friendly mackerel?

Most certification systems are narrowly focused on their issues. But businesses are increasingly preoccupied with the entire lifecycle of the products they sell. For certification marks, this poses a major challenge. They are not equipped with either the financial resources or the knowledge to tackle every impact of a product that bears their endorsement.

So what of the scientific row about the fish themselves? Sidney Holt retired to an olive farm in Umbria many years ago. Pauly has never, to my knowledge, participated in a single MSC fishery audit. Hundreds of scientists have done so, and one must presume they didn’t pluck their assessments out of thin air.

Both academics claim to have been deeply involved in the foundation of the MSC. But in five years as chief executive I only remember Holt talking to me about whaling – thankfully the MSC has yet to certify a whaling operation – and Pauly had already disengaged by the time I arrived at my desk there 12 years ago.

No MSC-certified fishery has ever collapsed. I know better than most the nervousness of the MSC in relying on the accuracy of its audits. The certification of Antarctic krill is doubtless as worrying to the present regime as the certification of Alaskan pollock was to mine.

But the MSC’s efforts, like those of all its peers in other sectors, are too important to be allowed to fail. The MSC will not solve all the world’s problems. But it will do more than Pauly and Holt.

Brendan May is founder of the Robertsbridge Group and a contributing editor to Ethical Corporation. He was chief executive of the Marine Stewardship Council from 1999 to 2004.

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