The limits of labels

Even the most ambitious eco-label isn't a substitute for government action.

Last week my colleague Christiane made the case that eco-labels telling shoppers that their food is certified sustainable’ can no longer ignore the products’ greenhouse gas emissions. In an age of climate emergency, all policy is climate policy — so the climate impacts of our food should be made obvious to customers. But as long as there is a gap between how people think about their values and how they actually act in the shop, even the most ambitious eco-label can’t substitute for government action.

If you ask people about our impact on the ocean, the answer is consistent and clear: damaging human impacts like overfishing must be stopped. And the Blue Planet effect’ has only solidified this view. Now, if you change the question from fishing’ to seafood’ people’s ambition is tempered — and that is precisely the point. We say that sustainability matters to us when fish are in the sea, but it’s a different thing entirely when fish are on the menu. When it comes to seafood, there are some clear and surprising examples of how what we say and what we do don’t match up.

Consider fish fraud’, where a cheaper species of fish is mislabelled as a more expensive species (e.g. catfish for cod, yellowfin tuna for bluefin). Fraudulent marketing needs to stop, but the awkward truth is that the cheaper, mislabelled seafood is often more abundant and sustainable than the species people think they are buying.

Or consider the seafood people are willing to pay a premium for. Shoppers will pay more for local’ products. But firstly, local’ products are defined as products from the same country, rather than the actual distance they have travelled. And secondly, local fish aren’t necessarily more sustainable. Consider that in the UK better fisheries management in recent years has improved North Sea cod to the point where it is back on the menu”. But you probably noticed that cod never actually left menus — it was simply imported from more abundant and sustainable fishing grounds in the Barents Sea and Icelandic Sea. For decades, buying imported cod was actually the more sustainable option.

We say that sustainability matters to us when fish are in the sea, but it’s a different thing entirely when fish are on the menu.”

As for environmentally sustainable products like those given the MSC blue tick label, researchers have only found a small consumer price premium for these products or sometimes none at all. Retailers keeping prices the same (and absorbing the cost) implies that shoppers are not willing to pay more for sustainable seafood, again, contrasting with surveys of what people say they will pay. These realities of consumer behaviour limit the options for driving change in fishing practices.

To help explain this dissonance between what people say and do, economists make a distinction between what people state about their shopping preferences in surveys and what they reveal about their preferences when actually deciding what to buy. Many economists are sceptical about how accurate stated preferences are, and think that only revealed preferences are honest reflections of people’s wants. If you want to know people’s true feelings, the thinking goes, ask them to vote with their wallet. According to this logic, it doesn’t matter what we say we want — the fact that we don’t buy sustainable seafood means that we simply don’t care about the health of our oceans.

But we live in an economy with high levels of inequality. People have very different wallet sizes to vote with, so our buying decisions are affected by how much money we have to spend. And beyond this, we need to question the core assumption about market behaviour and values. If there is a disconnect between what people say they want and how they spend their money, doesn’t this actually compromise the market’s ability to reveal our genuine preferences? Economists are keen to question whether people accurately state their own values but never, it seems, to question whether markets accurately reveal’ values or whether markets are oriented towards some values (low price) over others.

If, instead, we want the fishing industry to reflect people’s wish to create healthy oceans, this dissonance between people’s stated and revealed preferences means that we cannot rely just on the market. Eco-labels like the MSC blue tick, while certainly improving the sustainability of fisheries, can only go so far beyond consumer attitudes. For the scale of ambition necessary for our oceans, we need governments to respond to the call.

Unfortunately, just as eco-labels cannot, governments have not. Despite an ambitious reform of the EU Common Fisheries Policy to end overfishing by 2020, fishing ministers continue to set fishing limits above scientific advice. Eco-labels can raise the bar for concerned shoppers, but government policy needs to set standards at the right level and not back down from the challenge.

As the climate crisis becomes part of more people’s everyday vocabulary, let’s absolutely challenge eco-labels to include climate impacts. But let’s also be realistic: market behaviour alone is not going to deliver the transition we’re seeking.

Image: Peter Bond on Unsplash

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