Do national brands work?

Published on
November 26, 2012

When seventy people from eight European and North American countries got together in Paris last month at a seminar to discuss “Sustainability and national brands: competing or complementary messages?” the conclusion was that the recent proliferation of national brands has added to the general confusion and complexity of the labeling situation.

According to Pascale Baelde and Marie Christine Monfort of Sea-Matters, the conference organizers, while it is natural for a country to want to stamp their own sustainability/responsible fishing branding on products, comprehension of what these mean for retail buyers and especially consumers, can be poor.  

“There is a lack of collective vision about labels.  Each country talks the same talk, but they all use different tools, so we brought many of them together to confront the issue, compare views, and exchange ideas.  It was a bit of a gamble but it worked,” said Baelde.

Finnian O’Luasa, Europe Director for Bord Bia, Ireland, spoke about the BIM Responsibly sourced label, which certifies seafood as responsibly fished, high quality and traceable, and explained that national and European control regulations adhered to by the seafood industry made the Irish seafood sustainable by implication.  “We apply good practice to an already heavily regulated industry,” he said.  

Karen Galloway of U.K. seafood authority Seafish, which promotes a Responsible Fishing Scheme with attendant logo, argued that there were far too many labels and agreed that consumer apathy and confusion was high. 

“In general U.K. consumers trust their suppliers, especially supermarkets, to take care of sustainability so they don’t need to think about it,” she said.  

“Eco-labels are a must-have for retailers, show how environmentally conscious they are, and fit in with their corporate social responsibility requirements. They also provide industry with a defense mechanism against environmental criticism. However, they come at a financial cost to the whole supply chain, so why don’t we try harder to sort out the problems with fisheries management so that we don’t need labels. We acknowledge that fishing has an environmental cost, but recognize that we all need to eat too!” she stated. 

Seafish is in the process of developing a website that will identify the scope of each eco-labels.

Nelly Masson of the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute spoke about the organization’s provenance label which guarantees that a product is wild, natural and durable — fisheries in Alaska are sustainable by law — and highlighted the new certification scheme developed for them by Global Trust to the United Nations FAO standard for fisheries certification. “Many of our members have pulled out of MSC in favor of our new scheme which is more cost effective,” she advised.  

Canadian, Norwegian and American speakers spoke of similar confusion amongst industry and consumers. “Too many eco-labels is counter-effective so we prefer to give consumers the facts about seafood and let them decide,” informed Stéphane Vrignaud of the NOAA Fisheries Service.  www.fishwatch.gov provides a host of information about fishing methods and stock status.

Norway has its own Norge logo which buyers and consumers identity with a set of implicated values including quality and sustainability.  “Norge brand recognition is very high and has become well respected,” explained Johan Kvalheim of the Norwegian Seafood Council.   

The new French seafood label Pavillon France, was introduced by Marion Fischer of France Filière Pêche, which launched the brand in September this year. It is a brand for fresh fish sold on supermarket counters and fishmongers’ stalls, which tells consumers that it was caught by a French ship.  So far more than 100 fishmongers have signed up to the scheme.

“The label is third party accredited and there are quality and freshness obligations for vessels and traceability requirements for fishmongers,” said Fischer.  “Our aim is to support the entire sector and bring the variety of locally landed seafood back to the attention of French consumers.”  

As with other responsible fishing and quality labels, Pavillon France has already been mistaken as a measure of sustainability, but other than wider education programs for consumers, who in general are not interested, there is no current solution to the confusion. 

However, the last word goes to Chris Leftwich, chief inspector of the Fishermongers’ Company in London, who told delegates at a separate event that ”There is only one label that consumers really understand and it also gets them to buy more seafood — it’s ‘buy one get one free!’” He has a good point. 

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