Eco-labels not paying off in Japan

Published on
July 26, 2016

It’s no secret that Japanese consumers lag behind Europe and the United States in awareness of seafood sustainability issues. But after many years of educational campaigns, are they catching up?

It’s an important question to ask due to Japan’s status as the world’s top importer of fish and fishery products by value. In 2012, the country imported seafood valued at USD 17.9 billion (EUR 16.3 billion), slightly more than the U.S.A.’s total and far ahead of third-placed China, which had USD 7.4 billion (EUR 6.7 billion) worth of seafood imports. So a change in Japanese market preferences would greatly affect fisheries management worldwide.

A report released this year by Portland, Oregon-based NGO Ocean Outcomes, titled “Opportunities for Sustainable Fisheries in Japan,” includes a section on Japanese consumer attitudes. It notes a 2014 study, “Do Japanese consumers care about sustainable fisheries? Evidence from an auction of eco-labelled seafood,” (Uchida et al.), which showed that Japanese consumers were unwilling to pay more for Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) labeled salmon unless they were supplied information on both the state of the world’s oceans and the purpose of the labeling program.

That paper says that when supplied only with information about the program without first receiving information about declining fish stocks, consumers would not pay more. While providing both types of information resulted in a 26 percent price premium, this was partly because buyers were then less willing to pay for non-labeled product.
According to a recent survey, Tokyo consumers were found to be willing to pay 44 percent more if eco-labeled salmon was produced locally in Hokkaido, after the being presented with the additional educational information. (This has real-world relevance because the Hokkaido chum salmon fishery was aiming for MSC certification, but ultimately left the program.)

The MSC label is promoted in Japan by Aeon supermarkets, one of only a few retailers with chain-of-custody (CoC) certification, but most of the 23 items (from 13 species) offered are imported, and they constitute less than 10 percent of the chains seafood sales. Currently, only two fisheries in Japan are currently MSC certified – Japanese scallop hanging- and seabed-enhanced fisheries, and Kyoto Danish Seine Fishery Federation flathead flounder.

The report also points out that competing sustainable label Marine Eco-label Japan (MEL) has many more participating fisheries – 23 total – despite being an industry-run program without a CoC certification, and with a less stringent process.

Another study, not mentioned in Ocean Outcome’s report, “The Impact of MSC Certification on a Japanese Certified Fishery” (authored by Hiroki Wakamatsu), investigated the impact of the 2008 MSC certification of the Kyoto Danish Seine Fishery Federation (KDSFF). The study did not find an immediate price jump, but did find that certified flounder prices became less influenced by prices of nearby uncertified suppliers.

Other research has also shown that education efforts have a positive effect on consumer opinions of eco-labels, but that exaggerated or sensational claims have a negative effect.

So clearly, there has been a disappointing lack of progress in encouraging consumers to inform themselves and change their seafood buying and eating habits to be more considerate of sustainability.

Perhaps the issue needs to be approached from a different angle. One suggestion: data shows Japan’s citizens tend to place a stronger emphasis on safety and domestic production than on international sustainability issues.

Contributing Editor reporting from Osaka, Japan

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