JD.com's greenwashing of bluefin sales a cautionary tale in China

Published on
September 12, 2017

The recent uproar over JD.com’s marketing of bluefin tuna as sustainable has exposed how commonplace – and damaging – greenwashing has become in China’s massive seafood marketplace.

In case you missed it, in June, the World Wide Fund for Nature (WWF) found itself the target of criticism from Chinese environmental NGOs over sales of endangered bluefin tuna by JD.com, a leading e-commerce retailer and a “strategic partner” of WWF. The WWF, which does much valuable work in tracking the impact of Chinese consumption on our oceans, appears to have overestimated its partner’s grasp or interpretation of what sustainability actually means. 

JD.com ultimately issued a press release saying that it would stop sales of bluefin tuna in its self-operated online store. It stated that its stock was imported from fish farms in Australia, and third-party vendors on JD.com continue to sell the product. 

Behind the furor is a deeper problem over the use of eco-buzzwords in China. There’s now a cottage industry of seafood consultants in China who work for both online and conventional seafood retailers and conservation bodies getting rewarded handsomely for abusing terms like “wild,” “green,” and “sustainable” seafood for marketing purposes. 

In China, such sustainability catchphrases have little significance to consumers other than to signal to them that a product is “safe to eat” – a quality many shoppers seek out in a grocery market still troubled by food safety scandals. The Mandarin-language equivalent to terms like “pure,” “deep-ocean,” and “wild” give firms license to charge consumers more by playing on food safety worries and the Chinese predilection for consuming exotic and rare species to demonstrate social status. 

Chinese seafood and retail companies, the Chinese government, and the Chinese populace all seem to be willing participants in this charade. 

There’s a clutch of major fishing companies in China marketing high-priced imported seafood as “clean” and “green,” while at the same time operating giant fleets in distant waters that are increasingly overfished. These companies offer little or no information about the impact of their activities in those waters. 

Censorship is also a major problem. Chinese newspaper reports on overfishing in Africa, for instance, make passing – if any – reference to the Chinese role in this phenomenon. And the sparse reporting on the role of state-owned fishing companies in overfishing of local waters (due to the subsidized, massive expansion of local fleets) has sparked little debate in the media of populous provinces like Fujian, Shandong, and Zhejiang, the home bases for most of these operators. Nor does the Chinese populace seem very interested in learning more about the issue of sustainability.

While lashing out at criticism (the minister in charge of fisheries earlier this year blamed foreign countries for unfair criticism of Chinese long-distance fisheries), China has also promised to increase international governance of its trawlers. But the opaque nature of Beijing’s policy-making and enforcement, as well as a complete lack of trust in Chinese data, have cast much doubt on the Chinese government’s future cooperation in efforts to combat overfishing. To fix its international reputation, China could start with a swift cut to generous fuel subsidies, and by sharing more reliable data.

The NGO community isn’t off the hook, either. Before linking up with Chinese “strategic partners,” WWF and others need to ensure those partners share the same understanding of what sustainability means and how such concepts are protected and enforced.  

Nor are international seafood companies and retailers free from culpability. Long-distance fishing companies in China claim that a large portion of their products are shipped to Western buyers. Are these customers questioning or tracking where their products are coming from?  

It would be nice to think that traceability would become a lodestone or a guiding principle of the seafood marketing industry in China. 

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