Are eco-labels confusing consumers?

Seafood eco-labels are too simplistic and can confuse consumers, according to a report published on Monday by Scotland’s University of Stirling.

The Review of Fish Sustainability Information Schemes is a comprehensive review of the various types of advice available to seafood consumers, including eco-labels like ones set up by the Marine Stewardship Council and Friends of the Sea and buying guides like the ones put out by the Marine Conservation Society and Monterey Bay Aquarium.

Conducted by independent research firm MRAG Ltd., the 194-page report contends that seafood eco-labels and buying guides are inconsistent and therefore confusing.

“Working from different data sets has led to results which are inconsistent between schemes and have thus created confusion for consumers,” said James Young, professor of applied marketing at the University of Stirling. “What’s more, certain schemes do not openly declare their views about certain types of fishing, so that some species will be excluded from a ‘sustainability’ list simply because of the way it’s caught."

“Another major area of concern,” added Young, “is that any one species may be caught in very many different fisheries, but the status of stocks can vary widely between these fisheries. Cod and tuna are clear examples where simple ‘yes-no’ recommendations do not convey accurate information and are of little use.”

Young, who led the study, also argues that the high cost of certification makes it difficult for fisheries in emerging economies to attain certification.

“Whilst there’s evidence of companies and some environmental funding bodies helping fisheries with the costs of the certification process, the existing schemes can still create barriers for some fisheries in emerging economies,” explained Young. “As sustainability information becomes more important to consumers in the developed world, this risks putting developing economies at a trading disadvantage. There’s plenty of scope for this whole area to be rationalized and for better information to be available to consumers, so that they can really understand what they’re buying.”

However, the report conceded that eco-labels and buying guides have raised consumer awareness of seafood sustainability overall.

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