Are ecolabels greenwashing your farmed salmon?

Salmon aquaculture nets near Hitra, Norway. (Image credit: Peter Anthony Frank, NTNU, CC BY 2.0)

The Norwegian Aquaculture Review Council is an academic collective comprised of NTNU students Danielle Hallé, Myranda O’Shea, Bastian Poppe, Emmanual Eicholz and Peter Anthony Frank.

With so much attention on climate change and biodiversity in the media today, it is hard not to be skeptical as to whether companies are taking advantage of these paradigms for their own profit by “greenwashing” their products. Greenwashing is the common term for the practice whereby an organization presents information that gives them an air of environmental responsibility but makes no real contribution to reducing the impacts of threats like climate change, pollution, loss of biodiversity.

A common tool that claims to be environmentally responsible and is very visible in consumer environments is the use of ecolabels. They come in many forms, with each label having different criteria and scope. The sheer number of ecolabels can make it difficult to know if you are choosing the “right one”. Ecolabels exist at a precarious interface between environmental and social responsibility, and fast growing and economically driven industries.
We conducted an independent review on two ecolabels, the Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) and DEBIO, from the salmon aquaculture sector to understand what lies behind the label and whether it actually contributes to a more sustainable future. This article will present a brief overview of the results from this review, however the full report and results can be accessed at any time from here.

How we reviewed the labels

Each ecolabel operates on a different scale; DEBIO is a national certification scheme in Norway while the ASC has an international reach. To assess how each of these labels was addressing sustainability, we compared their certification criteria against the targets set forth by the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) — an internationally-agreed upon vision for global sustainable development. We were interested in (1) which SDG targets the ecolabel addressed and (2) to what level they were addressed. Using both allows us to differentiate between criteria that aligns with many SDG targets but has low requirements for certification, and criteria that meets few SDG targets but has high requirement standards. To minimize reviewer bias, we conducted independent reviews of each ecolabel.

Debio and ASC, the two ecolabels assessed by NARC

Debio and ASC, the two ecolabels assessed by NARC (Image Credits: Debio, ASC; Logos used under Fair Use)

Salmon aquaculture and sustainability

We found that DEBIO and ASC extensively cover SDGs relating to environmental sustainability, with an emphasis on reducing marine pollution and increasing the proportion of protected and restored marine ecosystems. ASC does have a more of a focus toward sustainable use of ecosystems within their ecolabel criteria. Social sustainability was not as prioritized for the DEBIO label but ASC had several criteria that covered a broader range of social aspects such as criteria to ensure community and employee well being. The governance dimension was the most lacking of all sustainability dimensions. ASC’s criteria that does mention governance, is skewed towards SDG 16 which covers the development of effective, accountable and transparent institutions at all levels. It is definitely an area for improvement for both ecolabels. Finally, the economic dimension is most extensively touched on by both ecolabels in SDG 12, which aims for more sustainable and efficient management of natural resources.

No greenwashing here

The outcome of this review process suggests that ecolabels can represent more than just greenwashing. The two ecolabels we analyzed covered all the dimensions of sustainability when conducting business. We did however only review two ecolabels, and a more extensive review is needed to generalize our results. For now, it would be good advice to read what’s behind the label and understand the underlying criteria. We think that ecolabels do have an important role in promoting sustainable choices and creates practical pathways for the everyday consumer to work towards achieving the SDGs.

EcoMass and NTNU thank the students involved for their work, and invite anyone interested int he full analysis to read the full results available at this link.

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