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Study: EII, Authority Without Credibility?

by Campaign for Eco-Safe Tuna
April 4, 2014

Study: EII, Authority Without Credibility?

A new study from the Environmental Policy Group at Wageningen University in the Netherlands questions the reliability of the Earth Island Institute's (EII) "dolphin-safe" certification. The study assesses whether "dolphin-safe" accreditation offers authority without credibility. The research investigates whether competition between standards leads to a "ratcheting up" of sustainability standards, or an opposite "race to the bottom," offering certification programs that lower the bar and allow companies to "greenwash" their image with weak compliance criteria.

The study, written by Alice M.M. Miller and Simon R. Bush from Wageningen University and published in the Journal of Cleaner Production, states that conflicts have surfaced between EII, the group behind the so-called "dolphin-safe" label, and the Marine Stewardship Council's (MSC) sustainable seafood certification program. Their research also concludes that these conflicts are playing a significant role in the hold-up of certified fish reaching the market. While the authors of the study agree that authority is directly related to credibility, they state that the potential for dominant network actors to use the threat of market exclusion can play a fundamental role in taking up a particular certification system and can override the relational, dynamic characteristic of credibility.

Clear indicators for assessing the credibility of sustainable standards for supply chains in the fisheries sector are set out in the report, which states: "The key practices for building credibility drawn from a growing literature, include scientific rigor, inclusiveness, transparency/openness, impartiality/independence and impact."

Using these indicators, the study stresses that "[w]ith ecolabels like the MSC that assess fisheries based on environmental sustainability at the ecosystem-level, the necessity of the Dolphin Safe label has come under question. This, coupled with the lack of a coherent and consistent system of standards and criteria for what the assessment procedure is for gaining Dolphin Safe certification has undermined the overall credibility of this label."

As noted in the research study, the first industrial purse seine tuna fishery to be MSC certified was the free-school, FAD-free purse seine fishery in the waters of the Parties to the Nauru Agreement (PNA). Their certification was the biggest assessment in MSC history. The report outlines that the certification was stimulated by a partnership between the PNA secretariat and the Netherlands-based company Sustunable BV, which led to the creation of the Pacifical brand. The study indicates that the credibility of the MSC come through its governance structure and the scientific basis of its assessment.

However, the authors refer to the market dominance of the "dolphin-safe" label, stating this indicates that it has become institutionalized within the tuna production network. "This made the dolphin safe label a mainstream industry representative as "settled law" and providing EII with enormous symbolic power." But, Miller and Bush say, while providing a classification of what constitutes "dolphin-safe", EII provides no procedural information on the certification process itself, and its main strategy for monitoring is through "self-reporting skippers".

They stress that "[t]he lack of transparency under which certifications are made, mean it is difficult to see what certification itself entails, how decisions are made within the EII, and whether the facility for contesting a certification can be made. This in turn leads to questions of accountability to consumers as well as the tuna industry."

But, based on its indicators, the report concludes that "complying with the Dolphin Safe standard represents the lowest common dominator of sustainability and does not require a company to make any improvements to their practices to achieve certification."

The researchers suggest that EII keeps their "dolphin-safe" label as the industry standard by retaining their authority, despite more credible claims made by the MSC certification. The study explains that when Pacifical decided not to go for both MSC and "dolphin-safe," EII reminded tuna companies in their extensive network not to consider products from the brand. This authoritative method poses a threat to the certification of the Pacifical chain of custody.

The study notes that "[f]or there to be a fundamental shift towards more robust labeling like MSC throughout the tuna GPN (global production network), EII would have to lose their position of authority...The reluctance of companies to reject Dolphin Safe stems from the threat of negative publicity, but also from a reluctance to change the status quo from which they benefit."

EII's "dolphin-safe" label, according to Miller and Bush, has demonstrated a weak scientific basis; a lack of transparency and promotion of limited innovation for broader sustainability practices. Despite this, the study finds that the ecolabel "illustrates that authority can be maintained independently of credibility in production networks if the interests of commercial actors, ultimately those-to-be-governed, are of primary concern."

The study concludes that without a network-level change, the impact of more credible labels that foster innovation, such as MSC, may remain limited for tuna, unless the industry players remove or substantially modify the scope of EII's authority. It stresses that an end needs to be put to the innovation stalemate.

Miller and Bush conclude that "[w]hile the stalemate appears to be in the advantage of the EII Dolphin Safe label, the MSC face a difficult task in its resolution; they have to maintain the credibility of their standards and continue their independence, while at the same time remaining beholden to other actors in the tuna GPN to challenge the authority of the EII."