Blog Post

Eco-certification: Making (organic) apples to (conventional) apples comparisons

Apr 26, 2012 | Peter Nelson

The Washington Post's Juliet Eilperin had a piece this week on concerns that the sustainably harvested fish you've been paying extra for may not be so sustainable after all. A new study published online that will appear in the journal Marine Policy finds 31% of fisheries certifiied as sustainable by the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) remain subject to overfishing.  The Post quotes program critics:

"The bar has been lowered gradually, and now they certify everything that moves," said Daniel Pauly, a marine biologist at the University of British Columbia Fisheries Center who once supported MSC certification.

Without getting into the merits of these criticisms or the study (which I've just skimmed), I can say with confidence  that we know surprisingly little about the effectiveness of eco-certification programs in general.

My colleague Allen Blackman and co-author Jorge Rivera examined over 46 evaluations of these programs and found the overwhelming majority employed inadequate methodology. The most common problem is properly accounting for the baseline -- what would have happened without the program.

Many eco-certification programs naturally attract already strong environmental performers eager to get credit for their efforts.  But by itself, the fact that eco-certified producers perform well doesn't tell you a whole lot about whether the program influenced behavior or not.

Seafood certification is a little different than, say, forest product certification because what's being certified is a fishery, not an individual producer.  Baseline issues still apply, however and the Eilperin notes,

MSC officials have questioned the Marine Policy analysis, saying it exaggerated the rate of overexploitation by not adequately accounting for year-to-year fluctuations in fish stocks.

[You can find MSC's own  study on the effectiveness of their certification program here.]

It's a cliche for a researcher to reluctantly conclude that what is needed is a lot more research, but this is one of those cases where it's definitely true.  Blackman is at the forefront of adding to our adding to our understanding, for example this study of organic coffee in Costa Rica.  He and his colleague, Maria Naranjo, take special care to make sure they are comparing apples to apples by using a sophisticated statistical technique (propensity matching scores, if you must know).  They find  that the program in Costa Rica

significantly reduces chemical input use and increases adoption of some environmentally friendly management practices.

But Blackman cautions that, despite his work in Costa Rica and elsewhere, there are still only a handful of rigorous studies on the topic and the evidence base is still far too thin to say whether eco-certification provides real benefits.