Consumer Activism No Substitute for Government Regulation

Most people would rather not consume products that are produced by slave labor. Some people are also willing to spend a little extra money for that reassurance, and will choose to buy a product that’s a bit more expensive if it comes with certification that it was produced by employees who receive living wages, safe work conditions, and so forth.


This has given rise to various companies who offer such assurances. Similar to kosher certification, they charge a fee to inspect a company’s production facilities and provide their seal of approval. Then this seal supposedly boosts the product’s sales, creating a sound business arrangement.


A recent scandal involving the seafood certification ‘Sea to Table’ shows that this doesn’t always work so well. Sea to Table certifies that certain American seafood has been caught by local fisherman in a sustainable way. But an Associated Press investigation shows that hasn’t been the case.


The AP found, for example, that Sea to Table was offering tuna guaranteed to have been locally caught off the East Coast even during the peak of winter when no tuna boats were docking there. Some of the docks where Sea to Table claimed to receive fish from local fishermen were actually warehouses accepting deliveries from around the world. Read more about the Associated Press findings here.


The owners of Sea to Table offer a lengthy defense taking responsibility for these mistakes, claiming they are inadvertent, and promising to make changes immediately. They point out how hard it is to keep straight which fish came from where and how complicated the seafood business is. Fine. I am certainly not in a position to judge whether their mistakes were honest or not or to evaluate how credible their certification will be in the future.


But there are a few conclusions we can definitely draw. The first is these types of certifications are not always reliable. It’s of course nice to patronize businesses and products that are certified free trade, sustainably produced, and the like, but these certifications have limits. There is limited oversight or regulation of the checkers, and a strong financial motive for them to grant certification to whatever business requests (i.e. offers to pay for it). In addition, the issues they are certifying are complex beyond what even most educated consumers have the time and background to delve into, so it’s very hard to feel assured that the certifications are making the impact or having the effect that we desire.


Second, these private certifications only cover a tiny percentage of product. While I don’t have exact statistics, it’s obvious Sea to Table only certifies a miniscule fraction of all the seafood that’s consumed in the United States. The quantity such organizations certify is limited by a number of intractable factors. There is legitimate debate about what environmental and labor standards should be, and many will not agree with the standards set by the certification. Less nobly, many people will simply not be willing to pay whatever these certifications add to the price of a product since nothing compels them to.


The lesson is that there simply is no substitute for government regulation. Patronizing businesses that certify the environmental or labor standards of their production may be helpful (if the certification is accurate, unlike in this Sea to Table case. . .) But on its own this cannot stop the exploitation of slave labor in the seafood industry or the unsustainable overharvesting of the oceans. Only laws binding on everyone and enforced across the board by governments can make this happen.

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