With the rise of ethical consumerism and the decline of the world’s oceans, it comes as no surprise that whole countries are thinking of banning single-use plastics. The Australian government has planned to ban plastic bags, utensils, and straws by 2025, calling them ‘problematic’ and ‘unnecessary’. Kenya has prohibited the use of plastic bags since 2017, and other countries like Thailand plan to make it unlawful for use in any business by this year.
Consumers have been a large driving force in this push for ecological sustainability. Social media trends and hashtags such as #savetheturtles highlight the centrality of environmental awareness for the consumers of this day and age. Businesses must now actively minimise the waste they produce if they are to remain economically viable. This, of course, is a very good thing. However, it would be naive to believe that all businesses were as ‘green’ as they claimed to be.
Let us look at the fishing industry as an example. Plastic pollution in the ocean has been widely publicised by the media. Boycotting plastic straws became a viral trend; a symbol of environmental consumerism. However, they only make up 0.025% of the plastic that is discarded into the ocean every year.
In reality, the biggest killer of marine life is overfishing. Netflix’s documentary ‘Seaspiracy’ illuminates how the fishing industry has manipulated consumers into believing that the biggest issue facing the ocean is plastic. By making consumers hyper aware of plastic straws, the fishing industry is able to go largely unchecked. Overfishing has been a problem for decades and has resulted in the near extinction of many species of turtles, sharks, and dolphins. Overfishing also results in large amounts of bycatch, with approximately 38 million tons of marine life being caught and killed ‘accidentally’.
With many businesses marketing their fish products as sustainable, it can be very difficult to discern the truth. For example, the Marine Stewardship Council’s blue tick is one of the most well-known ecolabels. The MSC is well marketed and consumers tend to know that it certifies ‘sustainable seafood from healthy, wild fish populations’. What they do not know is that licensing fees paid by companies using the ecolabel make up approximately 80% of MSC’s revenue: a conflict of interest that is not openly disclosed to consumers.
Furthermore, one might ask what exactly is meant by a ‘healthy, wild fish population’. With more than 1,600 species of fish at risk of extinction, and another 627 critically endangered, the question becomes whether any fishing in the present day could ever truly be seen as sustainable. Sustainable fishing itself is incredibly difficult to define and no universal definition has been accepted thus far. Hence, we can see why many businesses have chosen to ‘bluewash’ themselves and trade lies for a profit.
Moreover, the Earth Island Institute, the organisation behind the MSC label, has funded projects that seem to try and hide the dangers of overfishing. One of these projects is an organisation called the Plastic Pollution Coalition. When interviewed in the documentary, representatives from the Coalition were extremely reluctant to admit that a large majority of ocean pollution was fishing gear. They also blatantly denied that cutting fish out of one’s diet would help with the environmental crisis. Again, this is unsurprising given that the Coalition is most likely better funded when consumers believe in the ‘sustainability’ of the MSC label and continue to purchase their fish products.
With more than 25,000 fish products being MSC certified and millions of consumers around the world believing in the promise of sustainable fishing, we can see how easily businesses may capitalise upon the genuine concerns of consumers. In essence, our state of ecological crisis has made any hint of business sustainability very appealing, and that much more profitable.
An industry expert we talked to highlighted the importance of being an ‘informed consumer’ and understanding the impacts of everything we purchase. Being informed means understanding the impacts of different fish products and challenging all the information we receive - whether that be about MSC’s sustainability or Seaspiracy’s claims. It should be acknowledged that oftentimes documentaries like Seaspiracy have their own political agenda and biases, and that a single documentary can never frame the complexity of the entire issue. Taking this into consideration, we must always remember to challenge our own preconceptions whilst using critical thinking to validate information from commercial organizations.