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How to Navigate the Sea of Sustainability Messages, Claims and Labels

On Wednesday morning of SB ’15 San Diego, ISEAL Alliance unveiled a new tool that brings clarity to the landscape of sustainability claims and labels, providing key questions any “sustainable” business should ask its partners. ChallengeTheLabel.org is a filter for information about the social and environmental attributes of a product or service. Two years in the making, this user-friendly and interactive tool promises to be helpful for decision-making for sustainable purchasing and procurement for consumers and businesses alike.

Lara Koritzke, Director of Development and Communications at ISEAL Alliance, opened the panel discussion with background information on ISEAL. The global NGO looks at sustainability claims to determine credibility, which could be based on a score, award, index, or endorsement. If viewed like a pyramid, with the top portion being most credible and the bottom being greenwashing; the middle is the most confusing. Koritzke hopes that #ChallengeTheLabel will drive attention to critical questions and provide consumers, companies and NGOs with a means to inspect and demand credible claims in the marketplace.

The four determining questions on ChallengeTheLabel.org are:

ISEAL Alliance says that with a credible claim, the above questions should be easy to answer. It also highlights five universal truths to sustainability claims – all should be: clear, accurate, relevant, transparent and robust.

Geoff Bolan, U.S. Program Director for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), said MSC’s mission is to use its ecolabel and fishery certification programs to contribute to the health of the world’s oceans. Not the typical nonprofit, MSC manages two standards founded on the notion that market-based solutions will contribute to the health of the oceans for generations to come.

The original MSC program is the Fisheries Standard, which assesses whether or not a fishery is sustainable. Developed in consultation with scientists and conservation groups, only seafood from an MSC-certified fishery can carry the voluntary ecolabel. The second program is the MSC Chain of Custody Standard, a traceability and segregation verification that is applicable to the full supply chain from a certified fishery or farm to final sale. MSC verifications are used on over 25,000 seafood products in 94 countries, from every McDonald’s Filet-o-Fish to the upcoming Rio 2016 Olympic games. In North America alone, there are over 500 Chain of Custody Standard-certified companies. In reference to certified canned fish, Bolan said: “(Certifications are) darn complicated even at the whole fish – and not many people eat the whole tuna.”

A nice lead-in to Todd Newman, VP and General Manager of Emerging Categories at Bumble Bee Seafoods, which in 2013 launched Wild Selections – a complete line of MSC-certified sustainable canned seafood that will donate a minimum of $1M in proceeds to the World Wildlife Fund and its ocean conservation initiatives. Bumble Bee is the largest branded seafood company in North America, and one of the top 20 seafood companies in the world.

Newman explained that all tuna are wild caught, as they’re migratory and the fishing happens thousands of miles offshore, beyond easy monitoring. Unfortunately, this presents a huge opportunity for bad actors to take advantage of the lack of traceability. MSC has a proven track record of tracking the globally popular fish and can tell the consumer exactly where the fish was caught. There aren’t enough MSC-certified fisheries to meet demands for mainstream business, but Bumble Bee is working on increasing the amount of fit fisheries through demanding a healthy supply chain. Bumble Bee was a founder of the International Seafood Sustainability Foundation (ISSF), which states the importance of working with all stakeholders to improve the sustainability of the world’s tuna resources.

Finally, Leo Griffin, CEO of Artisan Bistro Foods, Inc, spoke about the frozen foods market. He stated that brands such as Lean Cuisine and Stouffers have seen declines in sales over the past seven years. While it’s been a “race to the bottom in terms of price,” Artisan Bistro is the first in its class to offer high-quality protein such as grass-fed beef, free-range chicken and MSC-certified seafood. It is also the first brand in its category to be certified by the MSC, and the first to get a non-GMO certification for an animal protein-based meal. Getting non-GMO is the most challenging of the food certifications because it’s set to a 100 percent bar, looking at the supply chain of every single ingredient. Griffin raised the question of whether or not consumers really understand what standards such as non-GMO and MSC-certified mean. In either case, the frozen food brand is exploding in popularity and the demand is certainly high.

Koritzke closed the hour-long panel and Q&A session by asking the audience to inform ISEAL Alliance if anything is missing from the new ChallengeTheLabel.org. She hopes that companies not just try to achieve certain standards, but that certifying organizations will also look at how to set standards credibly.

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