Using Reputation to Save the Oceans

This week, an article I authored along with eight colleagues titled Conserving wild ï¬sh in a sea of market-based efforts appeared in Oryx: The International Journal of Conservation. Its publication led to some interesting media, including Larry Pynn's article on how domestic farm animals are devouring the world's fish stocks in the Vancouver Sun and Colleen Kimmett's blogpost for the Tyee on how sustainable shopping won't save the oceans. I also really liked Deborah Jones's coverage of our article for the AFP (and distributed broadly by media such as Yahoo! News) in her piece explaining that consumer campaigns don't save endangered fish.

The article is a bit unwieldy, but one of my favorite parts is our discussion of how reputation can serve us in market based efforts:

While it is true that environmental non-government organizations can use retailers as allies to force change, another strategy that is underused, particularly in North America, is the use of negative messaging to affect retailer reputation. According to research related to cooperation, a good reputation is valuable currency and is gained by playing by the rules of a social community. On the other hand, uncooperative behaviour may be profitable unless it negatively affects reputation...One way to motivate large seafood retailers is to generate bad press that highlights unsustainable practices. This negative messaging uses the base of consumer awareness that has been raised by wallet cards and eco-labels to push companies already engaged in sustainability efforts to step up their efforts.

Greenpeace is one group using reputation in market-based seafood efforts. Firstly in Europe (in the UK, followed by the Netherlands, Denmark, Germany, France, Spain, Austria and Norway) and most recently in the USA, Greenpeace has used a ranking system to assess supermarket chains in terms of the sustainability of their seafood. The ranking has created competition at all levels, with some retailers taking steps to try to get to the top of the ranking and others seeking to get off the bottom. In the lead-up to the publication of Greenpeace's ranking of US retailers, top-scoring Whole Foods Market agreed to stop selling red-listed orange roughy, Target committed to dropping red snapper and Wegman's dropped bluefin tuna. In every country where Greenpeace ranked retailers, several retailers adopted sustainable seafood procurement policies and dropped several Red-Listed items. Within just 2 months of the release of the Swedish report, all but one major Swedish retailer had dropped all 14 products on Greenpeace Nordic's Red List.


Many Greenpeace campaigns (e.g. Carting away the oceans or Traitor Joe's) use vertical agitation (rather than consumer to consumer approach) and also affect reputation for positive change. This is why I am organizing a panel for the 2010 AAAS meeting in San Deigo along with Greenpeace's John Hocevar on Cooperation, Conservation, and the Global Commons. We would greatly enjoy your participation in the blogosphere or at the conference...

***UPDATE Nov. 26, 2009: Listen here to this radio segment about this work on Ecoshock with Alex Smith, who asked some very good questions, including ones about the AAAS meeting, science blogging, and the increasing engagement of scientists with the public.

More like this

A couple weeks ago, Greenpeace invaded the Brussels Seafood Expo and hung signs calling attention to the dismal state of tuna fisheries. Just a week later, Greenpeace-USA announced its forthcoming publication that ranks U.S. supermarkets in terms of procuring sustainable seafood. This is an…
Yesterday, Greenpeace-USA released a report criticizing supermarkets for buying unsustainable seafood. Greenpeace-Canada also released a similar report, which I spoke about this morning on CTV news. As I said in the interview, if we want sustainable seafood to become something more than just…
So much of what the scientists do is less relevant than it could be. This was the motivation behind the theme at the 2010 AAAS annual meeting, Bridging Science and Society. Our panel discussed non-regulatory means of enhancing cooperation - namely through reputation and shame. Ralf Sommerfeld, a…
Bluewashing, a phenomenon I first described in this article about Al Gore getting hammered for eating sea bass, has made it in Schott's Vocab at the New York Times. The confusion involved in seafood consumer campaigns was also recently highlighted by Marc -- Mental Masala at The Ethicurean and…

Jennifer, in your paper you say that "The number of consumers reached by a seafood choice campaign is not a measure of success unless it is accompanied by a measurable improvement in wild fish populations."

While I agree with this, it did make me wonder whether you could turn this statement around and say that "the number of papers written by conservation biologists is not a measure of success unless it is accompanied by a measurable improvement in wild fish stocks".

One another thing that I was wondering, how do you disentangle the impact of seafood choice campaigns/conservation biologists from all the other things that impact on fish stocks such as local management regimes, climate change etc...?

JD - don't you know how conservation biology works? Their proposed solutions that they themselves have no means to carry out are always right, while everyone else's efforts on the ground that are currently ongoing are flawed - This is called Pauly's Law.