Thursday, November 26, 2009

Understanding wildlife-friendly ecolabels

These days, it seems like nearly everything in the supermarket is good for the environment in one way or another. Over the past decade, more and more companies have started using ecolabels to collect a premium on products that claim to contribute to environmental protection.

But not all ecolabels are created equal. The credibility of their claims varies widely, ranging from environmentally meaningful to downright exploitative.

A recent study by Adrian Treves and Stephanie Jones provides a model for policy-makers and consumers to discriminate between claims.

“In a nutshell, [we] were looking for a way to analyze this cloud of ecolabels out there, all of them claiming to be the best thing for a given species or the best thing for a given ecosystem,” said Treves in an interview.

In the early stages of their research, Treves and Jones realized that wildlife friendly ecolabels can be split along the same lines that have divided debating groups of conservationists. They drew upon these divergent perspectives to partition wildlife friendly ecolabels into three categories.

“Supportive” ecolabels such as Endangered Species Chocolate donate some percentage of revenues to conservation organizations. Verifying the claims for this category is compromised by the transfer of funds to a third-party recipient who is usually not accountable to consumers.

“Persuasive” ecolabels claim to improve production methods in a way that eliminates threats to wildlife, but do not assess actual conservation of wildlife. Although the persuasive category is more transparent and environmentally effective than the supportive one, this type of ecolabel bases its certification requirements on assumptions about threats to wildlife without testing how reduction of perceived threats impacts wildlife. Tuna labeled as Dolphin Safe is an example of a persuasive ecolabel.

“Protective” ecolabels certify wildlife conservation by assessing whether reduction of threats enhances wildlife populations. The Marine Stewardship Council certifies fisheries under a protective ecolabel. This category is the most meaningful to wildlife because it matches the recommendations of the latest conservation science. By following the scientific method, protective ecolabels can verify that they actually help humans and wildlife coexist.

Just as conservation is often pitted against economic interests like agriculture or development, ecolabels must balance a trade-off between consumer confidence and producer incentive.

Protective ecolabels gain the most consumer credibility but also require the greatest verification effort. Proving that producers conserved wildlife is costly, time-consuming, and logistically challenging. Wild animals habitually ignore property boundaries and can die or disperse for reasons unrelated to producer activities. Often, the costs associated with these challenges outweigh the economic incentive of being labeled as “green.”

Treves, A. and S. M. Jones. 2009. Strategic trade-offs for wildlife-friendly eco-labels. Frontiers in Ecology and the Environment. DOI:10.1890/080173

(Image courtesy of kateboydell at flickr under a Creative Commons license)

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