European Union: EU To Debate Eco-Labelling Of Fisheries Products

Last Updated: 5 September 2005
Article by Jackie Smith

The European Commission issued on 29 June 2005 a Communication on eco-labelling of fisheries products1. The Communication is designed to launch a debate on the best way ahead regarding the ecolabelling of fisheries products, given the growing interest in and proliferation of voluntary private schemes and initiatives in various international fora, including the UN's Food and Agriculture Organisation ("FAO") and the World Trade Organisation ("WTO").


This initiative reflects the growing interest by environmental Non-Governmental Organisations ("NGOs") and increased public interest in food products associated with considerations related to environmental sustainability. A number of eco-labelling schemes have already been established with regard to fisheries products and other initiatives are being developed. Notable early schemes included the Marine Stewardship Council Scheme, launched initially in 1997 jointly by Unilever and the Worldwide Fund for Nature, and various dolphin-friendly tuna labelling schemes. Other more recent schemes include Unilever's fish sustainability initiative and Carrefour's logo "Pêche responsable". The Communication suggests, however, that more generally it is not always easy to establish how reliable some eco-labelling claims are.

In the meantime, international guidelines on eco-labelling have recently been adopted, in March 2005, by the FAO following discussions over a number of years. In parallel, discussions on these issues and their potential effects on free trade areas are progressing in the WTO committee on Trade and Environment. These have focused on voluntary schemes based on the life cycle approach2.


The Commission claims that it is committed to the integration of the environmental dimension into fisheries and wants to make the most of eco-labelling of fish and fisheries products. It views eco-labelling as a means of integrating environmental protection concerns into the fisheries sector.

General objectives of such schemes are identified as being to stimulate consumer awareness in view of the environmental dimension of fishing, and thereby to encourage environmental responsibility on the part of managers and fishermen.

The Commission believes that voluntary eco-label schemes should be encouraged, not least because market incentives might induce producers to move towards more responsible fishing practices. However, it also believes that public authorities too have responsibilities to support sustainable fisheries and consequently eco-labelling should not be viewed as an alternative to government conservation policy.

The Communication identifies six additional aims of such a policy, namely:

  • sustainable fisheries and an adequate level of protection of the ecosystem: the Commission claims that eco-label schemes (if based upon clearly defined criteria and appropriate indicators) can contribute to monitoring progress made on sustainable fishing and in raising public awareness of sustainability issues
  • a harmonised approach to eco-label schemes across the EU: this would assure consumers that all eco-label schemes within the EU follow similar basic guidelines and principles
  • transparent and objective information to consumers: clear, verifiable information assists informed choice, avoids misleading claims and assists consumer protection
  • fair competition: the use of misleading claims and eco-labels should be avoided and labels should be more than simply promotional tools for individual companies
  • open access: non-discriminatory open access should be guaranteed to all eco-label schemes and the cost of participation should not be prohibitive, especially for SMEs (small and medium-sized enterprises)
  • trade and development: the concerns of developing countries should be given due consideration.

Policy Options

The Commission considers that the key question for public authorities is to what extent voluntary eco-labelling schemes should be subject to rules in order to protect public interest.

The Communication suggests three possible options to develop this concept further in the EU and highlights a number of advantages and disadvantages in respect of each:

  • Retaining the status-quo and leaving voluntary schemes to develop freely:

A key advantage would be the clear separation between the private sector marketing initiatives and the conservation and sustainable development activities managed and enforced by the public authorities. Such schemes would also be more flexible and adaptable to changing circumstances.

However, without independent certification and accreditation the reliability of private schemes would be questionable. Moreover, the Commission points out that unlike other labelling schemes, such as the EU's organic product labelling, there is no consensus on what an eco-label in the fisheries sector really means (for example some focus on management of stocks, others on the impact of certain techniques). A further potential disadvantage of this option, among others, is that the proliferation of different schemes in the Member States could undermine the internal market by creating barriers to trade.

Overall, the Commission does not, at present, recommend to pursue the non-action option.

  • The creation of a single EU eco-labelling scheme:

Among the arguments in support of this second option, the Commission reports that a single Community eco-label scheme could serve to re-assert the prerogatives of public authorities in the management of fisheries resources. Moreover, private eco-labels could disrupt the market by differentiating between groups of products and also by creating confusions arising from competing schemes. That is a single scheme would ensure credibility through higher environmental standards, independent guarantees of compliance and added authority. However, the Commission states that it is not persuaded by these arguments. It also notes that a publicly managed single scheme would present other problems, such as organisational and logistical complexities (not least that for each fishery the EU would need to agree what an eco-label should certify) and potential costs.

  • The establishment of EU minimum requirements for voluntary eco-labelling schemes:

The third option, and the Commission's preferred one at the present time, is for the EU to specify a set of minimum standards and criteria for voluntary demand-led eco-label schemes. The advantages of this approach include, for example, that schemes could develop freely through public and/or private initiatives so long as they comply with the minimum requirements, including appropriate verification and accreditation criteria. This would also maintain flexibility and diversity of schemes and demonstrate to the consumer that the behaviour of the fishing industry contributes to sustainability. Such schemes would therefore play a full role as a commercial incentive and would, in the Commission's view, encourage better governance in the fisheries sector.

Other advantages in the Commission's view are the fact that the criteria would provide a safety net to avoid distortions of the market or misinformation of the consumer and ensure a certain level of consumer protection. It would also provide incentives for industry to pursue high-standard environmental objectives. Existing schemes could also be integrated into the new framework.

The Commission states that it believes currently that the third option would be the most appropriate. However, prior to following this approach, it is promoting debate on the issues involved with the other EU institutions and with stakeholders.

The questions on which the Commission hopes to provoke debate include among others:

  • what should an eco-label scheme certify: a fishery, a fishing method, any other component? Should single issue labels be considered as an integral part of an eco-label policy?
  • should the approach be more result oriented or means oriented?
  • how can the potential of eco-label schemes be exploited fully for the promotion of sustainable fisheries, while yielding real benefits for fishermen, processors and consumers?


1. Com (2005) 275 final (29 June 2005) Communication from the Commission to the Council, the European Parliament and the European Economic and Social Committee launching a debate on a Community approach towards eco-labelling schemes for fisheries products.

2. The Communication (Annex I) defines life cycle approach as "a methodology considering environmental impacts associated with any phase of the product life from the delivery or generation of natural resources to the final disposal".

The content of this article is intended to provide a general guide to the subject matter. Specialist advice should be sought about your specific circumstances.

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