"Have-Lots", "Have-Nots" and Ethical Eating

Researchers at the University of Guelph recently published an article arguing that ‘ethical’ food is often only available to the affluent. Their analysis of Canada’s food system identifies three tiers: the alternative food system, the conventional food system, and the emergency food system (systems for combatting hunger). The authors find that the “alternative food system” promotes most sustainable agricultural practices, but is also high-cost and sometimes exclusionary for geographic or social reasons. So, while the “have-lots” can vote with their forks, this option is not available to most Canadians. The inequality that is manifest in this system is, as the authors put it, a “paradoxical side-effect” of efforts to develop a more sustainable food system. See the full article here. The findings of this study are important for two reasons.

First, it provides an empirical basis for explaining why eco-labels have not been able to capture market share in most mainstream markets. If these systems are structured around providing only to the very top – are sold in exclusive urban farmer’s markets, are high-cost, are not available in low-income neighborhoods – we cannot expect them to shape industry norms. Ethical consumption movements, the authors suggest, need to be more firmly grounded in grassroots social movements, rather than catering to the consumption sensibilities of the elite. This implies that market mechanisms can only take us so far in sustainability advocacy; to truly succeed, activists need to embrace political solutions. Applying these lessons outside of the food system, their article casts doubt on the potential for market-based solutions to, on their own, solve social problems. That is a relevant lesson as we consider our Paris commitments, and as Canadian governments announce new social impact bonds.

Second, the inequality that they highlight raises a challenging dilemma for would-be ethical eaters: how should we weigh the desire to limit direct harm caused by our consumption choices, versus the indirect harms caused by the systems that we support through our consumption? In other words: even though the harm caused by eating shrimp which was produced using forced labor is more proximate, if eating sustainably-labelled shrimp promotes a business model that excludes others from access to higher quality ethically-labelled food, is it worth the trade-off? This is especially poignant given the “stuck at the bottom” problem – that consumption labels sometimes are too administratively costly for developing country producers to participate – and given the questionable results of these labels in terms of changing participant behavior.

Ethical Consumption in the News: May 2017

“I see in the near future a crisis approaching that unnerves me and causes me to tremble for the safety of my country…corporations have been enthroned and an era of corruption in high places will follow, and the mone.png

This month’s ethical consumption news features stories on environmental, animal rights, and human rights issues in consumption and investment. The eleven stories featured this month are: (1) a not guilty verdict was reached in the Toronto “pig trial”; (2) more cities and banks divested from Dakota Access; (3) an article evaluated the performance of organic agriculture; (4) Portland voted to end all corporate investment; (5) Divest Parliament grew in the UK; (6) private prison divestment, while still small, has been promoted at several high-ranking US universities; (7) the petroleum industry hit back on fossil fuel divestment; (8) more religious groups announced fossil fuel divestment; (9) crickets have entered Toronto’s food scene; (10) Sainsbury piloted a plan to drop Fairtrade; and (11) Pakistanis are boycotting Ramadan fruit price spikes. For the full run-down, click here.

Article: Emerging Global Social Impact Bond Practice

On Tuesday I published an article in the Philanthropist. The article provides evidence about how social impact bonds (a tool of social finance that governments use sometimes) have performed since 2010. You can view it here

Because the Philanthropist does not publish images, I thought it might be useful to include some of the tables and charts from the dataset that I created. See below!

The implementation periods have concluded for more projects than are in this chart. However, I did not code as complete projects where I was unable to ascertain whether evaluation has been concluded and results determined. In some cases follow up has confirmed that evaluation reports were not yet available (as of September 2016).

The implementation periods have concluded for more projects than are in this chart. However, I did not code as complete projects where I was unable to ascertain whether evaluation has been concluded and results determined. In some cases follow up has confirmed that evaluation reports were not yet available (as of September 2016).

The reason for a discrepancy between the two numbers for full risk transfer and private financing (and for no risk transfer and its subcategories) is that for one case the financing was entirely private but the outcomes payer was not a government, so no risk was transferred.

The reason for a discrepancy between the two numbers for full risk transfer and private financing (and for no risk transfer and its subcategories) is that for one case the financing was entirely private but the outcomes payer was not a government, so no risk was transferred.

Demonstrate  projects are those where the intervention itself is new (including new combinations of interventions, as was often the case). The aim of these projects is to “demonstrate” the effectiveness of the intervention itself. These fourteen projects might be considered the most innovative because they involve a relatively untested intervention. Next, projects coded as  transplants  had been tried and tested before, but either not by the service provider or not in the jurisdiction. Third,  new collaborations  entail multiple service providers cooperating to deliver interventions. To count as a new collaboration for these purposes the providers had to be working together (rather than simply dividing up areas of responsibility) and the cooperation had to be new, at least with respect to the intervention. The fourth category,  scale , are cases where the provider had experience with the intervention in the area before. In some instances this involved genuine scaling, though not always. I called the category scale to keep it as close as possible to the NFF categories, but it is worth emphasizing that not all of these projects were actually bringing smaller interventions to scale. For instance, as part of the UK Youth Engagement Fund Prevista Ltd. was selected as the service provider for a second SIB, doing the same intervention (Youth Applied Positive Psychology) in the same jurisdiction and the target community is very similar in size –1000, compared to 800.

Demonstrate projects are those where the intervention itself is new (including new combinations of interventions, as was often the case). The aim of these projects is to “demonstrate” the effectiveness of the intervention itself. These fourteen projects might be considered the most innovative because they involve a relatively untested intervention. Next, projects coded as transplants had been tried and tested before, but either not by the service provider or not in the jurisdiction. Third, new collaborations entail multiple service providers cooperating to deliver interventions. To count as a new collaboration for these purposes the providers had to be working together (rather than simply dividing up areas of responsibility) and the cooperation had to be new, at least with respect to the intervention. The fourth category, scale, are cases where the provider had experience with the intervention in the area before. In some instances this involved genuine scaling, though not always. I called the category scale to keep it as close as possible to the NFF categories, but it is worth emphasizing that not all of these projects were actually bringing smaller interventions to scale. For instance, as part of the UK Youth Engagement Fund Prevista Ltd. was selected as the service provider for a second SIB, doing the same intervention (Youth Applied Positive Psychology) in the same jurisdiction and the target community is very similar in size –1000, compared to 800.

Re-published Op-ed: We Marched, But to Avoid the Mistakes of Occupy Wall Street Intersectionality is Key

I recently published an article about the Women's March on the Huffington Post Canada blog. Unfortunately, although the article was about the politics of resistance the article was published on the "Living" section of the website (here). 

How do I know? Well, the entire section of the website is pink -- as if to remind us all that this is the women's section of the website. It also features hard-hitting stories about what Valentine's gift to buy "your man", how to reduce calorie intake, how to organize a room, why women regret one-night stands, and how to make lettuce wraps. I've got to assume it gets less web traffic than the Politics section.

I asked HuffPo to move the article, under the perhaps naive notion that the largest protest movement in US history might better be classified as politics. After all, what is more political than a protest in direct reaction to the election of a man that has bragged about sexual assault to the highest political office in the land? What is more political than telling politicians to stop legislating our bodies? As I said in my request: "Women's politics are still politics." #rantover 

HuffPo did not move the article. Because I feel that this choice  directly undercuts the point of the article -- the audacity of women to believe that our politics deserve the same respect as men's -- I have re-published it here.

We Marched, But to Avoid the Mistakes of Occupy Wall Street Intersectionality is Key

Honestly, I had not planned to attend the Toronto Women’s March. I have an ethically difficult time justifying Canadian protests framed around American politics. So, I was not intending to march on Saturday — that is, until I listened to the speech by Planned Parenthood president Cecile Richards in Washington that morning. 

Richards’ defiant commitment to keep her organization’s doors open made tangible for me the reality in which Americans have now found themselves. And then I remembered how I felt on November 9th. I could never forgive myself for failing to do my utmost to prevent a moment like that in Canada. 

It seems a lot of people had similar thoughts. On 21 January people participated in Women’s Marches across 32 Canadian cities. Organizers estimate that 60 000 showed up in Toronto to march from Queen’s Park to City Hall. There were creative signs and pussy hats. People brought their kids. Police were polite, but present. The crowd was energetic and defiant, yet in good spirits. 

What made the Toronto march all the more interesting was the theme around which it coalesced: intersectional resistance. Marchers pointed to Leitch and O’Leary, yes, but also the need to mobilize, even and perhaps especially in a situation of normal politics, for equality and compassion. 

Signs and speeches mentioned subjects from refugees to union rights, Black Lives Matter, the minimum wage, electoral reform, Idle No More, missing and murdered Indigenous women, social housing, the cost of childcare, climate change, public transit, and water rights — all under the heading of intersectional feminism and solidarity. 

Intersectionality means that different systems of discrimination are connected. Gender issues “intersect” with issues of class, sexuality, disability, and race. For instance, Indigenous women are much more likely than non-Indigenous women to be the victims of violent crime. Intersectional resistance, then, is about fighting inequality and oppression across identity lines. 

The Women’s March emphasis on intersectionality was especially important in the Toronto context, just months after the Pride Parade was interrupted by Black Lives Matter activists, who argued that the LGBTQ movement gave too little attention to race issues. Saturday’s march was an important step toward mending these cleavages amongst Toronto’s activist communities. 

But questions have already been raised about whether the Women’s Marches will become another Occupy Wall Street — a moment of futile galvanization, rather than an historical watershed. Faced with the critique that the Occupy movement was simply too unfocused, many are beginning to wonder whether we are repeating past mistakes. 

Even if the Women’s Marches have scored well on symbolism and ability to attract a broad coalition, are the movement’s goals sufficiently clear — especially for the imported Canadian variant?

I think (hope) so. And here’s why: an intersectional resistance movement, which is aimed at overcoming the competitive partitions between activist groups that undermine their collective power, is distributed but not unfocused. 

An intersectional resistance movement begins from a general orientation of solidarity. But it is distributed in the sense that it accommodates groups simultaneously agitating for distinct, yet complementary, goals. 

As trans activist Janet Mock, who spoke at the Women’s March on Washington, said: “Our approach to freedom need not be identical, but it must be intersectional and inclusive. It must extend beyond ourselves. [...] I know with surpassing certainty that my liberation is directly linked to the undocumented trans Latina yearning for refuge, the disabled student seeking unequivocal access, the sex worker fighting to make her living safely.” Intersectionality makes things more complicated, but that is not the same thing as being unfocused. 

Equality, in all its forms, is the goal. Intersectional resistance and solidarity are the means. And although we can imagine different policy goals under this heading, there is content to the stance that equality means beginning with the truth of intersectionality: success requires dismantling all sources of oppression, not just one. 

Black Lives Matter is about class as well as race. A Pride Parade cannot focus only on homophobia. A “Women’s March” can never be just about women. Self-evident though the point may be, it requires that activists position themselves toward intersectionality not merely rhetorically, but in their strategic orientation as well. And that is a game-changer.

Hot-button Bling: Boycott Telus Explained

Yesterday Telus tweeted in support of a federal government announcement that provinces must put a price on carbon by 2018. This prompted a call for boycotts by those that oppose the government’s position. Although the boycott itself is small, and appears likely that it will not change Telus' position on carbon pricing, it is an example of how boycotts are increasingly a result of companies’ positions on “public” matters, rather than their conduct as businesses.

What happened?

Yesterday Telus tweeted:

And, as you can see I favourited the tweet... #fulldisclosure

And, as you can see I favourited the tweet... #fulldisclosure

This Tweet accompanied a statement by Smart Prosperity supporting Prime Minister Justin Trudeau’s announcement that by 2018 every province would need to have a price on carbon, or else the federal government would implement one. Smart Prosperity is an organization Smart Prosperity is a movement that seeks to promote transformation toward sustainability in Canada. As the Tweet notes, Telus had been a participant in Smart Prosperity from the beginning. But so has Shell Canada, which is a major funder of the initiative. The statement itself had been signed by individuals from companies such as McKinsey, Unilever Canada, Desjardins Group, RBC, and Loblaws.

The “boycott” thus far is relatively small, with just 200 or so social media users Tweeting about it (although admittedly one of these was Ezra Levant) in the first 24h following the tweet. But this was already enough to prompt Telus to Tweet an apology:

Throughout the day the boycott campaign grew, though it has not, to my knowledge, trended on Twitter at any point. It does now have a hashtag (#boycotttelus) and a website http://www.therebel.media/cancel_telus. And MP Michelle Rempel issued a statement criticizing Telus in the House of Commons, presumably because of the attention the issue has received on social media. As is common for boycotts on social media, a counter-boycott hashtag (#boycotteverything) has also developed.

What’s the context?

This, of course, isn’t the first time that a company has spurred boycott calls for its position on issues that are perceived as being “too political”.

You might remember a similar social media boycott campaign that Tim Hortons was caught up in about a year ago. The company had been airing oil sands ads on their in-house television screens. Following complaints from environmentalists the company opted to stop showing the ads. That decision then spurred boycott calls from supporters of the oil sands in Alberta, who viewed the move as unpatriotic.

Another more successful movement, #boycottEarls, pushed the Western Canadian restaurant chain to backtrack on its decision to cease buying Alberta beef.

Internationally, bigger boycott campaigns come to mind. For instance, last summer US retailer Target announced that it was changing its bathrooms policy to allow transgendered individuals to choose their preferred bathrooms. Americans opposing this new policy created the grassroots #boycottTarget movement In the quarter during which the boycott occurred, Target lost around 2.2% of same-store transactions, while sales fell 7.2% (although this might not all have been due to the boycott).

Why do companies take positions on policy issues like climate change?

Companies do sometimes take positions on policy issues or participate in groups that work to resolve policy challenges. Because oftentimes these problems cross national boundaries, they are referred to by experts as global public policy networks (GPPNs). For example, companies such as Intel and Apple have participated in policy discussions about conflict minerals with governments, NGOs, and other actors through the OECD. The reason that companies participate in these initiatives usually is that their business activities have some effect on the policy problem. Oftentimes they are responding to consumer demands through things like boycott campaigns, but other times they are seeking to influence government policy, or to carve out a niche in the market by looking like leaders in a given area that consumers care about (say, sustainability).

Climate change is an interesting issue because it is about all of the resources we use, and because it is a cross-cutting challenge that will affect many areas of our lives. So, potentially the activities of every company are relevant to combatting climate change. 

As a boycott campaign, #boycottTelus seems likely to be small and ineffectual. Telus may think twice about sharing its positions on social media, but it has not signalled willingness to retract its position on carbon pricing nor does it seem likely that it will denounce Smart Prosperity. What is interesting about the Telus boycott is the framing: this boycott campaign contributes to an ongoing debate about when it is appropriate for companies to take policy positions, especially for an issue like climate change. 

Earls' Decision to Source U.S. Humane Beef: What's at Steak?

This week Earls announced that it had switched from sourcing Alberta beef to “Certified Humane” beef from Kansas, generating substantial coverage in Canadian mainstream news. The Western Canadian restaurant company will now source only Certified Humane beef; the company argues that it was necessary to switch to U.S. suppliers to meet this objective, citing insufficient Albertan supply.

Certified Humane is a relatively small U.S.-based label which, according to my scan of the website, includes just one Canadian farm: Calgary – Lone Pine Colony (L.P. Farm Fresh Chicken), which produces Certified Humane chicken. The label is administered by Humane Farm Animal Care. That organization produced a side-by-side comparison of the Certified Humane standards with some others. According to this, the label differs from USDA Organic in that it requires humane euthanasia at slaughter and has broader space requirements for the animals. The comparison does not include Canadian Organic, which does include minimum indoor and outdoor space requirements (if you are curious, you can read the Canadian Organic standards here).

This incident highlights the challenges that companies can face when aspects of social license intersect: in this case, demand for humane and antibiotic-free food has run up against local pride in the agricultural industry, at a time when few are bullish about the Alberta economy. There has since been no shortage of outrage, with producers calling the move a “slap in the face”.

One line of debate in reaction to this news is whether Earls should have gone beyond the Certified Humane label to find humane, antibiotic- and hormone-free beef from Alberta. For example, certified organic producers would meet the same, perhaps even higher, standards in these respects. In that regard, rising demand for certification for restaurant suppliers may present an opportunity for Albertan organic farmers and ranchers.

Industry leaders have criticized Earls for failing to consult with them, saying that a Canadian program that is currently in development, Verified Beef Production Plus, could be amended to include the option for farms to opt in to hormone-free criteria. Other Canadian labels are available, including the British Columbian SPCA Certified food label. Given the “crowding” of the ethical label market, some worry that farmers with high standards are being unfairly overlooked, as this incident suggests.

This all illustrates some of the main actors in the political economy of consumer label uptake. Consumer demand for humane and antibiotic-free meat is an important background condition, but given the proliferation of multiple labels with low consumer awareness the decisions of major downstream suppliers (in this case, restaurants) can shape the choices of upstream producers as to whether and which label they adopt. Although governments did not feature in this particular story, they can also play an important role in determining which labels gain the greatest uptake. 

Wild-caught Fraudsters: Seafood Mislabeling, Consumer Rights, and Sustainability

Seafood fraud made the news this week when MKG Provisions, a seafood company in Miami, was sentenced in a U.S. Federal Court for labeling farmed salmon from Chile as a “product of Scotland”. The company will be obliged to pay a USD 50 000 fine.

This case highlights the endemic challenge of falsely and mislabeled seafood. Between 25 and 70 percent of seafood products in Canada are “mislabeled due to counterfeiting somewhere along the supply chain”. We are not an aberration from the norm in this regard: on average, 30 percent of seafood products are mislabeled globally. Why so high? As fish markets have globalized so too have the supply chains for fish products, resulting in a “notoriously opaque” system in which weak governance provides a hospitable environment for seafood fraud.

Beyond being a consumer rights issue – if you buy salmon you probably want to know that you are receiving salmon – seafood mislabeling poses challenges for sustainability. An important piece of this puzzle is what’s called “illegal, unreported and unregulated fishing” (IUU fishing, for short). IUU fishing is a global governance problem: weak governance systems in some countries, as well as fishing in largely ungoverned international waters, make it exceedingly difficult to regulate sustainable fish stocks.

A recent study estimated the amount of illegal and unreported seafood being produced in 10 top fish producing countries. The good news is that Canada had the lowest proportion of IUU fishing: under 7% of fish caught in Canada is estimated to be illegal or unreported, compared with upwards of one third of total catch in China, Thailand, and Indonesia. The bad news, of course, is that Canada imports a lot of seafood from countries with much worse records. So there is a good chance that the fish you eat is contributing to the depletion of global fish stocks (and maybe even slavery or forced labor).

Eco-labels with traceability standards offer a partial solution to this problem, although seafood mislabeling still happens under such schemes (but it happens a lot less). Of course, private regulation has its limits – accordingly, government-mandated traceability requirements will play an important role as well. For a good summary of traceability standards in the seafood industry, see this report. Finally, better tools are needed. DNA testing has generated research attention since it poses a potential solution to the deficiencies of current traceability best practices. For instance, the MSC published a report on the subject in March. 

Everything You Need to Know About Food Security and International Trade Part 1: the Basics on Trade Protection in Agriculture

Fall 2015 is an important time for trade, and not just because the Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) negotiations were successfully concluded a few weeks ago. Although TPP will clearly have wide-ranging implications, and is worth discussion, I want to draw attention to another set of upcoming trade talks. Diplomats will soon begin the World Trade Organization (WTO) Doha Development Agenda (Doha) Nairobi Ministerial, which may be the concluding round of talks since Doha was launched nearly fifteen years ago.

If you have been following previous Doha rounds, you will know that a stalemate has emerged, largely between two blocs: developed and developing countries. Last year there was a small victory when a boring but important Trade Facilitation Agreement was reached. However, this was overshadowed by a row between India and the U.S. on agriculture and the issue of food stockpiling in which India withheld its approval of the Trade Facilitation Agreement to gain leverage on the food stockpiling issue. Negotiators will take another crack at resolving the issues still on the table in Nairobi next month, in what is expected to be the last round of Doha talks.

Trade discussions are a-maize-ing! ... Too corny?

Trade discussions are a-maize-ing! ... Too corny?

Given the contentious role that food security and agricultural protectionism have played throughout the sagging Doha round, it is important to understand the debate about trade and food security more broadly. In this week’s two-part blog post I provide a thorough backgrounder on food security and trade. This first article provides foundational information on trade protection in agriculture. In the next article I will build on this foundation to explain the debate on food security and trade.


International trade is a complicated subject for a couple of reasons. First, the deals themselves are very dense. While there are a few general principles that are used in most trade agreements, much of the substance is usually product- or service-specific. In addition to that problem, there are dozens of different policy measures that governments use to restrict trade, some of which can be difficult to explain. Second, trade is a complicated subject because there are lots of overlapping trade deals out there. While the World Trade Organization (and its predecessor, the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) and associated trade agreements form the locus of the multilateral trade regime, international trade is a “spaghetti bowl” of smaller deals (bilateral, plurilateral, and regional trade agreements, investment treaties, and trade and investment agreements). There are something like 400 of these agreements currently in effect. As you can imagine, this makes the landscape of trade agreements very messy, even if you are a trade expert. 

Even though trade agreements are complicated, the topic of agricultural protectionism is important enough that it is worth trying to wrap your head around the basics. In general, it is worth knowing (A) that agriculture is a sector of the economy which has disproportionately more trade protections applied to it and (B) the four main policy instruments that governments use to protect their agricultural sectors.

 A. Trade in Agriculture is Disproportionately Protected

Above I introduced the stalemate on agriculture in the Doha trade talks, but it is important to note that agriculture has always been a contentious trade issue. It was left almost entirely out of the General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade (in 1947) and even though an Agreement on Agriculture was reached in 1993, the reforms in this deal are modest relative to trade rules in other sectors. Estimating overall trade protection for an industry can be difficult (see “lots of instruments for protection” and “trade deals on trade deals on trade deals” arguments above) but it has been shown using a few different measurements that agriculture is relatively protected, when compared to other sectors. For more on this, you can refer to a long and technical summary of the evidence in this article that I co-authored with Michael Trebilcock.

B. Four Common Measures of Agricultural Trade Protection

There are a bunch of different policies that fit under the umbrella label of “protectionism”. In general, though, four main instruments are used:

1. Domestic Subsidies

Subsidies often involve direct payments that provide support to the recipient – in this case, farmers or consumers. However, it is worth noting that subsidies can also be “indirect” if a non-cash benefit achieves the same purpose. In agriculture, subsidies can be output-based, linked to prior ownership (for example, based on crop area and prior crop yields), or countercyclical (given only if market prices fall below a certain level). Another common subsidy in agriculture provides support for crop and livestock insurance; this type of support exists in a number of states, including Brazil, China, Israel, and many European countries.

2. Price Supports

Price supports often involve setting minimum prices for agricultural goods. In the case of the EU’s Common Agricultural Policy, for example, minimum prices are combined with guaranteed sales. 

3. Production Restrictions

Also referred to as a supply management scheme, governments sometimes limit the amount of an agricultural good that can be produced. The U.S. combines production restrictions with price supports, for example. As you might remember from the TPP negotiations, Canada also uses supply management for agricultural products such as poultry, eggs, and dairy. Oftentimes, production restrictions take the form of a quota system, wherein entitlements to produce a given portion of the quota are owned, and sometimes bought or sold, by particular farmers.

4. Border Measures

Finally, border measures involve protectionist policies when a product is either entering or leaving a country’s borders. The most well known type of border measure is the import tariff (a tax applied to products that are imported into a country), although other measures such as export tariffs, tariff rate quotas (tariffs applied after a quota is reached), and import licensing requirements are all border measures that are commonly used in agricultural trade policy. 


Agriculture has several social roles, which means that there is more than one normative justification for agricultural trade protection. In general, protectionism in agriculture serves one of three objectives: securing access to affordable food; ensuring a livable income for farmers; and protecting small family farms and the rural way of life.

1. Affordable Food

Food is a basic necessity of life, one that is frequently unmet—meaning that hunger is a pressing global challenge. The World Food Programme estimates that, globally, 842 million people do not have enough to eat, most of who reside in developing countries. Thus, assuring access to affordable food—food security—is a priority for many governments. Although in theory staple crops can be bought via the international market, in practice this is not always certain, for several reasons:

  • Short-term domestic food crises;
  • Longer-term trends which may result in declining domestic capacity in some countries to produce food, such as:
  • Temporary price volatility,
  • Persistent trends towards higher food costs,
  • Potential future price increases as a result of climate change; and,
  • Broadly, ensuring that food is reaching citizens in need.

2. Farming Income

Although this objective (higher prices for farmers) is in obvious tension with the first objective (lower prices for consumers), the imperative of ensuring a livable income for farmers is often justified on two grounds:

  • Social justice: Many farmers, particularly across the developing world, are poor and struggle to support themselves and their families. Indeed, most of the poor people in the world rely on agriculture as the primary source of income: three out of four impoverished individuals worldwide are dependent on agriculture as the main occupation of the head of the household. Agriculture is therefore a key industry in terms of poverty reduction. So, governments often intervene in the agricultural sector for the purpose of ensuring that farmers are able to earn a livable income or to create jobs by encouraging employment in the agricultural sector.
  • Competitiveness: Income supports for farmers are seen as a way to boost the competitiveness of the agricultural sector. When farmers cannot earn enough to expand their businesses or purchase key inputs, this leads to the underdevelopment of the sector, as has been a key challenge in many parts of Sub-Saharan Africa. Capital market imperfections, such as incomplete crop insurance or futures markets and limited access to credit may constrain productive investments.

3. Small Farms and the Rural Lifestyle

Policies aimed at the protection of small family farms, rural communities, and the traditional rural way of life are mainly justified via notions of a duty to preserve traditional ways of life or traditional rural landscapes, often from a cultural or ecological point of view. They are often rooted in notions about traditional family lifestyles associated with ancestors or early settlers. Similarly, preserving the traditional rural landscape is an important cultural objective for many states. Finally, policies encouraging young people to take up farming address the depopulation of rural areas that has occurred as a result of industrialization and are related to the perception that rural communities possess intrinsic value that is worthy of preservation. Thus, governments may feel disposed to intervene to make farming a more financially attractive vocation.

15 Years of Marine Stewardship Council Certification: Not So Long, But Thanks for All the Fish!

When purchasing sustainable products most people rely on eco-labels: images posted on packaging that indicate that the producer of that item has adhered to a given set of criteria on the environmental impact of production. Not all eco-labels are alike, however, so it is important to ensure that the one you go by uses third party certification and has rigorous standards. 

When purchasing sustainable seafood there may be several different eco-labels available to you, but the one that is largest and most well-known is the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). The MSC now accounts for about 10% of global wild caught seafood (as compared to aquaculture/farmed fish) but this proportion is often much higher in developed countries, where the demand for certified fish is higher. In Canada, for example, 67% of domestic wild catch seafood is MSC certified.

See that blue label? That's what MSC certification looks like!

See that blue label? That's what MSC certification looks like!

In addition to being the most widely used eco-label, MSC is also well-known for its rigorous standards (although it has been criticized for focusing too narrowly on the sustainability of fish stocks instead of the overall environmental impact of fisheries and the fish supply chain, as well as for having a process that is too burdensome for small fisheries and fisheries in developing countries). If you are looking for sustainably caught seafood, the MSC is probably your best bet: it is the most likely to actually be available in stores near you and has standards that are reasonably stringent and evaluated impartially, based on evidence. 

The MSC is noteworthy today because it just released its annual report documenting the eco-label's fifteenth year since the first fishery was MSC certified. Some of the highlights from the annual report are included below.

The Highlights of MSC's Annual Report


  • MSC certified 40 new fisheries -- which is pretty good when you consider that a total of 256 fisheries are MSC certified, in 36 countries. There are 34 500 businesses that sell MSC certified products (which came from those certified fisheries) to consumers in 97 countries. 
  • MSC added the first certified fisheries in China and India. Although most MSC certified fisheries exist in developing countries, the MSC emphasized the strides that it has taken to improve accessibility to developing country fisheries. A total of 19 developing country fisheries are certified, with a further 11 in assessment.
  • IKEA committed to sell only MSC certified seafood in all of its stores globally. MSC has previously grown the eco-label by securing similar pledges, for example from Unilever and Walmart.
  • For some species, MSC certification is now the norm: for example, nearly half of whitefish (i.e. cod, haddock, pollock) and just over half of wild-caught salmon is MSC certified.  


  • Lobster certification grew a lot this year, largely because key lobster fisheries in Canada became certified -- 97% of Canadian Atlantic lobster is now MSC certified!
  • MSC also highlighted the strides that the fisheries of the North Atlantic and the Arctic have taken since the 1992 collapse of the Grand Banks cod fishery in Newfoundland. Now these fisheries are "world leaders in sustainability and good management", according to MSC.
  • Overall, 73% of Canadian fisheries (by value) are engaged in the MSC process.


  • This year MSC completed its review process of the Fisheries Standard after two years of consultations with experts, NGOs and other actors. 
  • Based on the new Standard, the cumulative impacts that fisheries have on non-target species must be taken into account during fishery assessments. So, if a fishery that catches fish A is sustainable for fish A but creates adverse effects for the population of fish B, that is now something that is taken into account.
  • The Standard introduces new measures to protect vulnerable marine ecosystems like cold water coral. 
  • There is now a clearer MSC policy against forced labor: companies that have been successfully prosecuted for forced labor violations cannot be MSC certified. This was a response to rising public concern about forced labour in the seafood industry, based on US government reporting and media attention on the issue.


  • MSC surveyed 9000 seafood buyers from 15 countries across Europe, Asia, Australasia and North America. 
  • 41% of respondents look for sustainably sourced fish products, up from 36% in 2010. 
  •  33% recognize the MSC label, up from 25% in 2010.


Well, they did, anyway. MSC was part of a campaign led by the World Wildlife Fund UK to celebrate Earth Hour 2015 through #fishface selfies. A brief search of the hashtag now suggests that it is no longer primarily associated with environmental solidarity, however....


  • 75% of MSC revenue came from licensing the eco-label, while most of the rest emanated from donations
  •  Expenditures were split in roughly even proportion between three activities: policy and maintaining the Standard; education and awareness; and fisheries servicing and outreach. 

Hoppy Days for Weiss Guys: the IPA-BCs of Microbreweries

Screen Shot 2015-10-07 at 11.32.35 PM.png

The hue of beer glasses tends to mirror the turning of the leaves as autumn begins and beer drinkers move from citrusy whites to heartier IPAs and darker ales. Canadian Thanksgiving may not be as big a day for beer buying as its American counterpart, but many Canadians will sip beer this weekend as they sit with family and gorge themselves on lovingly prepared meals (or talk politics, as the case may be). Some of you might even have opted to buy your favourite craft beer to mark the occasion; microbreweries are a growing institution of the beer industry, after all. This piece is all about the little weiss guys.

The beer industry and the “craft beer revolution

Beer has a long history – as many as 3900 years! – and has played an important social role across many cultures. But for much of this time the production process of beer didn’t change much, leading scholars to say that a ‘technological plateau’ had been reached. This all changed with the introduction of pasteurization into the beer-making process, which made possible mass production. It was this innovation that laid the groundwork for the rise of large beer companies that have dominated national and, increasingly, global markets. This shift to a large extent still describes the global beer market today. You’ve probably heard of a few of these giants – Anheuser-Busch, SAB Miller, Heineken International and Carlsberg Group.

But this article isn’t about the big guys: it is about the microbreweries that have risen as complements to Big Beer. Microbreweries have, of course, been a longstanding institution of beer production. A microbrewery is just a beer production company that is small in scale, although there are different standards for how small a brewery has to be to count as a microbrewery. Often, microbreweries employ around 4-6 people but there are also many operations (sometimes called “nanobreweries”) that are entirely owned and operated by one person. Although some accounts suggest that the microbrewery trend began in the 1970s, microbreweries really began to shape the beer market in the 1990s, as they successfully built upon a demand for small scale, “craft”, beer.

Want to see a nice graph chronicling these changes in the beer industry? Me too! The line going down is mass produced beer, and the lines going up are smaller breweries. It is worth noting that this is the number of firms -- by their nature, a smaller number of big beer firms still produce the vast majority of beer by volume. 

Want to see a nice graph chronicling these changes in the beer industry? Me too! The line going down is mass produced beer, and the lines going up are smaller breweries. It is worth noting that this is the number of firms -- by their nature, a smaller number of big beer firms still produce the vast majority of beer by volume. 

Wassup with the growth of microbreweries in the ‘90s?

One explanation for the rise of microbreweries beginning in the 1990s is that the concentration of markets in an industry creates space for specialized groups within that industry. (This is called “resource-partitioning theory”). In a way, the rise of mass-produced beer also created microbreweries.

Fun side note: the U.S. Better Business Bureau's  page  on the brewing industry has an entire section dedicated to growlers.

Fun side note: the U.S. Better Business Bureau's page on the brewing industry has an entire section dedicated to growlers.

We’ve all heard the “hipsters love craft beer” trope. So, it should come as no surprise that scholars have also associated microbreweries and craft beer with social movements arising around that same time. The 1990s was the decade of anti-globalization protests, after all, and craft beer aligned with the localist sentiment accompanying this subculture. Some scholars even suggest that microbrewing is a social movement as well as an industry.

Glob-ale-ization: microbreweries around the world

Microbreweries exist all over the world, but are largely concentrated in wealthy countries. The U.S. is the biggest microbrewery producer. As of 2014 there were 1871 microbreweries and a further 1412 brewpubs in the U.S. alone, accounting for 10% of the $100 billion U.S. beer market. Unsurprisingly, this trend has extended into Canada, America’s hat. There are micro-breweries across all ten Canadian provinces, as well as one in the Yukon. This map shows the 60+ microbreweries in Ontario, which account for around 30% of the brewing industry in that province.

Across Europe, microbreweries account for the huge influx of new breweries over the past five years – the number of European breweries has grown by 73% in that time. Notably, the growth of microbreweries has been uneven in Europe. In some countries microbreweries have exploded: for example, in the U.K. the number of microbreweries doubled between 2001 and 2011. In other places, microbreweries are a smaller trend owing to the resilience of big beer. Most representative of this is Germany. The craft beer revolution has been slow to reach Germany because of its puritan beer culture and its beer law, which limits what can go into beer (based on a Bavarian edict from 1516). But recently, as large German breweries have begun to decline, the number of small breweries in Germany has grown by 25%

Microbreweries have also emerged outside of North America and Europe. In Japan, for example, there are over 200 microbreweries – a smaller number than some North American and European countries, but still a formidable presence. (Check out this list of the ten best craft breweries in Japan.) The first Thai microbrewery opened in 1999 leading to a rise of craft beer, although it is difficult to estimate its size because many brewers are illegal underground producers. Brazil is also the site of a bourgeoning, but smaller, microbrewery scene, the epicenter of which is São Paulo.  

Most microbrewers sell their products primarily to domestic markets because global distribution is expensive (so, for global distribution to be profitable requires greater economies of scale than most such organizations can achieve). But some microbreweries certainly do export their products. In the U.S., for example, craft beer exports increased by 86% between 2010-2011. British microbrewers are also increasingly exporting their product. Still, most microbrews are sold either locally (often in brewpubs) or regionally.  

NOTE: this article was inspired by a fantastic presentation given by Giulio Buciuni which compared microbreweries in California and Northeastern Italy. Because this presentation introduced a work-in-progress, I have not included any findings or arguments from the presentation. Nonetheless, credit should be given for introducing me to some of the core concepts included in this piece. You can access more of Giulio’s research here.

Major Pollution Case Against Chevron Will Go On, Supreme Court of Canada Rules

Today the Supreme Court of Canada released its judgment on Chevron v. Yaiguaje (a group of Ecuadorian plaintiffs), dismissing Chevron’s appeal that Canada does not have jurisdiction to hear the case. This means that the case will go on for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs affected by pollution arising from oil extraction in the 1970s-1990s. Below, I explain the ruling and its context.

* Although I have published on Canadian law in the past I am a political scientist, not a lawyer. As such, this should be read as an educated lay explanation of the legal battle to-date. This article has been reposted from the Ethical Consumption in the News section of this website. It was originally posted on 4 September 2015.

TL;DR Version

Oil extraction resulted in pollution of Ecuador, affecting the health of many residents. They sued. Both sides first had a struggle to determine the court that has jurisdiction to hear the case. Chevron successfully argued for moving the case from the U.S. to Ecuador. Then, the two sides contested on whether damages were owed. An Ecuadorian court ruled in favor of the plaintiffs. Since then, the plaintiffs have struggled to get the payment that the Ecuadorian court said they were owed. To do so, they have sought enforcement in other countries where Chevron has assets. Today, Canada’s top court ruled that the case for enforcing the Ecuadorian ruling can be heard here. There are some other parts to this story that take place within supranational judicial bodies, but they are not directly related to today’s ruling and so I will leave them aside.

To explain this ruling, it is necessary to first provide some context on a legal battle that has been ongoing in various courts for over twenty years.


Ecuador granted a consortium of U.S. oil companies – including Texpet, a subsidiary of Texaco – a concession to undertake oil exploration in the Amazonian forest of Ecuador beginning in 1972.[1] Oil was discovered three years later, and extraction began. Texaco had the controlling interest in the consortium – although PetroEcuador (a government-owned oil company) gradually increased its stake in the consortium until it assumed operational control in 1990. When the consortium expired in 1992, it is alleged that it left behind open-air waste pits with crude and toxic sludge and dumped toxic wastewater into the rivers of that region, resulting in 18 billion gallons of contaminated water.[2] This has since produced a public health crisis in the region. 30 000 largely indigenous Ecuadorians have been trying to sue Chevron for damage done as a result.[3]

In 1993, Ecuadorian residents near the dumping sites filed a class-action lawsuit in a federal court in New York,[4] while a second lawsuit was filed in 1994 by Peruvian indigenous people claiming that the drilling waste that had been dumped had polluted a river that flowed into Peru.[5]

Chevron acquired Texaco in 2001,[6] so this became their problem. Chevron successfully argued that the U.S. was not the right place to try the case, and that it should be instead in Ecuadorian jurisdiction. In 2003, the plaintiffs filed the suit in Ecuador. Without editorializing too much, I will say that a lot of sketchy tactics on the part of both Chevron and Donziger, the plaintiff’s lawyer, ensued. For a fair-minded book on this subject, I strongly recommend Law of the Jungle. Eventually, an Ecuadorian provincial court awarded $19 billion USD in damages. This amount was revised on appeal to $9.5 billion.

That should end the issue, right? Wrong.


By awarding damages, the plaintiffs are ‘owed’ $9.5 billion from Chevron. However, Chevron has no assets in Ecuador that could be seized. As such, the plaintiffs are seeking to enforce the judgment (to get the money they are due) in three other countries: Canada, Argentina, and Brazil. In Argentina, Chevron’s assets were frozen in 2012, but the Argentinian Supreme Court lifted this freeze in 2013 – some proceedings are still ongoing there. I wasn’t able to find anything definitive on Brazil, so I assume the case is proceeding (slowly) there as well. A ruling by a U.S. district court prevents the plaintiffs from enforcing the Ecuadorian ruling in the U.S. (the judge was persuaded that the decision was the result of a corrupt process… complicating this issue is the fact that Ecuadorian courts are not known to be the most reliable).

The plaintiffs are hoping to enforce the judgment in Canada by seeking assets from a subsidiary of Chevron, Chevron Canada Ltd. Chevron Canada is a “seventh-level indirect subsidiary”, which means that there is a long chain between Chevron and Chevron Canada.[7] However, Chevron has 100% ownership of every company in this chain – it effectively controls Chevron Canada (but this might not matter for the purposes of the plaintiffs).[8]

The SCC issued a judgment on 4 September 2015 on whether Canadian courts can hear the case, based on an appeal by Chevron of an Ontario Court of Appeal ruling that allowed it to go ahead. The SCC dismissed Chevron’s appeal, which means that the case will go forward.


The Court dismissed Chevron’s appeal. It is worth noting three issues discussed in the SCC decision – on only two of which the SCC took a decision.

1. Issue: jurisdiction for a recognition and enforcement proceeding with respect to Chevron and the Ecuadorian judgment.

Held that: jurisdiction exists to hear this recognition and enforcement proceeding, because the foreign judgment is evidence of a debt (stated another way: jurisdiction to recognize and enforce a foreign judgment exists by virtue of the debtor being served on the basis of the outstanding debt resulting from the judgment, so long as the “foreign court from which the judgment originated properly assumed jurisdiction over the dispute.”)[9] It is not necessary to prove a real and substantial connection between the enforcing forum and either the judgment debtor (Chevron) or the dispute.

Reasoning: what has to be proven for recognition and enforcement proceedings to go forward is the connection between a foreign court and the original action on the merits. Chevron claimed to have no connection with the province, through assets or otherwise, but the SCC held that there is no preliminary need to prove a connection with Ontario. More broadly, the Court held that for enforcement and recognition cases to go forward there is no need to prove a real and substantial connection between the enforcing forum and either the judgment debtor or the dispute (this connection is necessary to establishing jurisdiction in other cases). As such, the SCC ruled that it is not necessary “that the foreign debtor contemporaneously possess assets in the enforcing forum”.[10]

To support this, the SCC noted that recognition and enforcement proceedings are different. “Canadian law recognizes that the purpose of an action to recognize and enforce a foreign judgment is to allow a pre-existing obligation to be fulfilled; that is, to ensure that a debt already owed by the defendant is paid.”[11] This means that:

  1. The enforcing court’s role is facilitation, not substance: “the purpose of an action for recognition and enforcement is not to evaluate the underlying claim that gave rise to the original dispute, but rather to assist in enforcing an already-adjudicated obligation.”[12] It follows that a real and substantial connection need not be proven and probably won’t exist.[13] As such, the Court rejected Chevron’s proposed extension of the real and substantial connection test for establishing jurisdiction. In enforcement and recognition proceedings, the Court held, the enforcing court simply lends its judicial assistance to the foreign litigant by allowing him or her to use its enforcement mechanisms.
  2. The enforcing court’s judgment has no coercive force outside its jurisdiction: the recognition and enforcement of a judgment is limited to measures (i.e. seizure, garnishment, or execution) that can be done within the enforcing court’s jurisdiction and in accordance with its rules. It only applies to local assets. “The recognition and enforcement of a judgment therefore has a limited impact”.[14]

A related concept underpinning the Court’s findings on jurisdiction is comity. Comity, broadly, means deference and respect due by other states to the actions of a state legitimately taken within its territory. Previous cases have established that comity underlies Canadian enforcement and recognition law.[15] Along with reciprocity, comity is a backbone of private international law.[16] The Court held that the “concepts of order and fairness on which comity is grounded are not affronted by rejecting Chevron’s proposed extension of the real and substantial connection test” because:

  1. Through requiring that the foreign court had jurisdiction in hearing the underlying dispute, order and fairness are protected in recognition and enforcement proceedings;
  2. No unfairness is done to judgment debtors by being asked to answer for their debts in various jurisdictions (although order and fairness are protected by “providing a foreign judgment debtor with the opportunity to convince the enforcing court that there is another reason why recognition and enforcement should not be granted”[17] – Chevron will have the opportunity to do this as the case proceeds); and
  3. It would undermine order and fairness to require that the defendant have a real and substantial connection with the enforcing court in the sense of being present or having assets there.[18] To underscore this point, the Court pointed to the realities of the age of electronic international banking, where funds can quickly leave a jurisdiction. Moreover, it is “the existence of clear, liberal and simple rules for the recognition and enforcement of foreign judgments that facilitates the flow of wealth, skills and people across borders in a fair and orderly manner”.[19] 

The Court found that jurisdiction exists; however, it emphasized that this does not necessarily follow that it will or should be exercised. This merely means that “the alleged debt merits the assistance and attention of the Ontario courts.”[20] As the case progresses, Chevron can still argue a number of things, notably that recognition and enforcement shouldn’t be accepted because the original decision was fraudulent (Chevron will certainly be arguing this).

2. Issue: jurisdiction with respect to Chevron Canada. 

Held that: jurisdiction exists.

Reasoning: Chevron Canada was validly served at a place of business it operates in the province.

There are three grounds for asserting jurisdiction for an out-of-province defendant (Chevron Canada is headquartered in Alberta): assumed jurisdiction and the two “traditional” grounds – presence-based jurisdiction and consent-based jurisdiction. The Court was satisfied that the requirement of presence-based jurisdiction were met, as Chevron Canada operates a business establishment in Mississauga, at which it was served.

3. Not at-issue: a stay that had been issued by the lower court but was overturned on appeal at the Ontario Court of Appeal.

The lower court had imposed a discretionary stay of proceedings under s.106 of the Courts of Justice Act, but this was overturned by the Ontario Court of Appeals and was not under consideration by the SCC. Stays are rulings by courts that halt further legal process in a trial. The takeaway here is that the Ontario Court of Appeal overturned the stay, ruling that the case should proceed, and that the SCC did not change this decision.


 On the basis of the two issues above, and without ruling on the third issue, the SCC dismissed Chevron’s appeal. As such, the case will go on and will centre on at least two key issues:

  1. Whether the Ecuadorian ruling should be respected, in light of claims about fraud throughout; and
  2. Whether (and I am not using proper legal vernacular here) Chevron Canada can be claimed as an asset of Chevron, for the purposes of getting the plaintiffs what they are owed.


[1]Mark Robinson, Marketing Big Oil: Brand Lessons from the World’s Largest Companies (New York: Palgrave Macmillan, 2014).

[2] Oil Daily, “Chevron Ecuador Case Drags On” (December 18, 2007) Oil Daily.

[3] Energy Economist, “Chevron’s Ecuador Case Drags On” (November 1, 2005) Energy Economist; Oil Daily supra note 1;

[4] Steven Donziger, “Chevron’s “Amazon Chernobyl” in Ecuador: the Real Irrefutable Truths About the Company’s Toxic Dumping and Fraud” (27 May 2015) Huffington Post Green. Steven Donziger is the lawyer for the Ecuadorian plaintiffs.

[5]Robinson supra note 69 at p.72.

[6]Robinson supra note 69.

[7] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 9.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 34.

[10] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 3.

[11] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 43.

[12] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 44.

[13] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 45. “there can be no concern that the parties are located elsewhere, or that the facts underlying the dispute are properly addressed in another court, factors that might serve to undermine the existence of a real and substantial connection with the forum in first instance adjudication.  The defendant will, of course, not have a significant connection with the forum, otherwise an independent jurisdictional basis would already exist for proceeding against him or her.  Moreover, the facts underlying the original judgment are irrelevant, except insofar as they relate to potential defences to enforcement.  The only important element is the foreign judgment itself, and the legal obligation it has created.  Simply put, the logic for mandating a connection with the enforcing jurisdiction finds no place.”

[14] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 46.

[15] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 51. The Court relied on Morguard to draw this conclusion.

[16] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 69.

[17] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 55.

[18] The Court noted that other common law jurisdictions are split on this conclusion. See Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 56-65.

[19] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 68.

[20] Supreme Court of Canada. (4 September 2015). Chevron Corp. v. Yaiguaje, at para 77.

Not the Only Fish in the Sea, Hopefully: Two Ethical Issues to Consider When Buying Seafood

Contrary to the popular idiom there may not in fact be plenty of fish in the sea. Indeed, overfishing is threatening fish stocks worldwide. Meanwhile, industrial fishing can cause wider ecological damage and forced labour on fishing vessels is an endemic challenge. This week, I discuss two key ethical issues to do with the seafood industry. 

But first, here are some basic facts about the fishing and seafood industry:

The seafood industry is large, and growing, as humans are eating more fish each year. You might be surprised to learn that per capita annual fish consumption has increased from 9.9kg in the 1960s to 19.2kg in 2012. And the average Canadian eats slightly more than this, at 23.1kg.In addition to capturing spectacular worldwide demand, fish is a global industry because it is a highly traded commodity: approximately 200 countries export fish and fishery products. 

This is how the supply chain for fishing typically works:

  1. Fish and shellfish (A) living in open waters or (B) raised via aquaculture in ponds, tanks or bounded coastal waters are harvested.  
  2. They are packed and transported to processing facilities.
  3. Processors convert the fish to consumer products (i.e. canned, frozen, filets, smoked). In some cases processing takes multiple steps while in other fish are transported live.
  4. Wholesalers receive the processed or unprocessed fish and distribute the product to retailers and restaurants.
  5. You buy/eat it.

There are two core ethical issues that you might wish to consider when purchasing seafood – sustainability and human rights – both of which are linked to the problem of illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing. These are complicated topics, but I have tried to explain the gist in the sections below.


It is impossible to overstate the importance of sustainability with regards to seafood; 85% of global fish stocks overfished. “Overfishing” refers to a situation when more fish are caught than can be replaced through natural reproduction. It has several causes, including rising demand (we are eating more fish), new technology (makes catching lots of fish easier), and governance gaps (IUU fishing). A study of catch data published in the journal Science in 2006 predicted that if fishing rates continue at the same rate, all the world's fisheries will have collapsed by 2048. The problem of overfishing is so bad that some have argued for giving the oceans their own seat at the United Nations.  

Fun fact: I made this image by photoshopping over Harper's face. 

Fun fact: I made this image by photoshopping over Harper's face. 

The global ocean plays a central role in supporting life on Earth. Oceans cover 3/4 of the planet and contain 80% of all life. Overfishing affects the entire ocean ecosystem. For example, the population of large predatory fish has dropped by an estimated 90% since the industrialization of fisheries in the 1950s.

Overfishing is bad for workers as well as the environment: because fish stocks have been declining, vessels must take longer and longer voyages to find fish, meaning that workers are stuck aboard for long periods of time; declining stocks also make fish processing an increasingly precarious job. You might recall the collapse of the Newfoundland Grand Banks cod fishery in the 1990s: this put between 50 000 and 40 000 people out of work. Fishing is central to the livelihood and food security of an estimated 200 million people. Sustainable fishing matters for the environment, for animals, and for people.

In addition to overfishing, sustainability also concerns the broader environmental impact of fishing processes. For example, if gear is lost during the fishing process or if fishing entails destructive processes, such as the use of dynamite and poisons, this can cause more widespread ecosystem damage. Additionally, some farming processes can cause harm through the spread of farm waste, chemicals, disease and parasites.  

Human Rights

Thailand is the third largest exporter of seafood in the world (the country’s seafood industry is worth $7.3 billion USD annually); it is also notorious for crewing fishing boats with slaves trafficked from Burma and Cambodia. A form of bonded labour is typical: in this scenario, trafficked fishermen are sold to fishing boat owners and then must work to pay off a given price (the ka hua). In addition to being enslaved, workers on such ships are exposed to overwork, violence, torture, and even executions at sea. Each year the U.S. State Department produces its Trafficking in Persons (TIP) report. In 2014, that report downgraded Thailand to a Tier 3 ranking due to a lack of improvements. The report revealed that the Thai government ignored instances of human trafficking and even sought to punish those attempting to bring these abuses to light.

Thailand is often used as an example of human trafficking in the fishing industry because of the size of its fishing industry and inaction on the part of its government (regulation of the Thai fishing industry is woefully inadequate).

Nonetheless, this is a problem that exists worldwide. While Southeast Asia is the biggest problem region for slavery on fishing vessels, this is a global phenomenon. Human trafficking is endemic in the fishing industry. Some fishing operations in at least 51 countries crew their ships with slave labour. 

To give you an idea of the scope of the human trafficking problem in the fishing industry, I created a table that shows how each of the 10 biggest fish exporting countries (as of 2010) were rated in the 2015 TIP report. Tier 1 countries are those that comply fully with the minimum standards of the Trafficking Victims Protection Act’s (TVPA), while Tiers 2, 2 Watch List, and 3 are all for out of compliance countries but vary according to the level of effort that a country is putting into stopping human trafficking. As you can see, three of the top 5 fish exporting countries does not comply with the TVPA.

Canadian fish and seafood imports generally match the global trend. The top five countries of origin for our fish and seafood imports are: the U.S. (36.7%), Thailand (14.9%), China (14.6%), Chile (5.1%) and Vietnam (4.6%).

The problem of forced labour on fishing vessels is extremely difficult to tackle, as it is linked to illegal, unregulated, and unreported (IUU) fishing (IUU fishing also goes hand in hand with overfishing).  

IUU Fishing 

IUU fishing is a huge problem: it is estimated that IUU fishing accounts for 30% of all fishing activity worldwide.  Structural loopholes in international maritime law, specifically on the high seas, allow for IUU fishing to proliferate. Outside of a country’s exclusive economic zone (on the “high seas”, which cover 64% of the surface area of the ocean) ships are governed by the laws of the country in which that vessel is registered (the “flag country”). Often, fishing vessels are registered in countries with no meaningful link to their operations. IUU fishing occurs in primarily on the high seas and poorly regulated national waters. For example, along the coastline of sub-Saharan Africa forced labour is a problem on European and Asian fishing vessels in poorly regulated waters.

IUU fishing is a big problem, one that drives overfishing and labour abuses on fishing vessels. As such, it is worth considering how you can avoid being complicit in these ethical challenges. Next week, I’ll explain seafood eco-labeling and offer some practical advice for you when shopping for fish. 

United Church of Canada Goes Fossil Free

On 11 August 2015 the United Church of Canada announced that it will divest from fossil fuels. This means that it will sell $5.9 million in fossil fuel assets and commit to building an investment portfolio that promotes renewable energy. This is big news, as the United Church is one of the largest religious groups in Canada.  

As an Albertan, I am deeply aware of the trade-offs implied in moving away from fossil fuels: leaving oil in the ground might be necessary to avert climate change but this could have steep implications for many workers in Canada’s resource-dependent economy. The point of this post is not to proselytize about the virtues of divesting from fossil fuels. Instead, I want to use this opportunity to explain divestment; the fossil-free divestment movement; and the likely impact of this move by the United Church of Canada.

This post is a bit different than the previous two, as it does not focus on a specific product (don’t worry: I’ll be putting out a piece on sustainable seafood very soon).

Explaining Divestment

“Divestment” or “divesting” is a socially motivated activity that can be undertaken by private wealth holders. These can be individuals or groups (such as university endowments, foundations, and public pension funds). When actors divest, they withhold their capital from companies that are viewed as contributing to the identified social harm. Perhaps the most famous ongoing divestment movement is the BDS Movement pertaining to Palestine, but divestment campaigns have also targeted Apartheid in South Africa, Darfur, and tobacco.

Evidence suggests that the direct financial impact of divestment is limited, and this is likely to be the case for fossil fuel divestment. However, such campaigns typically generate indirect effects, such as increased public awareness and dialogue, new legislation, and spillover market consequences.

Divestment is often undertaken by groups set up to serve a social purpose, rather than private companies. For this reason, foundations, faith-based groups, governments, and universities have traditionally been key sources of divestment.

Up for debate: is divestment a legitimate choice for a foundation to make, or should endowment managers seek to maximize the financial return that can then be given out as a grant to socially beneficial projects?

There is an ongoing debate about the legitimacy of divestment (and other forms of socially responsible investment) for foundations, an organization type that commonly engages in divestment. Decisions by foundations to divest (or not) matter because these organizations operate by investing sizeable endowments in the market, using the annual return to give out grants for socially beneficial projects. Foundation endowments are sometimes very large: In the U.S., 85 philanthropic foundations have total assets above $1 billion USD. The Gates Foundation, which is the largest philanthropic foundation, has over $41 billion in total assets. These are sizeable funds being invested to serve an ostensibly social mission.

Endowment managers often feel compelled to maximize returns and minimize risk, as the size return that they acquire may dictate how much that foundation can spent on providing grants over the next year. However, it has been increasingly argued that foundations have a responsibility to manage their investments in a way that accords with their social missions. However, it is not always easy to translate this aspiration into practice, partially because the social impact of businesses is often diffuse. This is all linked to the emergence of a similar, but distinct, issue: social finance. If you’re interested in learning more about social finance, check out the articles I wrote here and here.

An example may help to put in perspective how difficult it is to balance the social mandate of the foundation with socially responsible investment decisions. The Gates Foundation – the mission of which is to improve the quality of life of individuals worldwide – has stated that it directs its investment managers not to invest in companies whose activities contribute centrally to egregious activities. As such, it does not invest in tobacco stocks. However, this does not mean that the endowment is only invested in socially responsible companies: the Gates Foundation was recently criticized for investing $1.4 billion USD of its endowment in fossil fuels.

While some foundations have opted to divest from fossil fuels, many others may feel that this issue is not sufficiently close to their social mission; may disagree with the divestment approach; or may feel that maximizing funds available to disburse as grants are most important. These same considerations often influence the decision of other socially-oriented organizations, such as faith groups, non-profits, universities and government agencies, as well.

The Fossil Fuel Divestment Movement

Fossil fuel divestment (going “Fossil Free”) is a divestment movement launched in 2012 under the mantra that “if it’s wrong to wreck the climate, then it is wrong to profit from the wreckage.”[1] The movement has since grown globally to reach $50 billion in divestment commitments from 800 global investors as of October 2014.[2] It is, however, worth noting that many commitments have not yet resulted in the actual reallocation of investment capital.[3]  

According to gofossilfree.org, 349 institutions are currently divesting. As the chart below shows, the four largest groups of divesting organizations include: foundations, faith-based groups, governmental organizations, and education institutions (colleges, universities and schools).

This movement is also growing in Canada, albeit more slowly than in some other countries.

The fossil fuel divestment movement is growing across Canadian universities: there are 34 active divestment campaigns operating on campuses across nine provinces. While more than 30 universities worldwide[4] have divested from fossil fuels, none of these are Canadian institutions. University of Toronto may become the first Canadian university to divest from fossil fuels (although Concordia University has initiated a $5 million sustainable investment fund). Following a petition submitted by a student group (Toronto350.org) University President Gertler struck an advisory committee in November 2014. The committee will bring its recommendations to President Gertler by December 2015. The University of Toronto currently has $32 million invested in fossil fuels, of a $1.5 billion total endowment.

Amongst municipal governments, Victoria is leading the charge toward fossil fuel divestment. In July 2015 the city council voted to pursue options to divest from fossil fuels. 

While the fossil fuel divestment movement has gained momentum, it remains controversial, including amongst experts. Although some advocate further support for this movement,[5] others argue that it could draw attention from more effective ways to encourage low-carbon energy.[6] Still others posit that it is unrealistic to expect that all fossil fuels be left in the ground, and instead argue for divestment against coal specifically (coal has the most negative environmental and public health effects of any fossil fuel). Coal divestment has gained momentum recently, with two notable victories: the movement was endorsed by Sir Mark Moody-Stuart, the former chairman of Royal Dutch Shell[7] and Norway’s gigantic sovereign wealth fund (the largest in the world, at $890 billion) agreed to divest from coal.[8]

Churches for Action to End Climate Change

The United Church of Canada is by no means the first faith group to go fossil-free. As noted above, faith-based groups account for a quarter of all fossil fuel divestment. And Christian groups specifically have been among the leaders of the fossil-free movement. Other notable divestment commitments this year have come from the Church of England (opted to blacklist coal and oil sands investments) and the U.S. Episcopal Church (voted to divest from fossil fuels).

The United Church of Canada is not the first faith group to pledge to divest from fossil fuels. Eight other Canadian faith groups have made divestment commitments, including one other nationwide faith group: the Canadian Unitarian Council, which divested from fossil fuels in 2012. Nonetheless, this is big news as the United Church of Canada is the largest Canadian faith group to divest from fossil fuels to-date.

Why now? An important background condition might be the upcoming Paris summit on climate change (COP21), which will take place in December 2015. If it is successful, this summit could break the deadlock to deliver a meaningful multilateral climate change treaty, following a weak agreement at Copenhagen in 2009 and the arguably failed Kyoto Protocol.

Some faith organizations, including several Christian denominations, have taken a very active stance against climate change ahead of this climate summit. They have framed ending climate change as a moral imperative, a call to conscience. As an example of this, Pope Francis has released a papal encyclical on the environment in which he demanded swift action on climate change.

The divestment commitments made this year by the United Church of Canada and other faith groups can be seen as a way to signal the importance of this issue and to raise public awareness about climate change ahead of COP21. Only time will tell whether this is an effective strategy. For the moment, the $5.9 million that the United Church of Canada will divest from fossil fuels is a noteworthy new commitment in a country that has been sluggish on going fossil-free.


[1] Ritchie, Justin and Dowlatabadi, Hadi. (January 2015). Fossil Fuel Divestment: Reviewing Arguments, Implications and Policy Opportunities. Victoria: Pacific Institute for Climate Solutions at p.5.

[2] Politics and Government Business. (9 October 2014). Divest-Invest; Fossil Fuel Divestment Hits $50 Billion Mark. NewsRx.

[3] Ritchie and Dowlatabadi supra note 1.

[4] Tollefson, Jeff. (6 May 2015). Fossil-fuel Divestment Campaign Hits Resistance. Nature 521(7550).

[5] Rusbridger, Alan. (15 April 2015). Scientists Must Speak Up on Fossil-fuel Divestment. Nature 520(7547); Darby, Megan. (14 August 2015). Former EU Climate Chief Hedegaard backs Fossil Fuel Divestment. The Guardian.

[6] Tollefson supra note 3.

[7] Matthews, Chris. (5 June 2015). Shell’s Former Chairman Made a Startling Comment About Climate Change. Fortune.

[8] Schwartz, John. (5 June 2015). Norway will Divest from Coal in Push Against Climate Change. The New York Times.

Bad Egg (Labels)

Pictured: the brochure that was thrust into my hands. It does not contain any information about Starbucks' egg sourcing, nor is this information easily available anywhere on the company's website. Starbucks is certainly not alone in this regard.

Pictured: the brochure that was thrust into my hands. It does not contain any information about Starbucks' egg sourcing, nor is this information easily available anywhere on the company's website. Starbucks is certainly not alone in this regard.

A few days ago, I was sipping coffee at Starbucks in the midst of a marathon writing session when, suddenly, I was confronted by a mad case of the hangries. So, I bought an egg wrap that was advertised as ‘cage-free’. Curious, I asked the barista about it: I had heard of free-run and free-range eggs before, but never ‘cage-free’ – and I was a bit wary that this could be like the ‘dolphin-friendly’ tuna labels that sound nice but don’t really mean anything (more on that some other time). Unfortunately, the barista also did not know anything about the ‘cage-free’ title or how Starbucks sources its eggs. She thrust a pamphlet into my hands, hoping that would satisfy me, and understandably moved on to the cue of other customers anxiously awaiting their lattes.

There are a lot of egg labels out there: free-run, free-range, cage-free, and organic – to name a few. What do the labels mean and which is the best? This week, I sought to distinguish good and bad egg labels. 

TL;DR Summary

When it comes to egg labels, there are a lot that mean very little and a few that convey a lot. Farm fresh, all natural, no hormones and no antibiotics egg labels are all meaningless. While Omega-3 eggs and vegetarian fed eggs may be healthier for you, they are not a more ethical choice according to any of the other three values that you might wish to consider (animal welfare, labour rights, and the environment). If you value animal welfare, slightly better choices include cage-free, free-run, and free-range. These are not your best option because they are not independently verifiable, but they are better than no label at all. Finally, Canadian certified organic eggs are a strong choice for animal welfare.

There may be a tradeoff between animal welfare and environmental outcomes, as well as working conditions, as cage-free systems in some cases can worsen each of these. This claim remains contested and probably depends on the specific conditions of different farming systems, unfortunately.  For an environmentally friendly option, try the Land Food People Foundation’s certified local sustainable label.

My go-to egg choice is the PC Organics Free-Run Eggs produced in Canada. Although the free-run label itself isn’t independently verifiable, the Canada organic label assures animal welfare standards.


When you buy eggs, or products with eggs in them, there are at least four related ethical concerns that you may wish to consider: animal cruelty, health, labour rights and the environment. Below, I explain some key considerations of each.

1. Animal Cruelty.

The meat industry in Canada is large, killing approximately 650 million animals each year (most of which are chickens). Although egg farming does not necessarily result in the slaughter of chickens, animal cruelty is perhaps the most well known ethical issue relating to egg farming, especially after the 2013 scandal on Alberta egg farms. Animal cruelty concerns refer to the conditions in which egg laying chickens are kept.

What are the laws on animal cruelty on Canadian farms? First, there is a general prohibition on animal cruelty: the Criminal Code of Canada (s.446) prohibits anyone from willfully causing animals to suffer from neglect, pain or injury. However, these generalized cruelty laws were not made to regulate farming specifically and are only rarely used to prosecute livestock producers, in cases of particularly egregious abuse. There are two other federal laws pertaining to animal cruelty on farms, relating only to very specific circumstances: during transport and slaughter. The Health of Animals Act includes measures to protect animals from undue suffering during transport and loading, while the Meat Inspection Act protects food animals from undue harm during handling and slaughter.

Provinces and territories have the primary responsibility for protecting the welfare of animals (including farm animals) and have enacted animal welfare laws as well as groups to enforce these laws (usually, the province’s SPCA and Ministry of Agriculture inspectors). However, enforcement is drastically underfunded and understaffed, which means that very few farms are actually inspected. For a good briefing on animal cruelty law on Canadian farms, click here.

An estimated 95% to 98% of eggs produced in Canada and the U.S. come from hens in ‘battery cages’ (the tiny cages you see in animal cruelty videos). Generally, if you don’t see a label stating otherwise you can assume that the eggs were probably from battery cages. The main egg labels pertaining to animal cruelty are cage-free, free-run, free-range, and some certified organic labels. (More on this below)

2. Health.

Another issue that you might consider prioritizing when you choose which eggs to buy relates to your own health. As such, some egg producers advertise production choices that might not be better for the chicken but can be better for you. For example, some eggs are now Omega-3 enriched. Another example is the ‘vegetarian-fed’ eggs, which essentially just means that the chickens are not fed ‘wasted protein’. This might not mean that the chicken lives in better conditions, but it is arguably safer for you to consume.

Like other foods, some eggs are certified as organic. Some people eat organic eggs to minimize risk of exposure to antibiotics, synthetic hormones, or pesticides. Are organic eggs really healthier? Evidence is mixed. For example, one source suggests that there isn’t much of a difference, while another suggests that organic eggs usually have higher nutrient quality

3. Labour rights.

If you’re a John Oliver fan like I am, you’ll remember his coverage of labour violations in the U.S. chicken farming industry. In other horrific labour news, police recently broke up a slave-labor ring in Ohio farm, where teenagers were forced to work on egg farms.

What about Canadian eh-ggs?

Some fun facts about the Canadian egg farming industry (in 2013):

  • There were 1 021 registered egg farms in Canada, over a third of which are in Ontario.
  • The average flock size was 2 255 hens (although the size of egg farms ranges from a few hundred to more than 400 000 hens!) 
  • The average hen produces 305 eggs per year (which means that the average egg farm produces 687 775 eggs per year!)

Canada has a supply management system for its egg farming (which includes production management, import controls, and pricing mechanisms). Check out the Egg Farmers of Canada website for market information such as reports on egg prices, production, and imports. Through this supply management system, Canadian egg farmers are guaranteed a fair price for their eggs – although a downside of supply management schemes is that this jacks up the price for consumers. I wasn’t able to find stats for egg production specifically but, as an example, the average Canadian household spends an extra $100 on dairy products each year due to dairy quotas. So, supply management has its downsides (even though the Canadian Egg Farmers claim that the main effect of supply management is to handle price volatility, which is a fair point).

There does not seem to be the same level of abuses occurring on Canadian egg farms. From my scan of the Internet, it seems that there are two main concerns. First, many farms include unpaid family workers (children from the family). In Alberta, there was some debate over whether these workers should be eligible for Workers’ Compensation. Second, farm workers are paid below average wages, around $10 000 annually (although these stats should be viewed with caution, as this is often for part-time or seasonal work). In any event, labour rights issues on Canadian egg farms seem benign, relative to our American neighbours. As such, you may wish to stick with Canadian eggs. You can usually find a little maple leaf on the package to indicate that your eggs are Canadian.

Lastly, cage-free/free-run systems may expose labourers to more pollutants in some instances, posing a potential tradeoff between labour rights and animal welfare.

4. The environment.

Finally, you may want to consider the environment in your egg buying choices - although there is less out there on the environmental impact of egg farming. Indeed, there is a key dilemma at play: what’s best for the environment may not be best for the chicken. Industrial farming has led to fewer greenhouse gas emissions despite growing egg production; this has been made possible by effective manure management and improved feed efficiency, which is easiest with battery cages. However, if cage-free systems are able to manage urine and feces effectively and if fewer chickens die prematurely this may be better for the environment. The overall impact is unclear, to my mind.

There are sustainable options out there – although it seems the emphasis in big labeling schemes has been on health and animal welfare. Certified local sustainable is an independently verified Canadian egg labeling scheme which targets sustainable farming practices.

There are a couple of cool environmental initiatives in the Canadian egg industry. In February 2014, the Egg Farmers of Alberta launched PEEP – the Producer Environmental Egg Program – to help egg farmers better identify their impact on the environment. Check out its first report. Also in 2014, the Egg Farmers of Canada entered into a partnership with green energy provider Bullfrog Power for its offices (actually, EFC has been internationally recognized for its socially responsible initiatives).


What do egg labels really mean?

Bad Egg Labels

Watch out for misleading labels. Some labels, such as ‘farm fresh’, ‘omega-3’ and ‘fed vegetarian feed’, do not indicate anything about animal welfare. As such, the Vancouver Humane Society has called them ‘misleading’. Misleading labels include:

  • Farm fresh: this label is, in practical terms, meaningless. It conveys no information about the production process.
  • All natural: this label also has no real meaning.
  • Animal friendly, country fresh, naturally raised: these, too, do not guarantee any type of production standard.
  • No antibiotics: antibiotics are very rarely used in the egg industry anyway, so this label does not indicate much.
  • No hormones: in Canada, hormones are only approved for use in cows, so this label does not mean anything if you are purchasing eggs.

Some labels do have a specific meaning – they aren’t ‘misleading’ – but they also don’t indicate ethical production practices and as such are included here as bad egg labels.

  • Omega-3: this means that the egg is enriched with Omega-3 – healthier for you, but not more humane or environmentally friendly.
  • Vegetarian-fed: the chicken was not fed wasted protein – healthier for you, but not more humane or environmentally friendly. 

Better Egg Labels

These ‘better egg labels’ mean that the producer claims to meet certain animal welfare standards in their farming practices. With these labels, there is no independent verification (although the Canadian Food Inspection Agency has set guidelines defining what these mean and could investigate a farm that does not meet this definition, if a complaint is made). So, while these labels are a step up from the bad egg labels they are still not an ideal choice:

  • Cage-free: the eggs from cage-free farms do not put hens in the battery cages in which almost all egg laying hens are kept. So, it’s a step up! But cage-free can still mean that the birds live in crowded aviaries, which may not give them much more space.  (To tie this in with the introductory bit, I’ll note that the move to ‘cage-free’ eggs by Starbucks is part of a broader shift in its animal welfare policy).
  • Free-run: similar to cage-free labels, this means that the hens run free in an ‘open concept’ barn (no cages).
  • Free-range: this is similar to free-run eggs, but it also means the chickens can go outdoors.

Best Egg Labels

These are the only labels that are independently verified to meet clear ethical production standards:

  • Canada Organic: organic products in Canada must be certified according to Canadian Organic Standards and Regulations. Under these regulations, battery cages are prohibited, there are minimum space requirements, access to the outdoors is required, and certain amenities for chicken welfare (such as nest boxes, perches, and bedding material) are required. There is also an array of other requirements – for example, GMOs are not permitted under the standards, nor are synthetic pesticides or irradiation. The David Suzuki Foundation recognizes this as the best choice.
  • There are a number of other organic certifications, each of which has different standards. Before you buy, you should research organics standards to see what its standards are. As an example, the USDA National Organic Program is similar to the Canada organic label. These eggs come from cage-free hens fed organic feed. Notably, this does not include labour standards.
  • SPCA Certified: this program independently verifies similar animal welfare standards as with the organics label. However, it does not require the use of organic feed (and some other requirements).
  • Certified local sustainable: a small (and relatively new) certification scheme run by Local Food Plus, this label encompasses sustainable farming practices and actions toward greenhouse gas emissions reduction in its standards. If you can find a retailer with this label, it is a good environmental option.

Paper and Logging: Addressing Deforestation at its Root

In part because technology has made transportation easier and cheaper, supply chains have been globalized: products that would have been made by one person or in one factory or in one city are now assembled in multiple countries. These products are sold in markets that might be hundreds of thousands of kilometers away from the person that produced them, meaning that we lack a direct link to the producer and may even lack any knowledge of where the producer is located, his working conditions and lifestyle, the materials that have been used and the methods of extraction.  This makes ethical consumption extremely difficult: there’s just too much to think about most of the time, and too little information available.

It isn’t that consumers don’t care about acting ethically. There is evidence that most people do want to buy socially and environmentally responsible products. For example, a 2014 poll surveyed 30 000 consumers in sixty countries, finding that 55% of global consumers are willing to pay more for socially responsible products.[1] But it isn’t always – or even often – easy to tell which choices that implies in practice. I’ve always found that frustrating.

I am starting Pullback as a small way to combat this problem. As a broader aspiration, I am working on building a tool that will help consumers to get information on easy changes they can make to better match their purchases with their specific values. I’m setting up this blog as a part of that effort. For now, I’ll be spotlighting a common consumption item every week and ‘pulling back’ the product messaging by researching available evidence and expertise and offering practical advice. My aim is to provide easy to understand information (backed by facts) that will help you to make everyday choices that accord with the ethical priorities that are most important to you.

As a teaser, this week I want to talk about paper.


The Issue: Deforestation is a big problem, driven by paper made from unsustainably managed forests.  

Advice: Experts generally agree that the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certification scheme is the eco-label with the most stringent standards and most robust certification procedures. So, check for an FSC label. There are 3 different FSC labels you might come across:  FSC 100%, FSC MIX, and FSC Recycled. These are all responsible choices, but the FSC MIX and FSC Recycled labels are an even better choice because they include recycled materials. By buying FSC-certified, you can ensure that your paper has been extracted from forests that are managed in a socially and environmentally responsible way. Remember, though, that paper is still energy-intensive to produce.  Consider using less paper, where possible, and always recycle. Going paperless, where you can, is a good way to reduce your environmental footprint. Check out these sources for tips on going paperless at home and in the office.


Paper: it’s boring, but we use it all the time. Paper was invented in China around 200 BCE and since that time has become ubiquitous. And even though communications technology allows us to do a lot of things online for which we would have used paper, there is no sign that we are set to become a paperless society. Amid the digital revolution of the last twenty years, consumption of paper products has actually increased 126%.

Our increased use of paper has contributed to the dramatic deforestation rate. Forests, which currently cover a little under a third of all land on Earth, are integral to sustaining human lives. In addition to helping us breathe, forests store carbon and clean the air, support 80% of biodiversity on land, influence regional weather patterns to promote rainfall, reduce soil erosion/pollution and flooding, protect downstream ecosystems, refill aquafilters, and block wind, among many other benefits.

Deforestation has been and continues to be one of the most pressing environmental challenges. Over the past half century, about half of the world’s original forest cover has already been lost. Each year, we lose another estimated 18 million acres of forest – an area that is roughly the same size as Panama.

Sure, the blue team is willing to trade you a wood for a sheep, but how to you know that wood was ethically harvested? How do you know those two villages aren’t clear cutting!?

Sure, the blue team is willing to trade you a wood for a sheep, but how to you know that wood was ethically harvested? How do you know those two villages aren’t clear cutting!?

The paper making process generally includes the following steps: logging, de-barking and chipping, pulping, cleaning, paper making, and finishing. Check out this video for more detail on the paper making process. Today, I’m focusing on the first of these steps and the sustainable management of forests. However, as with any consumer product, there are other moral issues arising from each production step that are worth considering. For example, manufacturing pulp and paper takes a substantial amount of water and is energy intensive. Although pulp and paper workers are unionized in Canada, labour practices can be a concern in some cases.


Forest certification was first introduced in the late 1980s but continues to evolve. All forest certification programs consist of three elements:

  1. Forest certification: the evaluation of forest operations against predetermined criteria;
  2. Chain-of-custody: a system for addressing the origin of raw materials; and
  3. Eco-labels: labels that appear on products.

Today, three prominent eco-labels compete with one another in North American and European consumer markets: the Forest Stewardship Council (FSC), the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), and the Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification (PEFC) – which in Canada is instantiated as Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard (CSA).

It can be difficult to assess the comparative effectiveness of different certification schemes (academics are struggling with this), but there is a general consensus that the FSC eco-label is the best, because it has the most stringent standards, the most robust assessment mechanisms, and because companies have been banned from using the eco-label for failing to live up to FSC standards.[2]  


1. Forest Stewardship Council: FSC, which was spearheaded by World Wildlife Fund, was founded in 1993. Since that time, it has grown substantially: the total area of FSC certified forests, as of 2013, was 180 538 563 ha, with a rate of growth of 7%.[3] Europe and North America continue to dominate FSC sustainable forest management and chain of custody certificates – although Chile, India, Thailand, Turkey, Romania and Vietnam have all seen substantial increases in FSC certified forest area.[4] As of November 2014, FSC certification accounted for 39% of total certified areas in North America, 45% in Europe, 7% in South America and the Caribbean, 3% in Africa, 1% in Oceania and 5% in Asia. FSC is often seen as the most stringent forest certification program. It has in some instances banned companies from using the FSC trademark following complaints by advocacy NGOs,[5] although its complaint procedure has been the subject of criticism. Notably, however, FSC has been opposed by some environmental groups that view it as too business-friendly.[6]  

2. Sustainable Forestry Initiative: created in the U.S. in 1994 by the American Forest and Paper Association (the national trade association for the industry) as a response to the FSC, SFI originally emphasized organizational procedures and flexible, discretionary performance guidelines and requirements. As SFI competed with FSC for legitimacy, it developed a process by which companies could choose to be audited by an outside party to assess their compliance with the SFI standard.[7] This means that SFI program participants can now choose to verify SFI compliance on their own, using a second-party verifier (another firm or trade association), or through an independent third-party auditor. Participants that want to use the SFI eco-label must be third-party certified. As of 2003, about half of SFI participants were third-party certified.[8]  

3. Program for the Endorsement of Forest Certification: PEFC was created in 1999. It is a framework for the mutual recognition of different national or regional sustainable forest management schemes, which means it operates as an umbrella organization for different national standards. PEFC is a membership organization consisting of national organizations representing national forest certification schemes. Program participants use a common eco-label, but national accreditation bodies accredit certification bodies, which then certify forests.

In Canada, the PEFC-endorsed certification standard is Canada’s National Sustainable Forest Management Standard. It is referred to as ‘CSA’ (because it was established by the Canadian Standards Association) or the CAN/CSA Z809 standard. Over 60 million hectares of Canadian forest were third-party certified to the CSA as of 2011. To be certified, a third party independent auditor must verify that 17 critical elements are met.


[1] Nielson. (17 June 2014). Global Consumers are Willing to Put their Money where their Heart is when it Comes to Goods and Services from Companies Committed to Social Responsibility. Nielson Marketing Institute. Online at   http://www.nielsen.com/us/en/press-room/2014/global-consumers-are-willing-to-put-their-money-where-their-heart-is.html

[2] Auld, G. & Cashore, B. (2012). The Forest Stewardship Council. In Reed, D., Utting, P. & Mukherjee-Reed. (eds.) Business Regulation and Non-State Actors: Whose Standards? Whose Development? Routledge.

[3] FSC. (2013). FSC Market Info Pack

[4] Ibid.

[5] Rainforest Action Network. (13 August 2013). NGOs Welcome the Forest Stewardship Council Decision to Cut Ties with Companies Linked to Indonesia Pulp Giant APRIL.

[6] FSC Watch. (2008). Another NGO Quits FSC in Protest Against NORFOR Plantations.

[7]  Cashore, B., Auld, G. & Newsom, D. (2003). The United States’ Race to Certify Sustainable Forestry: Non-State Environmental Governance and the Competition for Policy-Making Authority. Business and Politics 5(3), 219 at p.224

[8] Anderson, C. & Hansen, E. (n.d.). Forest Certification: Understanding Ecolabel Usage Requirements. Oregon State University Wood Science & Engineering.