ECN Fall 2017

Here are the top ethical consumption news stories for fall 2017: (1) a global Catholic coalition has announced the world’s largest-ever faith-based fossil fuel divestment; (2) Cambridge University is confronting increased pressure to divest from fossil fuels; (3) California may divest from some gun producers; (4) the Mayor of London is seeking new powers to combat air pollution; (5) the longstanding CEO of Green Seal is retiring; (6) two-thirds of Norwegian fish are now MSC-certified; (7) the ACLU is suing Kansas over its BDS law; (8) Colombia is seeking to be seen as a site for sustainable tourism; and (9) there is evidence of increased consumer eco-consciousness.

1. Large Fossil Fuel Divestment Announced by Global Catholic Coalition

A new record has been set for the largest-ever faith-based divestment from fossil fuels. More than 40 Catholic institutions from around the world have formed a coalition and announced that they will divest from their fossil fuel holdings.

This news has been seen by some as a watershed moment toward the mainstreaming of fossil fuel divestment. While still primarily the domain of faith groups, universities, and public funds (covered previously by Pullback here), some investors are seeing fossil free investing as a growth opportunity. The recent announcement that France’s largest bank, BNP Paribas, will divest from fossil fuels, illustrates this trend. However, the mainstreaming of decarbonized finance also reflects a mixing of moral and financial arguments: rather than an ethical matter, some see this shift as a result of growing investor awareness of the “carbon bubble”. That dilemma of social investment is discussed in recent articles here and here.

The Massachusetts legislature is considering a bill, H-3281, which would divest the state’s public pension funds from coal by the end of 2017 and prohibit the acquisition of new fossil fuel assets.

2. Divestment Calls at Cambridge

Cambridge University is facing increased pressure to divest its £6.3bn investment fund of fossil fuel investments. Among those efforts is a submission co-written by the National Union of Students and People and Planet, and signed by sixty university fellows. In response, Cambridge’s divestment working group held town halls on this matter in October. (For more on how the meeting went, see here.) In November, twenty Cambridge faith leaders penned an open letter advocating fossil fuel divestment.  

Student movements have been active in agitating for the decarbonization of university endowments. This recent article discusses some of the universities that have decided not to divest.

The University of Toronto – which last year controversially decided not to opt for fossil fuel divestment, but to explore sustainability options – has announced a Committee on the Environment, Climate Change and Sustainability.

3. California May Divest from Some Gun Producers

In reaction to the recent Las Vegas shooting, the State of California’s treasurer has asked board members of CalSTRS, the California state pension fund for teachers, to divest from retailers that sell guns and ammunition around the US that are illegal in California. (California has stricter gun laws than most US states – the strictest, according to gunlawscorecard.) CalSTRS has taken steps to study how this kind of action might be undertaken. This effort follows a decision about a year ago that the New York City (NYC)  employee pension fund would divest from three American retailers – Dick’s Sporting Goods, Cabela’s, and Big 5 Sporting Goods – because they sell guns. Even earlier, in 2013, an NYC teachers’ pension fund divested from publicly traded firearms manufacturers.

Despite this latest news, gun divestment groups like the Campaign to Unload have achieved very little traction, especially as compared with fossil fuel divestment campaigns. This article provides some context about why that is the case.

Another divestment issue that has received scant attention is the movement to divest from for-profit prisons. Recently the Philadelphia Board of Pensions voted to divest. And Stanford students protested a decision by the University’s Board of Trustees not to divest.

4. London Mayor Seeks New Powers to Combat Air Pollution

In late September London Mayor Sadiq Khan wrote to Michael Gove, the Environment Secretary, requesting additional powers to combat air pollution in his city, including minimum emissions standards for water vessels and construction machinery, as well as a ban on woodburning stoves in areas with poor air quality. On the measures, Mayor Khan said, “Non-transport sources contribute half of the deadly emissions in London, so we need a hard-hitting plan of action to combat them similar to moves I am taking to reduce pollution from road vehicles.” This proposal has been challenged by chimney producer Specflue.

5. Longstanding Green Seal CEO Steps Down

Arthur Weissman, President and CEO of Green Seal since 1996, has stepped down from leadership of the environmental standards organization. In an interview, Weissman reflected on his role and the evolving institutional landscape of eco-labels. In particular, he noted that: “the field is much more complicated than anyone ever expected back in the late 1980s when it started up in North America. It's much more complicated to do all the stuff, and much more difficult both technically and dealing with the marketplace.”

6. Two-thirds of Norwegian Fish Are MSC-Certified

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), the top ecolabel for wild-caught fish, has certified Norway’s ling, tusk, and lumpfish fishery. This means that “69% of all the Norwegian fish landed is MSC certified”.

7. ACLU Sues Kansas Over BDS Law

The ACLU is challenging a Kansas State law, House Bill 2409, which bans governments from contracting with actors that boycott Israel. The ACLU argues that the law violates the First Amendment. On its blog, the rights organization recently featured a math teacher-trainer who was affected by the law.

Legislative and regulatory rules restricting BDS have increased in recent years. For instance, Dickinson, Texas recently made its financial assistance for disaster recovery conditional on the recipient not being a BDS-supporter.

BDS is a controversial divestment movement. For supporters, the boycott is a way to avoid being morally complicit in what they see as Israeli apartheid. For opponents, the movement is anti-Semitic and counter-productive.

8. Colombia Bolsters its Sustainable Tourism Chops  

Colombia is seeking to build a reputation for sustainability, as it develops its tourism profile. The country was recently recognized as a World Sustainable Tourism Destination. This recognition reflects sustainability certification, attained and aspirational, by MinCIT and Blue Flag.

9. Consumer Awareness and Behaviour in the News

A recent study by Oeko-Tex found that there is rising global consumer awareness of the role of the fashion industry in climate change. Demand for eco-friendly cleaning products has risen 45% in the UK over the last year.

ECN Summer 2017

Here are your top 13 ethical consumption stories for the summer: (1) the “pipeline bank” divestment movement now includes cities and nonprofits; (2) a new study shows that there is appetite for eco-labels amongst Taiwanese farmers; (3) research offers new perspectives on whether “eating ethical” is ethical; (4) university fossil fuel divestment has reached $130 billion globally; (5) the state of NY is under pressure to divest from fossil fuels; (6) CEOs left two Trump administration business advisory committees en masse; (7) an Ipsos poll has found that 25% of Americans boycott; (8) Canadians boycotted Sears over labor concerns; (9) the EU has updated its textiles eco-label; (10) Congress has introduced a bill seeking to ban the Boycott Divest Sanction movement; (11) the Marine Stewardship Council eco-label has gotten itself into a reel controversy as it looks to approve certification for a Mexican tuna fishery; (12) herbicides were found in Ben & Jerry's ice cream; and (13) there is a new non-denominational effort to create a Green Church label.

1. The City of Berkeley and 15 NPOs divest from “pipeline banks”

Berkeley City Council has voted to divest from Wells Fargo, beginning in May 2018, and to implement responsible banking policies. Berkeley follows a handful of other US cities that have divested from the bank for its financing of private prisons and the Dakota Access Pipeline. Fifteen nonprofit organizations have also pledged divestment in light of the US pullout; they pledged to divest from “pipeline banks”.

2. Research: farmers would reduce chemical use for eco-labels

A study by researchers at the Technical University of Munich found that Taiwanese rice farmers would be willing to reduce their use of chemical fertilizers, which would reduce revenue by shrinking crop yields, if they could obtain an eco-label by doing so. This study contributes to a growing area of research on whether consumer labels are an effective way to shape producer behavior.

3. Debate: is “ethical eating” ethical?


Researchers at the University of Guelph recently published an article arguing that ‘ethical’ food is often only available to the affluent. I covered this topic in a dedicated blog post (here). This follows a similar study by researchers at UBC, who found that organic food is not always healthier or more sustainable.

A study by researchers at the UN Food and Agriculture Organization has pointed to the inadequacy of present tools to fight overfishing. They argue that the fisheries crisis has been “exported” to the developing world and argue for a global scale effort that eliminates the disparity between developed and developing countries.

4. Good news and bad news for fossil fuel campus divestment

After months of discussion, Yale University’s responsible investments committee has decided not to recommend divesting from Exxon Mobil. Harvard, on the other hand, announced in April that it will “pause” its investments in some fossil fuel companies. In any given ECN cycle any number of universities have ongoing fossil fuel divestment activities. Generally I stick to the larger and more well-known universities, but it is important to note that this barely scratches the surface of a dynamic activist sphere. Fossil fuel divestment by the world’s universities has now reached 80 billion GBP, or 130 billion CAD.

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5. Pressure on NY State pension fund to divest from fossil fuels

Following the US’ decision to leave the Paris Agreement, pressure has intensified for the state of New York to divest its Common Retirement Fund from fossil fuels. More than 200 elected officials from across the state have asked the State Comptroller DiNapoli to divest in a letter that was released at a rally in June. The pension fund, which manages $192 billion, is believed to have $5 billion invested in fossil fuel companies. DiNapoli reacted by arguing that it is better to influence companies by enacting pressure as a shareholder: “We believe in engagement with companies […] we have been moving more of our money into companies that are working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.” This discussion reflects a cleavage in the ethical investment sphere, between divestment and shareholder activism.

California’s public employee pension fund CalPERS is fulfilling its directive to divest from coal, but as coal stocks rise this has become a costly move. For its own part, the board of San Francisco’s public pension fund is divided on fossil fuel divestment.

In a similar move, New Zealand’s Superannuation Fund (NZ Super Fund), a sovereign wealth fund worth $26 billion USD, has withdrawn from 300 fossil fuel companies because they are “risky investments”.

6. CEOs ditch Trump

Beginning with Merck CEO Ken Frazier, this week prominent American CEOs left the Manufacturing Jobs Initiative and Strategic and Policy Forum, two advisory groups set up by the Trump administration, in reaction to the President’s comments on events in Charlottesville, VA. Both councils have been disbanded as a result. Given how unusual it is for CEOs to publicly take political stances of this sort, these events are generating discussion about how the Trump Presidency is changing the calculus of businesses.

7. Data: 25% of Americans boycott

Relevant to the issue above, new data suggests that in this hyper-partisan environment businesses may not be able to avoid controversy by simply “keeping their heads down”. According to the results of an Ipsos survey, 25% of Americans have stopped using products or services from a company for political reasons. Ipsos also found that Google searches for the term boycott have spiked in 2017. Democrats are more likely to have boycotted Uber, Under Armor, Exxon, and Walmart, while Republicans boycotted Nordstrom, Macy’s, TJ Maxx, and PepsiCo more frequently. Ipsos recommends that companies: understand their brand’s risk profile; understand their customers; track social media; and prepare a communications plan for responding to a political crisis.

8. Sears boycott

In late July Canadians took to the Internet to #boycottSears following news that the company plans to lay off around 2 900 employees without severance pay. In response to the boycotts, Sears this week announced a $500 000 “hardship fund” for laid-off employees, to be channeled out of executive pay.

9. EU updates textiles label

The EU Ecolabel for Textiles, a voluntary standard managed by the European Commission, has been updated. The EC has widened its definition of textiles and clarified its requirements on recycling and chemical management.

10. US bill proposes to ban BDS

Congress is considering an Israel Anti-Boycott Act, which would expand the Export Administration Act of 1979 in order to bar US persons from boycotting Israel and Israeli businesses, in effect banning the BDS movement. As has been covered by Pullback before (see here and here), it is worth noting that this is not the first proposed law targeting BDS. In fact, North Carolina has very recently passed such a law. And Israel has banned non-citizens that support BDS from entering the country. Like the other anti-BDS laws, the Israel Anti-Boycott Act would have significant implications for free speech, if passed. More generally, these laws prompt a question about whether and under which circumstances boycotts are a legitimate form of political opposition.

“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  (1).png

11. Controversy: MSC close to approving Mexican tuna fishery

Controversy has erupted as the world’s most reputable wild catch fish sustainability label, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), moves closer to certifying the Mexican eastern Pacific skipjack and yellowfin tuna fishery. The World Wildlife Fund, which played a central role in creating MSC, had raised concerns about the impacts of the fishery on dolphins in the area. It has criticized MSC for these latest steps, as has the Earth Island Institute, the Humane Society International, and other conservationists.

12. Herbicides in Ben & Jerry’s

Trace amounts of an herbicide called glyphosate were found in 10 of 11 samples of Ben & Jerry’s ice cream that were tested by the Organic Consumers Association. While the amount of glyphosate was far below the EPA limit, the finding has damaged Ben & Jerry’s image as an environmentally-friendly brand.

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13. Green Churches?

As I have previously explained (here), faith organizations are often at the forefront of fossil fuel divestment efforts. A new project is underway to create an eco-label for churches that have undergone an “ecological conversion”. The Green Church label will allow for Christian churches of different denominations to identify themselves as eco-churches.

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

May was an interesting month for ethical consumption news. Some of the standard stories featured prominently: fossil fuel divestment is an increasingly potent force, while university groups have agitated for divestment of other kinds with less success (especially BDS and private prison divestment). But this month also featured the high-profile trial of a Toronto animal rights activist and the decision by Portland City Council to stop all corporate investment. This month’s ethical consumption news features the following stories: (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.

1. Not Guilty Verdict in the Toronto “Pig Trial”.

Activist and founder of Toronto Pig Save, Anita Krajnc, was found not guilty of mischief. She had been charged after pouring water into the openings of a metal trailer, for the purpose of giving water to thirsty pigs awaiting slaughter, in June 2015. While the verdict has been viewed as a victory in the animal rights community, Judge David Harris explicitly rejected the argument that pigs are persons rather than property in his decision. Instead, the decision was based on a finding that Krajnc did not interfere with the lawful use of the pigs, since they were slaughtered.

2. More Cities Divest from Wells Fargo, Protesting Dakota Access Pipeline.

More banks and American cities are divesting from companies implicated in the Dakota Access Pipeline project. In February the Seattle City Council voted to divest from Wells Fargo, which is financing about 5% of the project. It was followed by San Francisco, as well as Davis and Santa Monica. However, this month Winona City Council voted to reject a similar motion. Several major European banks have dropped investment in the Dakota Access Pipeline project, as has one of the UK’s largest ethical fund managers (BMO Global Asset Management).

In Canada, the Treaty Alliance and a coalition of other Indigenous groups has launched a campaign to divest from financial institutions that fund oil pipelines.

3. Must Read: Evaluating the Performance of Organic Agriculture.

Is organic farming really better for producers, consumers, and the planet? New research by scientists at UBC suggests that the answer is context-dependent. Read the full academic article here, or check out a shorter and more reader-friendly summary published by Corporate Knights.

4. Portland to End All Corporate Investment.

Following pressure from activists promoting divestment from controversial companies, the Portland City Council voted to end all corporate investment. It is a move that would see the City move the $539 million that it presently has invested in corporations. One reason that Portland City Council is divesting from all corporations is “to avoid the trouble of having to perpetually decide which corporations the city considers bad actors,” according to the Oregonian. Portland will put its money into federal bonds and other non-corporate options. Notably, the Council acknowledges that it will lose money from this choice: $4.5 million annually, it is estimated.

5. Divest Parliament Gains Steam in the UK.

50 UK Members of Parliament have supported a movement called “Divest Parliament”, which is asking the Government to divest its £612m Parliamentary Contributory Pension Fund from fossil fuels. Among other arguments, the group contends that investments in BP and Shell are incompatible with the goals of the Paris Agreement.

6. Private Prison Divestment

The private prison divestment movement has gained traction amongst students in several US universities, including Harvard and Princeton University. However, neither university has opted to pledge divestment.

7. Divestment Debate: Petroleum Industry Hits Back.

The Independent Petroleum Association of America, a trade association representing oil and natural gas producers, commissioned a recently released report arguing that fossil fuel divestment will cause significant costs. They have since launched a website (here), in a move that is seen as a response to the actions undertaken worldwide as part of the Global Divestment Mobilization in early May.

“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  (1).png

8. More Religious Groups Divest from Fossil Fuels.

Previous Pullback articles have discussed the fact that faith groups make up the largest set of participants in fossil fuel divestment. In the spirit (get it? I’ll see myself out.) of the Global Divestment Mobilization, British Quakers announced 19 more divestment commitments. Nine Catholic organizations have done the same. The largest Muslim organization in the U.S., the Islamic Society of North America, will also divest from fossil fuels. And there have been calls for the Church of England to divest from ExxonMobil.

9. Crickets Enter Toronto’s Culinary Scene

Crickets are making an appearance in the Toronto culinary scene. There are now at least five places where you can eat crickets and other insects here in Toronto; in April restaurants across Ontario served insect dishes in celebration of Earth Day; and there will be cricket tacos, cricket-topped hotdogs, and beetle smoothies at this year’s CNE. Indeed, the world’s largest cricket farm is located in Ontario.

Entomophagy is the human use of insects as food, and it has been a common practice in some parts of the world for tens of thousands of years. Approximately 2 billion people today regularly eat insects. Insects have recently been promoted including by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization, as a sustainable substitute for meat-based proteins. They are much less greenhouse gas intensive to cultivate than other livestock, and require much less water. And raising crickets doesn’t take much space. However, given recent scientific findings about the learning abilities of other insects, does eating crickets pose an ethical challenge for someone that is vegetarian for animal rights reasons – especially since it involves killing vastly more animals per unit of protein?

Interested in learning more about entomophagy? Read Eat the Beetles!, a book by Canadian epidemiologist and veterinarian David Waltner-Toews.

10. Sainsbury in Hot Water over “Fairly Traded” Tea

Sainsbury’s, the UK’s second-largest grocery chain, has come under fire for dropping the Fairtrade Logo and instead piloting its own “Fairly Traded” mark on its own-branded tea.

11. Fruit Boycott Campaign in Pakistan.

Consumer rights groups in Karachi are urging consumers to boycott fruit for three days beginning on Friday 2 June. The boycott is in protest to rising prices during Ramadan.


Ethical Consumption in the News: March 2017

It’s been a long hiatus, but ethical consumption in the news is back! Here are the top stories this month: (1) Ireland may be the first country to divest from fossil fuels; (2) Norway’s pension fund has foregone returns due to its socially responsible investment policies; (3-5) several universities are acting on fossil fuel divestment; (6) Berkeley takes aim at the US border wall; (7) Shell sells oil sands; (8) US activists call for boycotting Mexican shrimp; (9) a pro-BDS group is suing the British government; and (10) a Spanish retail chain passes MSC certification.

1. Ireland may go green

The Irish Parliament is considering whether to divest its 8 billion EUR sovereign wealth fund – the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund – of all fossil fuel holdings. If the bill (the Fossil Fuel Divestment Bill) passes, it would be the first country to fully divest from fossil fuels. Norway’s sovereign wealth fund has a responsible investment policy that includes coal divestment, as well as other ethical issues (for more on this click here; on fossil fuel divestment generally click here).

2. Norwegian Pension Fund’s ethical choices reduced returns by 1.1%

In related news, a recent estimate suggests that Norway’s Government Pension Fund Global (GPFG) has generated 1.1% less in equity returns between 2006 and 2016 as a result of excluding stocks on ethical grounds. Although the policy may still be worthwhile, this finding is important because it provides evidence a recent claim that ethical investing can be done without sacrificing financial returns. 

3. University of California divests additional $150 million from fossil fuels

The University of California has divested an additional $150 million in fossil fuel investment. In 2015 the University had divested $200 million from coal and oil sands investments. UC also divested from two companies that are building the Dakota Access Pipeline, as have other actors like the City of San Francisco and a Norwegian public sector employee union pension fund.

4. Columbia University divests from coal

Columbia University Trustees announced that the university will divest from companies that derive more than 35% of their revenue from the production of thermal coal.

5. First Canadian university divests from fossil fuels

The University of Laval became the first Canadian university to divest from fossil fuels. Fossil fuel divestment is gathering momentum on campuses around the world, but especially in Anglophone countries (for instance, Bristol University agreed to new fossil fuel divestment plans this month).

6. Berkeley divests from the US-Mexico border wall

The City of Berkeley, CA passed a resolution condemning the proposed US-Mexico border wall, and calling on the City to divest from companies involved in building it. The aim of the policy is to dissuade businesses from pursuing involvement in any stage of border wall construction. A similar bill has been introduced at the state level in California.

7. Shell sells out of the oil sands

Shell has sold most of its oil sands assets, $7.25 billion, to Canadian Natural Resources. There has been some debate regarding the motive of the sale: some argue that the primary rationale was price – the high cost of oil sands extraction coupled with low oil prices – or emissions – whether Shell sought to shed the high GHG emissions associated with oil sands extraction. Shell has been taking strides to improve its environmental reputation. Whichever interpretation is correct, there has been some concern about CNR’s safety record in light of the sale.

8. US activists call for a boycott of Mexican shrimp

Conservation groups are calling on US consumers and seafood companies to boycott Mexican shrimp in a bid to save a rare porpoise – the vaquita porpoise – that is on the verge of extinction. The boycott was called because Mexico’s ban on gillnet fishing in the vaquita’s habitat is set to expire and has been poorly enforced.

9. A Pro-BDS group is suing the British government

Last year the UK government issued a new procurement policy barring government agencies from implementing boycott policies. The policy was intended to be targeted at BDS, but could potentially apply to boycotts of different kinds. The policy wasn’t the only attack on BDS in 2016. Jewish Human Rights Watch (JHRW) had sued three local councils in England and Wales, each of which had passed resolutions to boycott goods produced on Israeli settlements in the West Bank. However, in summer 2016 the court ruled against JHRW, dismissing claims that such bans were discriminatory against Jews.

A group called the Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) challenged the new UK Government policy in December 2016. It is “seeking judicial review of the changes to the rules governing Local Government Pensions Schemes (LGPS) that will prevent ethical decision making with regard to human rights abuses and the arms trade”, the group said in a December 2016 statement. This month the UK Government was unsuccessful in having the case dismissed, so it will go to a full trial this summer.

Whatever your position on BDS, one has to admit that the evolving use of legislation and the court system is an interesting development for political consumerism advocacy. Whether policies like the one in the UK pass legal muster will potentially shape the advocacy terrain for a variety of social and environmental issues. Amid rising anti-Semitism it is increasingly popular – or at least there is an arguably more pressing public policy rationale – for governments to take efforts to restrict BDS. However, these laws have consequences for consumer and investor activism of all types, and for freedom of expression more generally.

10. First retail distribution chain in Spain is MSC-certified

Eroski became the first Spanish retail distribution chain to pass a Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) chain of custody certification audit. MSC is the most well-recognized and respected sustainable fish ecolabel (for more on MSC click here).

Ethical Consumption in the News: June 13-20

This week’s top ethical consumption story is (1) New York Governor Cuomo’s decision to ban state government agencies from doing business with groups that support BDS. In climate change news: (2) several Aussie Catholic orders, following Pope Francis’ lead, will divest fully from fossil fuels; (3) a former SEC commissioner is arguing that ‘prudence’ in investment management should include managing climate-related risk; (4) Mark Carney praised Alberta’s climate change plan; and (5) Cambridge and NYU will not go fossil free. Also this week: (6) India’s mandatory corporate social responsibility law was amended to include sports; (7) the South Korean Oxy boycott leads to layoffs; and (8) can big data end boycotts?

1. Boycotting a boycott: NY won’t do business with BDS supporters

New York Governor, Andrew Cuomo, has signed an executive order directing state agencies not to do business with organizations that support the Boycott, Divest, and Sanctions (BDS) movement. BDS boycotts Israeli companies for human rights reasons. Cuomo’s decision has been fiercely opposed by civil liberties organizations, some of which claim that the order constitutes “21st-century McCarthyism” and violates the First Amendment.

While alarming in this writer’s view, it is important to note that Cuomo’s decision is not without precedent. In February 2016 the UK issued a new procurement policy barring public bodies from undertaking procurement boycotts unless the UK Government has put in place formal legal sanctions. Although targeted at BDS the procurement policy covers all boycotts. Last year BDS was ruled hate speech in France.

In May a law barring the Government of Ontario from doing business with BDS-supporters was proposed as a private member’s bill in that province. Although the bill failed, it demonstrates increasing hostility to BDS amongst government bodies in Canada. For instance, in February the Government of Canada passed a motion formally condemning BDS. And you may recall the political scuffle from May 2015 when it was rumored that then-Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was prepared to direct the Ministry to apply hate crime laws against groups promoting the BDS movement. These rumors prompted an onslaught of public pressure. While Minister Blaney unequivocally denied the rumors, calling them “inaccurate and ridiculous”, moves to ban BDS in Canada and elsewhere serve as a reminder that the freedom of boycott movements is not a foregone conclusion, and that ongoing efforts will be needed to preserve the space for consumers to act as moral agents.

2. Aussie Catholic orders, following Pope Francis’ lead, divest fully from fossil fuels

Four Australian Catholic orders will divest completely from fossil fuels. The decision has been interpreted as a response the papal encyclical on the environment that Pope Francis released in 2015, which called for “swift and unified action” to protect the environment and combat climate change.

The move accompanies an open letter from multi-faith religious leaders calling on the Government of Australia to protect the Great Barrier Reef and transition to a low carbon economy immediately. Faith organizations, notably the United Church, have been significant actors in the fossil-free movement; however, this recent announcement is unprecedented for the Catholic Church.

3. ‘Prudence’ in investment management should include managing climate-related risk, former SEC commissioner argues

Bevis Longstreth, a former commissioner of the SEC (the US securities regulator) has written a proposal that would potentially open the floodgates to further divestment from fossil fuel producing companies. Fossil fuel divestment is a movement in which asset holders pledge not to invest in companies which produce fossil fuels, or some variationon that general theme. The movement now encompasses at least $2.6 trillion in assets, following a fifty-fold increase in the three months leading up to the Paris climate summit.

Longstreth’s proposal discusses how the duty of prudence, which governs the investment of funds held by non-profit corporations and some other institutions in the US, should be exercised in light of climate change risks. This duty has become an obstacle for some organizations that wish to engage in socially responsible investment, which can be riskier and typically brings in a lower return on investment, but are bound by an obligation to preserve the endowment. The proposal argues for a legal reinterpretation of prudent management such that it takes into account climate-related risks.

4. Mark Carney praises Alberta’s climate change plan

Bank of England Governor Mark Carney praised Alberta’s climate change plan while in Edmonton to speak at a University of Alberta convocation ceremony. Mark Carney, also the former Governor of the Bank of Canada, has commanded attention recently by calling for greater attentiveness to the financial risks of the ‘carbon bubble’.

5. Campus divestment news: Cambridge, NYU will not go fossil free

Cambridge University will not divest its £5.9 billion endowment from fossil fuels, nor will NYU.

6. India’s mandatory corporate social responsibility law amended to include sports

The Indian Companies Act – a law passed in India in 2014 that requires companies to use two percent of profits for corporate social responsibility (CSR) activities – has been amended to allow the use of CSR funds for sports, including sports infrastructure.

7. Oxy boycott leads to layoffs

Oxy out”, a South Korean consumer boycott of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, prompted by lung damage deaths connected to the company’s humidifier disinfectants, has led to mass layoffs by the company. The company’s sales have dropped considerably since the boycott was announced.

8. Big data to end retail boycotts?

A recent article heralded Qloo for its potential to end the retail boycott. Qloo, which claims to have “mapped the [consumer] taste genome”, uses big data to analyze consumer preferences, which they can then use to shape business decisions. Specifically, Qloo can identify cultural sensitivities so that businesses are able to avoid issues that might potentially prompt consumer boycotts – for example, Target’s laudable transgender inclusive bathroom policy.  

Ethical Consumption in the News: May 12 to June 7

This installation of ethical consumption in the news features ten stories: (1) the Ontario legislature rejected a bill barring the Government from doing business with BDS-supporters; (2) the Gates Foundation dropped BP; (3) South Korea’s consumer boycott of Oxy gathers momentum; (4) the United Methodist Church has withdrawn from a BDS coalition; (5) a major U.S. pension fund will consider re-investing in tobacco firms; (6) Scottish mackerel gains the MSC label; (7) the European Commission has adopted a report on an EU eco-label; (8) Australian consumers are buycotting local milk; (9) Buzzfeed will not run Trump ads; and (10) Beyoncé’s new clothing line has drawn criticisms over labour conditions.

1. Meta-Boycott Bill Fails in Ontario

A private-member’s bill that would have barred the Government of Ontario from doing business with organizations participating in the controversial BDS movement (which boycotts Israeli companies for human rights reasons) was voted down in the Ontario legislature by a margin of 39-18 on March 19.

2. Gates Foundation Drops Investment in Major Oil Company, But Likely Not for Ethical Reasons

The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation, one of the world’s largest philanthropic foundations, has sold its $187 million USD stake British Petroleum (BP). The foundation had previously divested from ExxonMobil. It is unclear whether this move was made for ethical reasons, however: BP reported a record loss in February. Moreover, Bill Gates had stirred controversy in late 2015 by calling fossil fuel divestment a “false solution” to climate change (see my coverage of this issue here). As the Gates Foundation does not comment on its investments, it is possible only to speculate about the rationale for this change, but it seems most likely that this was primarily, if not exclusively, a financial calculation.

3. “Oxy Out” Expands Across South Korea

The consumer boycott of Oxy Reckitt Benckiser, begun due to a scandal involving lung damage deaths connected to the company’s humidifier disinfectants, has grown across South Korea: sales have decreased by 53% since the boycott began.

4. United Methodist Church Rejects HP Divestment, Withdraws from BDS coalition

The United Methodist Church considered, but ultimately rejected, divestment from the software company Hewlett-Packard (HP), as well as Caterpillar and Motorola Solutions. Church leaders at the General Conference in Portland discussed whether investment in HP goes against their religious beliefs, in light of the use of HP products by the Israeli Navy and at biometric checkpoints in the West Bank. The United Methodist Church’s pension board has previously divested from companies that are connected to arguably illegal Israeli settlements (for example, it divested from five Israeli banks in January). For a good overview of this issue, see here.

5. Rising Tobacco Profits Threaten to Undermine Previous Divestment Decisions

The largest pension fund in the U.S., California Public Employees’ Retirement System, will study whether to reinvest in tobacco stocks. As you may remember from previous weeks, this is connected to the rising profits of tobacco firms after over a decade of poor growth. On the other hand, Axa SA (France’s largest insurer) announced on 23 May that it will divest from tobacco companies for ethical reasons, despite the financial cost of doing so.

6. Scottish Mackerel Fishery Wins MSC Certification

On 11 May the Scottish North East Atlantic mackerel fishery was awarded MSC certification. This has meant that the U.K.-based Nor-Sea Foods can once again apply MSC labels to its chilled fish products, which are sold in Tesco chains.

7. EU to Consider Report on EU Fish Eco-label

Also in fish news, the European Commission has adopted a report proposing options for an EU eco-label scheme for fish and aquaculture products.

8. Australian Consumers Buycott Local Dairy Farmers

By eschewing imported milk in favour of more expensive local producers, Australian consumers hope to promote domestic dairy.

9. Buzzfeed Will Not Advertise Trump

Citing ethical concerns about Trump’s rhetoric, Buzzfeed cancelled a $1.3 million USD advertising deal with the GOP. The new media organization likened the decision to its policy not to run cigarette ads, noting that both are hazardous to society.

10. Female Empowerment? Beyoncé Selling Sweat Gear from Sweat Shops

Beyoncés new activewear clothing label, Ivy Park, has come under fire for failing to live up to its stated aim to “celebrate every woman and the body she’s in”. Like other producers in the fast fashion industry, Ivy Park uses suppliers that are situated in developing nations and which pay their workers low wages and provide poor working conditions. That the clothing is being marketed as a champion of women’s empowerment while being produced by Sri Lankan women making 69 cents per hour is, it has been pointed out, ironic. Ivy Park has denied wrongdoing, noting that it expects suppliers to meet its code of conduct. It is worth noting that labour concerns are a nearly ubiquitous problem in the fast fashion industry; it is very likely that the conditions of Ivy Park’s supplier are not below the norm, but they are nonetheless dismaying. 

Ethical Consumption in the News: April 25 - May 1

This week’s ethical consumption news featured seven notable stories: (1) Target is being targeted by boycotts and buycotts; (2) Earls announced that it will no longer use Alberta beef; (3) uOttawa (sort of) divested from fossil fuels; (4) the tobacco industry’s soaring profit poses a dilemma for pension funds; (5) Tesco escalated its sustainable seafood commitments; (6) Mitsubishi admitted to fudging mileage-requirement tests; and (7) South Korean consumers are boycotting Oxy.

1. Target targeted by boycotts and buycotts

Target recently announced a bathroom policy allowing transgendered people to choose bathrooms based on their individual gender identity. While, in this author’s opinion, the policy is most welcome – one might even remark that “it’s about damned time!” retailers offered the transgendered community this small modicum of dignity and respect – it did provoke backlash from some Americans, including a group called Faith Driven Consumer, who called for a boycott of the company. While the rancor of the religious right in America is hardly news, what is interesting about this particular boycott movement is that it has provoked two “buycotts” alongside it. Buycotts are basically anti-boycotts: rather than asking consumers to stop purchasing from a company in order to punish an undesirable practice, buycotts seek to convince consumers to buy more from a company to reward a desirable practice. In this case we have seen two buycotts emerge:

  • A Walmart buycott: supporters of the Target boycott have in some instances championed a buyott of rival Walmart. This underscores how buycotts can complement boycotts in advocacy strategy, through identifying an alternative for consumers that might wish to participate. (Although in this instance Walmart might have preferred not to be identified with an anti-LGBTQI movement.)
  • A Target buycott: LGBTQI rights proponents have responded to the Target boycott with a Target buycott, calling on consumers to support the company for its trans-inclusive stance. This demonstrates how buycotts can be used to compete with boycotts in advocacy strategy.

2. Earls ditches Alberta beef in favour of certified humane from the U.S.

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).

Bullish: get it? ... I'll let myself out.

Bullish: get it? ... I'll let myself out.

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.

3. U Ottawa takes a step toward reducing its environmental footprint

The University of Ottawa divested from fossil fuels on Monday – kind of. While the University will not divest from all firms involved in the production and sale of fossil fuels, it committed to reducing the environmental footprint of its investment portfolio by 30% by 2030 through ramping up its responsible investment efforts. Since 2009 uOttawa has endorsed responsible investment, having signed onto the UN’s Principles for Responsible Investment (PRI). It also plans to create a Clean Innovations Fund and to “transfer $10 million of its long-term portfolio to provide seed capital for investing in clean technologies.” In this sense, uOttawa has championed a green innovation approach to resolving climate change. Another such effort is the creation of a Clean Innovation Research Fund that will allocate up to $3 million by 2020 toward research, teaching, and graduate scholarships. uOttawa’s new policy is just one recent example of the broader “innovation-turn” in climate policy, the darling of which is Canada’s cleantech sector.

Also in campus fossil fuel divestment news this week:

  • Stanford’s Board of Trustees rejected divestment on Monday.
  • A high-profile Canadian university official told journalists that a senior executive at Shell had hinted that the company “is monitoring the university divestment movement closely and would look unfavorably on any university that divested in regard to future investment”. This offers a concrete example of concerns that may prompt universities, which are increasingly in need of corporate donations given a dearth of government funds, not to divest despite student and faculty demand.
  • Divestment activism has continued across universities in the U.S., Canada, te U.K., and Australia this week. For instance, Cambridge University’s divestment movement is ramping up: students held a “Zero Carbon” march on Saturday, with former archbishop of Canterbury Rowan Williams advocating in support of the movement.

4. Renewed profitability of tobacco industry poses a dilemma for mission-based investors

Madison Marriage raised an interesting question: global tobacco firm profitability is high, having rebounded from what was thought to be “terminal decline” fifteen years ago. Given this, should public pension funds invest in tobacco firms?

5. Tesco commits to up its fish sustainability game

The British supermarket chain Tesco made three new commitments to expand the sustainability of its seafood. Two of these commitments pertain to use of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) eco-label: Tesco will (1) expand MSC use for pre-packaged and frozen fish and (2) introduce MSC-certified fish to its fish counters across 656 locations. Finally, Tesco committed to (3) source all of its tuna sustainably (the company took strides to make its own-brand tuna sustainable beginning in 2012).

6. Mitsubishi has been fudging fuel economy tests in Japan for a quarter-century

Mitsubishi Motors admitted to having “used improper methods” to test the fuel economy of its vehicles for 25 years. Approximately 625 000 minicars produced in the past three years were marketed as being “as much as 10% more fuel efficient than they were”. However, the problem goes back to 1991 when the company began using “high-speed coasting tests” as the method for testing driving resistance; this practice is not compliant with Japanese regulations.

The admission has once again casts doubt on the auto industry, following the Volkswagen scandal that unfolded last autumn and that remains unresolved. Volkswagen still has not reached a deal with regulators on the required product recalls.  

7. Consumers in ROK boycott Oxy

A coalition of South Korean civic and consumer groups initiated a boycott of Oxy Reckett Benckiser following lung failure that is allegedly connected with the company’s humidifier disinfectants. 

Ethical Consumption in the News: April 18-24

This week featured five notable ethical consumption news stories: 175 states signed the Paris Agreement; Alberta released details on its carbon levy; a London mayoral candidate endorsed fossil fuel divestment; campuses are protesting in favor of fossil fuel divestment; and Dalhousie’s students’ union backed BDS. 

1. World Leaders Sign Paris Agreement at UN on Earth Day

On Friday government representatives of 175 countries signed the Paris Agreement, setting a new record for the most signatories to an international agreement. The Agreement will enter into force when countries representing at least 55% of total greenhouse gas emissions and 55% of the population ratify the agreement (passing a domestic law implementing the treaty). Canada plans to ratify the Paris Agreement this year, as does France, Mexico, and Australia.

2. Alberta to Set Carbon Price at $20/tonne in 2017

Alberta’s Climate Leadership Plan, which will launch at the beginning of 2017, is to include a carbon levy set at $20/tonne, rising to $30/tonne in 2018. The Government expects that the program will garner $9.6 billion in revenue, which it plans to reinvest in economic diversification and supports to households, SMEs, and vulnerable communities. The opposing Wildrose Party has characterized the carbon pricing scheme as a cash grab.

Also on Albertan climate policy, a report released on Earth Day by Greenpeace, the Alberta Green Economy Network, and Gridworks Energy Group estimates that the green economy will create 145 000 jobs in the province.

3. The ‘Carbon Bubble’ Prompts U.K. Conservative Mayoral Candidate to Back Fossil Fuel Divestment

Zac Goldsmith, Conservative candidate in London’s mayoral race, has said that, if elected, he will divest that city’s pension fund from oil, gas, and coal. Goldsmith plans to achieve fossil fuel divestment by appointing pro-divestment members to the fund’s board. Perhaps more interestingly, Goldsmith linked fossil fuel divestment to the risk of a ‘carbon bubble’ – a financial theory that has been advocated for recently by Bank of England Governor Mark Carney. The carbon bubble points to systemic risks posed by the ‘unburnable carbon’ thesis (the notion that some fossil fuels will by necessity be left in the ground), which implies that coal, gas, and oil assets are overvalued.

4. Agitations for Fossil Fuel Divestment on Campuses Resulting in Socially Responsible Investment Policies, Disappointing Some

Columbia University students organized a sleep-out to protest their University’s investment in fossil fuel companies. This follows a decision in November by the University’s Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing that rejected a proposal for fossil fuel divestment, instead recommending targeted divestment. The protests at Columbia are emblematic of unfolding socially responsible investment politics in which normative calls for divestment are responded to with less exclusionary policies that draw on a mix of normative and financial arguments. This is in part because member- and mission-based organizations have fiduciary duties that render normative divestment challenging. Steps along these lines have recently been taken at the University of Toronto and Boston University. Additionally, Yale University divested $10 million in coal and tar sands investments, arguing that such investments will not be profitable if carbon is priced effectively. Of course, other institutions like Syracuse University have divested more categorically from fossil fuel extracting companies. In June the University of Massachusetts may follow Syracuse’s example. Still others, such as Stanford University, have adopted exclusionary investment policies but against coal producers only.

Also in campus fossil fuel divestment, Australian university students held a “Flood the Campus” campaign, undertaking protest actions at several major universities there.

5. Dalhousie SU Backs BDS

Dalhousie’s student union has voted to divest from Israeli companies that they argue are complicit in human rights abuses. 

Ethical Consumption in the News: October 25-31

Throughout the final week of October six ethical consumption news items are noteworthy: the pro-Palestinian BDS movement was ruled hate speech in France; the legal battle continues over Vermont’s mandatory GMO labeling law; fossil fuel divestment advocates reacted to Bill Gates’ anti-divestment statement; specific fossil fuel divestment achievements were reached; efforts intensified to stop the haze caused by forest burning in Southeast Asia; and some U.S. police unions called for a boycott of Tarantino films. Read below for more on each of these stories.

1. Israel Boycotts Ruled Hate Speech in France

Early this week, a French court upheld a prior ruling in which a group of 12 pro-Palestinian activists were fined for urging participation in the BDS movement (boycotts, divestments and sanctions), which asks consumers and businesses to forgo products made in Israel, on human rights grounds. The activists were prosecuted under hate speech laws.

While the BDS movement is controversial, this ruling is cause for potential concern amongst boycott activists, as it associates boycott activities with discrimination. The ruling will have particular relevance for Canadians that may remember a similar controversy in May 2015, when it was rumored that Public Safety Minister Steven Blaney was prepared to direct the Ministry to apply hate crime laws against groups promoting the BDS movement. These rumors prompted an onslaught of public pressure. While Minister Blaney unequivocally denied the rumors, calling them “inaccurate and ridiculous”, the recent French court decision serves as a reminder that the freedom of boycott movements is not a foregone conclusion, and that ongoing efforts will be needed to preserve the space for consumers to act as moral agents.

2. GMO Woes: Legal Battle Over Vermont Law Continues

The Grocery Manufacturers Association (GMA) – a large trade association for food, beverages, and consumer products that represents more than 300 large companies from Coca-Cola and Pepsi to Kellogg, Nestlé, and Hershey – has continued its legal challenge to a Vermont law (the “Right to Know Act”) requiring the labeling of food and beverages with genetically modified organisms (GMOs), which is set to go into effect soon (labeling is required by July 2016). Currently, GMA is seeking to prevent Vermont from implementing the law until litigation has been resolved. A U.S. district court had previously ruled against GMA but the trade association appealed to the Second Circuit Court of Appeals. The Second Circuit case is called Grocery Manufacturers Association, et al. v. Sorrell (Case No. 15-1504). There has yet to be a ruling on this issue. Although it continues to oppose the law, GMA recently issued guidance for companies on how to comply with the law.

3. Kayakctivists Urge Bill Gates to Divest from Fossil Fuels

Bill Gates recently made waves when he stated that divestment was not a real solution to climate change. In a latest demonstration of displeasure with the statement, Seattle “Kayakctivists” this week urged the Gates Foundation to divest from oil and coal. It wouldn’t be the first large philanthropic foundation to do so – despite its history in big oil, the Rockefeller Foundation divested from fossil fuels a year ago.

Fossil fuel divestment proponents argue that it is an important step to reduce the profitability of fossil fuel companies, as well to reduce the extent of influence wielded by fossil fuel companies both because of the financial resources at their disposal and because investment in fossil fuels by public organizations give them a vested interest in the continuance of fossil fuel dependence. Bill Gates and others have criticized fossil fuel divestment, arguing that it is ineffective (for example, continually dropping coal stock prices have led some to speculate that the industry may be on its way out, irrespective of divestment efforts). You can read more about this debate in the Pullback article on fossil fuel divestment here.

A few notable figures have voiced support for fossil fuel divestment this week. Prince Charles leant his voice to the fossil free movement, calling for divestment and for decarbonisation of the global economy more broadly. This plea comes about one month before governments will meet in Paris for COP21 climate talks. Democratic presidential candidate Martin O’Malley has also said that he supports fossil fuel divestment on U.S. campuses.

4. Some Small Victories for Fossil Fuel Divestment

Newsworthy fossil fuel divestment efforts this week pertain to campuses, congregations, Australia, and the U.S. Department of Labor.

News on divestment efforts by universities is largely positive this week. The Concordia University Foundation board decided to divest $5 million USD from fossil fuels; recently, it has been announced that this money will be reinvested in the socially responsible investment firm Nelson Capital Management. Fossil fuel divestment demonstrations took place at NYU and University of Pennsylvania this week. Also in the U.S., the Student Assembly of the State University of New York passed a resolution calling for the university to divest from fossil fuels. Divest McGill presented the case for fossil fuel divestment at that university’s Committee to Advise on Matters of Social Responsibility. Meanwhile in the 6ix, Toronto held a rally at the University of Toronto to signal support for fossil fuel divestment ahead of recommendations by the Presidential Advisory Committee on Divestment from Fossil Fuels that are expected soon. Similarly, Boston University is waiting on recommendations from its Advisory Committee on Socially Responsible Investing.

Delegates from 114 Anglican congregations in the Ottawa area will vote this weekend on whether to follow in the United Church of Canada’s footsteps by divesting from fossil fuels.

Australia made strides in support of fossil fuel divestment this week. The City of Melbourne has barred its $38 million (Australian dollars) portfolio from investments in companies aligned with fossil fuels. Simultaneously, the National Tertiary Education Union became Australia’s first union to divest from fossil fuels. Another big Aussie divestment announcement came from the Australian Academy of Science, which will also go fossil free.

Finally, it will become easier for U.S. pension funds to divest. The U.S. Department of Labor has issued new interpretive guidance that will give pension funds greater space to make socially responsible investment decisions, for example through fossil fuel divestment.

5. Anti-Haze Efforts Continue to Target Firms

Calls for boycotts of forest-burning palm oil producers to end ongoing haze in Southeast Asia were recently accompanied by legal action when Singapore’s National Environment Agency began legal action under the Transboundary Haze Pollution Act against Singapore-listed company Asia Pulp and Paper Group (APP), as well as four other Indonesian forms. Similarly, several businesses in Singapore have refused to sell APP products.

6. Boycott Used as a Tactic by Police Union Rebuttal to U.S. Black Lives Matter Movement

Some police unions in the U.S. have called for boycotts of Tarantino films after the director said that some officers have murdered innocent civilians at a rally in Manhattan to protest police shootings. Supporters of the boycott are concerned that inflammatory rhetoric will put police officers at risk, while proponents of Tarantino’s comments insist that highlighting the endemic problem of police brutality, especially against African Americans, is essential to address the problem.  

Ethical Consumption in the News this Week: October 18-24

This week's ethical consumption news features five key stories: the U.S. passed a law increasing enforcement of IUU fishing; there were some wins and some losses for the fossil fuel divestment movement; advocates raised three core concerns about the TPP trade deal; a boycott was launched to deal with air pollution in Southeast Asia; and several companies turned against the SFI eco-label. For more on each of these stories, read below. 

1. U.S. Passes Legislation to Up Enforcement of Illegal Fishing

This week U.S. Congress passed the Illegal, Unreported, and Unregulated Fishing Enforcement Act of 2015, a law which will increase enforcement capabilities to combat illegal, unreported, and unregulated (IUU) fishing. (For more on IUU fishing click here). 

2. A Mixed Week for Fossil Fuel Divestment

If you are a fan of fossil fuel divestment, this was a mixed week. Warren Wilson College and Cambridgeshire joined the fossil-free divestment movement, while MIT rejected student-led demands to divest from fossil fuels and Cornell's board of trustees defended its refusal to divest from the fossil fuel and private prison industries. Students at the University of Virginia launched a divestment campaign, while the San Francisco Employees' Retirement System (a public pension fund) adopted a resolution in 2013 to divest, but has recently come under criticism for the sluggish pace of implementation. And proponents of divestment have defended the strategy in reaction to Bill Gates' claim that divestment is a "false solution" to climate change.

In a similar vein, the City of Berkeley rejected calls for divestment of Israel in a 5-2-1 vote. 

3. TPP: Milk from Hormone-Injected Cows to Enter Canada; Intellectual Property Provisions Stir Concern About Generic Drugs, Privacy

The Trans-Pacific Partnership (TPP) trade deal agreed to recently opened the doors for the sale of some liquid milk from the U.S. While the use of bovine growth hormone to boost milk production is not allowed in Canada, those American farmers seeking to export milk to Canada will not be bound be that rule. This highlights one of many indirect implications that free trade can have for consumption decisions. As another example, the TPP will set common rules for intellectual property amongst the 12 participating countries. Many, including Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), have raised concerns about the implications of the deal for access to essential medicines and data privacy. This article analyzes TPP in terms of how it will affect the sustainable development goals. 

4. Southeast Asia Haze Caused by Forest Burning Prompts Boycott of Palm Oil Producers

Consumers International (CI), a consumer watchdog, has urged a boycott of palm oil producing companies whose practices have contributed to the haze in Southeast Asia through the burning of forests. Air pollution from the hazy conditions pose a risk to public health. They are directing consumers to purchase Forest Stewardship Council (FSC) certified wood and paper products. 

5. SFI "Greenwash" Eco-Label Losing Support

Upwards of 27 prominent brands (including, for example, Xerox, Disney, US Airways, Energizer, and Hewlett-Packard) have declared that they will distance themselves from the Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI), a rival eco-label to the FSC based in North America which has been accused of lacking stringent standards and evaluation procedures -- and therefore being an instance of "greenwashing" wherein companies appear to look environmentally friendly without taking on meaningful commitments. Competition amongst eco-labels has hurt adoption of the FSC eco-label, widely seen to be the most stringent certification scheme for forest products. As such, this decision is likely to strengthen the credibility and scope of FSC. (A related article explained the difference between eco-labels and a newer practice called 'environmental product declarations'). 

Bill Gates: Fossil Fuel Divestment a False Solution; Humanity Should Innovate its Way Out of Climate Change

The Atlantic recently published an article interviewing Bill Gates, who is arguing for a dramatic increase in investment to innovate for fossil free energy. 

Bill Gates wants innovation to drive humanity's response to climate change through a big investment push for technological innovation to arrive at a carbon-free energy source. Specifically, Gates wants this push to begin with government-funded R&D, which would then be followed up by spin-off investment from private actors that can afford to take big risks. He called on the U.S. government to triple its budget for energy research to $18 billion USD annually. 

Gates notes that current levels of investment in clean energy are nowhere near where they need  to be in order to avoid the disastrous consequences of climate change. The reason for this, he argues, is that private sector R&D for clean energy is too low because, frankly, there is no fortune to be made by investing in fossil fuel innovation: "the incentive to invest is quite limited, because unlike digital products - where you get very rapid adoption and so, within the period that your trade secret stays secret or your patent gives you a 20-year exclusive, you can reap incredible returns - almost everything that's been invented in energy was invented more than 20 years before it got scaled usage." Gates acknowledges that the government doesn't always pick the right 'winners' but notes that it is no worse at this than the private sector: "How many companies do venture capitalists invest in that go poorly? By far most of them." 

Gates argues that strategies like divestment promote false solutions and are counterproductive -because the only viable way to go off fossil fuels is through a real alternative. Divestment campaigners have since reacted against the criticism. For example, Tim Ratcliffe at argued that divestment was a necessary step to weaken the political power of the fossil fuel industry, and as such was an important prerequisite to moving forward on climate action.


Canadian Seafood Increasingly Sustainable, According to Top International Eco-label's Annual Report

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. 

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.

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Norway Divests from Destructive Palm Oil Activities in Rainforests

Norway has announced that its sovereign wealth fund will add four large Asian companies to its list of excluded companies - companies in which it will not invest - for the damage that their palm oil activities cause to tropical rainforests. The country's sovereign wealth fund is the world's largest (worth around $1 trillion USD) and controls 1.3% of all stocks worldwide. It is managed by over 50 managers and invests primarily in Europe, North America, and Asia and Oceania. Specifically, the Norwegian sovereign wealth fund will no longer invest in Posco (produces steel), Daewoo International (a subsidiary of Posco), Genting (casinos and resorts), and IJM (construction, palm oil plantations, infrastructure, property development/management). 

This decision was made by Norges Bank (the Norwegian Central Bank) on the recommendation of the Council of Ethics (CoE), appointed by the Ministry of Finance. The Council of Ethics makes recommendations based on a set of Guidelines for Observation and Exclusion of Companies from the Government Pension Fund Global, which was adopted by the Ministry of Finance in 2014. The four companies above have been added to a list of over 50 other companies that are to be excluded from investment. Norway has also divested from companies for their involvement in: anti-personnel landmines, the production of cluster munitions, the production of nuclear arms, the production of tobacco, serious or systematic human rights violations, severe environmental damages, violations of the rights of individuals in situations of war, and "other particularly serious violations of fundamental ethical norms". Notably, at least two Canadian extractive companies are on Norway's list of excluded companies: Potash Corporation of Saskatchewan (added 6 December 2011 for violations of "fundamental ethical norms") and Barrick Gold Corp. (added 30 November 2008 for severe environmental damages). 

This recent decision to divest is based on warnings issued by the CoE. Norway's sovereign wealth fund previously had almost $300 million USD in investments in these four companies. 

  • Posco and Daewoo: CoE warning issued over the conversion of tropical forest into palm oil plantations in West Papua, Indonesia. Posco has a controlling interest (over 60%) in Daewoo and Daewoo, in turn, owns 85% of the Indonesian plantation company, PT BIA, that is converting rainforest to palm oil plantations. Plantation development began in 2012 and is expected to be finalized in 2018. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund owned 0.9% of Posco (worth $198 million USD at the end of 2014) and 0.3% of Daewoo ($9 million USD).
  • Genting: CoE warning issued for the development of palm oil plantations in Indonesia. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund owned 0.4% of Genting ($41 million USD).
  • IJM: CoE warning issued regarding the development of palm oil plantations in Indonesia by IJM's subsidiary, IJM Plantations. The Norwegian sovereign wealth fund owned 1.6% of IJM ($46 million USD).

UN Human Rights Committee Calls on Canada to Better Regulate its Companies Abroad

In July 2015 the UN Human Rights Committee called on Canada to better regulate the conduct of our companies abroad. Canada's corporate social responsibility strategy for the extractives industry (Doing Business the Canadian Way) emphasizes capacity building and industry support. Some argue that Canada has to do a better job of monitoring the conduct of its companies abroad in order to uphold its international obligations as signatories to the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights. Canadian extractives companies have been the subject of serious allegations of complicity in grave human rights abuses.