is catching

Antony Burgmans
describes how his company and a non-governmental organization together joined forces to promote sustainability

By the mid-1990s it was clear that fish was likely to become ever more important for health and nutrition – if only there were enough supplies. But it was also obvious that someone had to do something to conserve stocks if our frozen fish business at Unilever was to survive.

The statistics from the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations (FAO) vividly showed the depth of the crisis and they are little changed today: 48 per cent of fisheries are fully exploited, 16 per cent are overfished and 9 per cent depleted.

The decline in fish stocks is a major global problem involving a complex web of interests, including governments, fishing communities and business. We realized that despite our substantial presence in the market – as one of the world’s largest buyers of frozen fish – we could do little to address the situation on our own. We had to work with others to leverage change.

At the time I was Director, Frozen Food and Ice Cream, and one of my responsibilities was our frozen fish business. I and my colleagues were impressed with the work that the international conservation organization WWF had done to establish the now independent Forest Stewardship Council (FSC). The FSC sets standards for sustainable forestry and accredits organizations which verify that forests are managed according to FSC principles and criteria. The timber or wood products from those forests are permitted to bear the FSC’s label, which enables buyers to choose sustainable suppliers.

Forging partnerships
We began discussions with WWF to look at a similar idea for fish. Such partnerships with non-governmental organizations, now quite common, were rare at the time and we had no direct experience in the field. Our initial discussions with WWF confirmed that we had different motives, but a common purpose: the need to assure the long-term sustainability of global fish stocks and the marine ecosystem.

I realized early on that it was going to take time to get to know each other and to develop a shared approach and a definition of the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC). We needed a strong, trusting relationship jointly to tackle the challenges we faced – including the scepticism of our many critics within the fishing business and among our own colleagues who doubted both the sense and practicality of our ideas. Our conviction that we – in partnership – were doing absolutely the right thing was driven by the desperate need to address the fishing crisis. I must acknowledge the remarkable contribution made by Mike Sutton, who led the WWF team at the time, later passing the baton so effectively to Scott Burns.

After much hard work and argument, the drafting team eventually came up with the framework for the MSC, which would run a certification scheme for sustainable fisheries management. Fish in shops sourced from certified fisheries would be able to carry a logo on the pack, so that consumers could choose products from well-managed fisheries. In this way, the market would help encourage responsible fishing. It was clear that the MSC would need seed funding for some time, but the hope was that the income from licences would make it financially independent.

Turning vision into reality
We were very excited that we had achieved something significant when we signed the agreement that started the MSC. Of course we felt nervous and, as with all new ideas, there was still a huge amount of work to do to turn vision into reality. Unilever and WWF each contributed different strengths, knowledge and contacts to support the formation of the MSC.

The next big achievement was the global consultation process, involving discussions with environmental and marine experts, scientists, fishing industry and trade representatives, government officials and regulators, and many others connected with the marine environment. After eight workshops and two expert drafting sessions, the MSC adopted principles and criteria for sustainable fisheries. These are closely based on the Code of Responsible Fisheries developed by the FAO.

The most important milestone was reached in mid-1998 with the appointment of an international board of directors to run the MSC under the chairmanship of John Selwyn Gummer, who brought a wide range of interests and experience in selecting board members. From January 1999 the MSC has been a fully independent non-profit organization. It has evolved its structure and governance to fit the tasks and challenges it faces, while making progress with certifications.
The decline in fish stocks is a global problem involving a complex web of interests
The MSC opened for business as an international accreditation body in early 1999 and since then has been accrediting professional bodies to assess and certify fisheries around the world. Over 100 major seafood processors, traders and retailers from more than 20 countries have now pledged their support for the MSC programme. Over 40 fisheries, covering both the developed and the developing worlds, have either started or completed the certification process and by late 2002 there were more than 100 products bearing the MSC logo. Unilever and WWF now play the role of enthusiastic supporters, available to help with specific needs – such as training and communications support – when asked. Neither organization is involved in decision-making, but they have an advisory presence on the technical and stakeholder councils.

Increasing the range
In 2000 Unilever began selling the certified Alaskan salmon in Switzerland, in its Iglo-Filegro range, and it has since adapted several of its leading European frozen fish products under the Iglo and Birds Eye brands to use New Zealand hoki – the first white fish to be certified to the MSC standard.

An important factor in the MSC’s future success will be consumer recognition and awareness of its logo. On-pack information and other communication play a key role in explaining sustainable fishing and why it is important. The MSC has to work hard at getting awareness of its logo. Then it has to promote an appreciation that the fish products displaying it have been caught in a way that preserves supplies for the future and supports fishing communities. As brand owners, we know just how challenging this is.

Further action
There is still a long way to go before the future of our fish stocks is secured, and further action is needed now. This was recognized at last year’s World Summit on Sustainable Development in Johannesburg, where governments committed to restore depleted fish stocks, where possible, by 2015. I believe the MSC can make a huge contribution.

I am also very encouraged to see how many other food companies and retailers are increasingly enthusiastic about the MSC. It was a lonely road when we and WWF started but I am confident – and immensely proud – that we did the right thing. The fundamental premise on which it was founded is still correct. The challenge for us and others selling fish products is to bring sustainable fish to the shops and to provide easily-understood labelling and information so that consumers are well informed. We know, too, that the example of the MSC is vitally important to encourage the world’s fisheries to believe that a sustainable future is possible

Antony Burgmans is Chairman, Unilever N.V. and Vice-chairman, Unilever Plc.


This issue:
Contents | Editorial K. Toepfer | Looking through new lenses | Development with a human face | Trade can transform | Achieving win–win–win | People | Promises to keep | As precious as gold | Expanding the circle | At a glance: Globalization, poverty, trade and the environment | Acting local | Cooperation is catching | Books & products | Getting through the bottleneck | Investing in the environment | Bishkek Mountain Platform | You can’t breathe money | We will succeed | Fair trade? Fair question


Complementary articles in other issues:
Emma Bonino: Fishing forever (Food) 1996
John Prescott: Seven threats to the seven seas (Oceans) 1998
Bernard Martin: A fisherman's tale (Oceans) 1998
Cedric Schuster: Tradition matters (Oceans) 1998
Michael E. Huber: Deep waters, high stakes (Biological Diversity) 2000

AAAS Atlas of Population and Environment:
Population and natural resources: meat and fish