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).

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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