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 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. 

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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