MSC targeting increased presence in southern Europe, where seafood consumption high, says Guichoux

MSC targeting increased presence in southern Europe, where seafood consumption high, says Guichoux

The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has celebrated its 20th anniversary by unveiling a new strategy and setting bold targets up to 2030. Nicolas Guichoux, the seafood certification body's global commercial director, spoke with Ben Cooper about the MSC's plans for the future.

As one of the first ecolabels and certification bodies to appear in the food arena, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) has been a prominent actor in the drive towards greater sustainability during the past 20 years. The question for the MSC, as for so many other organisations with similar missions, is how can it continue to play a pivotal role in an environment no less challenging than two decades ago.

That is something the organisation has sought to address by marking its 20th anniversary with the launch of a strategy that aims to increase the share of the global marine catch either certified or engaged in the MSC programme from its current 14% to 20% by 2020 and to more than a third by 2030.

One of the organisation's strategic priorities is to boost public awareness of the MSC mark and its work. While the MSC was always "a B2C [business-to-consumer] programme", global commercial director Nicolas Guichoux explains, "for the first 20 years we were mainly concentrating our market outreach on decision-makers, so the buyers, not the consumers." However, as part of the new strategy, the MSC will, Guichoux says, be "much more focused on raising awareness with consumers".

In the organisation's core northern European markets, which include Germany, the Netherlands, the UK, Sweden and Switzerland, recognition of the MSC label is fairly high. Its most recent consumer survey revealed awareness was highest in Switzerland, where some 71% of consumers said they had seen the MSC mark often or occasionally. Recognition stood at 61% in Germany and 40% in the UK.

However, a central aim is not only to broaden consumer awareness but deepen public understanding of its work. "What we realise is even where the label is seen often, the understanding of what it means is quite low so now we've developed a strategy to create much more connection with consumers," Guichoux continues.

The emphasis will be on shared activities with commercial partners, including retailers, restaurant chains and food brands, while social media will also be central to the MSC's upgraded consumer communications push. "We are not Unilever or Procter & Gamble so we can't invest millions and millions in marketing campaigns. We have to be smart," Guichoux says. 

As part of this consumer education work, the MSC intends to do more "storytelling", giving consumers an insight into the work of fishing communities in the fisheries the MSC seeks to protect, and will also engage celebrities as MSC ambassadors. "The general public tend to connect much better with people than with just fish," Guichoux observes.

Guichoux says the organisation also wants to raise its profile in sustainability debates. "We want to be much more present in debates on sustainability. So far, we kept this role as a standard-setter and we were merely addressing questions about the standard but now we want to be a much more proactive actor in the sustainability debate, to explain how MSC sees the development of sustainable management within fisheries and how we can play a much bigger role than we have done so far."

The MSC also has clear aims for market expansion. Having established a relatively strong presence in northern Europe, the organisation is now setting its sights on increasing its presence in southern Europe, which offers holds both high potential rewards and a stern challenge, Guichoux explains. "In terms of strategic focus, we are going to do much more work in south Europe, which is less receptive on environmental issues but much more important in terms of seafood consumption," he tells just-food.

Across its core northern European market, the MSC may boast shares of the wild seafood catch between 15% to 50%, Guichoux explains, but in Italy, France and Spain its share is lower than 3%. However, France, Italy, Spain and Portugal combined account for 50% of total EU seafood consumption. The MSC is also looking to boost its presence on wet fish counters, which Guichoux says will support its push into southern Europe and also bolster its efforts to expand in China, Japan and South Korea.

Meanwhile, the MSC will also look to expand the number of fisheries it covers, with a particular focus on increasing its presence in the southern hemisphere. Guichoux points out its 2020 and 2030 targets specifically seek to increase the percentage of fisheries certified "or engaged" in the MSC programme. The strategy for the southern hemisphere, in particular, is to create tools and a framework for fisheries to progress towards certification.

Outreach to existing and new commercial partners, a mainstay of the organisation since its joint foundation by WWF and Unilever, will continue. At present, the MSC obtains funding from philanthropic organisations but derives the lion's share of its income - some 73% - from the licensing of its logo to companies. According to Guichoux, commercial partners are also increasingly seeking to engage with the MSC and other stakeholders, such as governmental development agencies, in one-off projects related to specific fisheries, and the organisation hopes to continue to foster this form of targeted intervention as part of its broader mission.

As it seeks to expand, the MSC faces a similar challenge to other organisations seeking to implant higher sustainability standards into the mainstream food market. There will always be concern from some areas of the environmental campaign community that seeking greater capacity for the certified-sustainable share of the market might lead to a dilution of standards.

Guichoux believes the MSC's guarantee against this, as it seeks to realise its bold ambitions, lies in its governance structure which has equal representation from industry and NGOs, and its adherence from the outset to standards set out by the UN Food and Agriculture Organization. He also points to the MSC's full compliance with codes laid down by ISEAL, an independent organisation that aims to define best practice in sustainability standards.

Guichoux says the MSC's assiduous adherence to transparency and accountability has meant it has received less criticism than some other multi-stakeholder organisations, but believes some criticism is inevitable. "When you are a multi-stakeholder [organisation], you are in the middle. And often when you are in the middle, you will be criticised by some on both sides. Every side out there has its own agenda and is never fully satisfied."

He also agrees the very process of becoming more mainstream leads to greater scrutiny. "Now we are more and more successful and more recognised, those criticisms increase. I don't think we will ever please everybody, so it's about integrity, transparency, independence and rigour in the way our standard is interpreted by users." Guichoux also maintains nonetheless there is "a bigger and bigger consensus" around the MSC standards.

Underlining the point, the MSC was publicly criticised in January by a group of campaigning organisations, including the Animal Welfare Institute and Sharkproject Germany, over the issue of bycatch, with the groups suggesting MSC standards were not providing enough protection of non-target species. A fishery can be MSC-certified provided the sustainability of the bycaught species is itself not under threat. 

Guichoux acknowledges there would still be concern simply at the waste that discarded bycatch might represent and that this concern may grow as the food security issues generally increase. "If we need to evolve we will evolve but this will be in consultation with all stakeholders, not only one group. We welcome criticism and if our standard needs to evolve it will evolve."

In closing, he strikes a pragmatic note. "We have 12% of the global marine catch in the programme, mainly from northern hemisphere fisheries, but overfishing has tripled over the past 40 years. So the situation is getting much better in the northern hemisphere but it's getting worse in many other parts of the world."

An ideal "super standard", he continues, might cover a small percentage of the global catch but, he asks, "what would be the relevance of the MSC knowing that our mission is to transform the way fishing operates at a global level?"

The challenge of realising "transformational change" is a familiar one for certification bodies looking to take their work to greater scale. In common with some other bodies, does MSC also believe certification cannot be expected to provide all the answers?

"My response is simple," Guichoux concludes. "We are one tool in the tool box. I don't think there is one single solution to address the problem of overfishing. If policymakers were the only solution, you would not have seen overfishing tripling in the last 40 years. Because today who manages fisheries? It's mainly governments, policymakers. And we've seen this deterioration, even though there are many countries where it's improving. So, for me, the MSC is complementary to policymaking, is complementary to NGO campaigning. We are a different tool and we have different roles to play."