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Netflix’s newest documentary Seaspiracy is all over social media and the news. You may have already watched it, or maybe it’s in your queue for this weekend. The movie looks at wide ranging environmental and social impacts of the seafood industry – it’s hard to watch and there’s a lot to unpack. Some are saying they went too far. But for now, let’s look at one topic with which I have direct experience: ESG claims and assurance systems.

The film’s producer interviews Mark Palmer, Associate Director USA for the Earth Island Institute’s International Marine Mammal Project (IMMP), which operates the “Dolphin Safe Tuna” label program. The “Dolphin Safe” mark is used on canned tuna to indicate dolphins were not killed as bi-catch during tuna fishing.  The interview as presented in the film can be summed up in this exchange:

Producer: You [Dolphin Safe] have observers, but they are rarely there [on the fishing vessels], and they can be bribed and so you can’t guarantee that dolphin safe tuna is dolphin safe.

Palmer: That’s certainly true in terms of how the system works.

Producer: But it’s not guaranteed to be dolphin safe.

Palmer: Nothing can guarantee it’s dolphin safe.

Producer: But if it’s not guaranteed to be dolphin safe, why is it called dolphin safe?

Palmer:  We can pretty well guarantee it’s dolphin safe… it’s not guaranteed in the same way that, uh.. the world is a difficult place sometimes.

To be fair, in the “they’ve gone too far” camp, the IMMP has issued a statement expressing concern about how the film presents the interview.

In the bigger picture, though, there’s some merit to examining these programs – and the “Dolphin Safe” folks certainly aren’t the first responsible sourcing assurance mechanism to be on the hot seat. Another high-profile example is the London Bullion Marketers Association (LBMA) – and their “Good Delivery List” that’s intended to incentivize responsible gold production. Recent developments include NGOs claiming systemic flaws and a major assurance provider acknowledging shortcomings in managing conflict of interest. Many other metals and the mining industry have their own – but very similar – responsible sourcing due diligence mechanisms (the proliferation of these systems is a topic for another day).  Responsible timber due diligence assurance uses the same basic construct, so these issues may not be limited to gold due diligence assurance programs.

Encouragingly, these mechanisms aren’t deaf to the feedback. They are aware of improvements needed and are working to implement changes – but it takes time to develop, field test and launch solutions.

One takeaway for companies who rely on some of these programs is that major investors and financial institutions will soon be looking over your shoulder too. Jamie Dimon, CEO of JPMorganChase, stated in his 66-page Letter to Shareholders (2020):

… we will measure our clients’ carbon performance against sector-based GHG reduction targets that we’re setting for 2030 – with the goal of helping the reduce emissions from their direct operations and, in the case of oil and gas and automotive companies, reduce GHG from the use of their products.

What does this all mean? Basically, it’s reinforcement of companies’ misgivings around ESG assurance and certifications. They don’t offer the impenetrable protection of Captain America’s shield, and you can embrace that and add checks & balances. You never know when the next “Seaspiracy” will attract stakeholder attention – and investors are already developing their own systems to track, verify and question fundamental ESG information.

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The Editor

Lawrence Heim has been practicing in the field of ESG management for almost 40 years. He began his career as a legal assistant in the Environmental Practice of Vinson & Elkins working for a partner who is nationally recognized and an adjunct professor of environmental law at the University of Texas Law School. He moved into technical environmental consulting with ENSR Consulting & Engineering at the height of environmental regulatory development, working across a range of disciplines. He was one… View Profile