Empowering Women Consumers?
12 / 1997
Due to their continued responsibility for shopping, food production and service in the home, the MSC proposal appears to position women so that they could have an unprecedented impact on the fate of the world’s fishery resources, restructuring them in the direction of sustainability.
However, this may not be the case in practice. Women in different parts of the world consume different fish products, in different contexts, and they acquire these resources in different ways. One way to scrutinise the implications of the proposed MSC, then, is to examine its potential impacts on access to fish for consumption among these different groups of women.
It seems probable that women of the North (and South-east Asia)will be more likely to consume fish that is ecolabelled, given that ecolabelling will do nothing to reduce the cost of fish and might actually increase its cost-already a barrier for women of the South and poor women of the North.
This will happen also because women of the North, particularly urban, wealthy women, are more likely to consume processed fish purchased in large supermarkets, where packaging and labelling exist.
If, as has been suggested, ecolabelling actually promotes the export of fish products by fuelling consumer demand in a context of resource scarcity, women consumers in the North could unknowingly contribute to reduced food self-sufficiency and reduced economic power among women in the South as well as among women in fishery-dependent regions in the North. It has been argued that the MSC will put the market in the lead and "where the market leads, governments will likely follow." In the North, the emphasis on fish exports is being combined with the introduction of management initiatives like Individual Transferable Quotas. These
moves are drastically limiting the access of men, and particularly women, in fishery-dependent communities to those fish resources that remain.
Women and men need to carefully scrutinise this endorsement of the claim that "markets are replacing our democratic institutions as the key determinant in our society." While this may be happening, it is not something that we should necessarily support.
If the market is a democracy, it is a democracy in which some have more votes than others, and in which, although consumers can vote, they have little control over who or what they vote for. Poor women are particularly powerless, partly because they have few votes in the marketplace.
Vertically integrated food conglomerates are increasingly the primary consumers of fish products. These conglomerates actually have the most votes in the marketplace for fish products, given that the producers are often also the consumers.
If, in our proposals for sustainable fisheries, we do not include differences in voting power within the market and differences in control over products available for purchase, we could end up blaming stock collapses on consumers. The most probable target would be those increasing numbers of poor consumers, primarily women, whose purchases are dictated by low incomes and who, therefore, can not always afford to distinguish between fish products on the basis of ecolabelling.
This blame would be misplaced because it overstates the power of these women and also because it ignores the reality that the poor (both in the North and the South)consume relatively little protein compared to the rich, and the protein they consume is more likely to be a by-product of protein production for the wealthy than the primary source of demand. In a world where wild fish resources (like other natural resources)are limited, the problem is not just what fish we eat, but also how much we eat and in what form.
While the MSC initiative may be interpreted as one that allows women consumers to have a voice in the sustainable management of fisheries, it is unlikely that this will be the case. It is far more probable that, through the MSC, powerful vertically integrated conglomerates will be able to exert even greater control over both production and consumption of fish, and increase their profits in the bargain. Women consumers, especially poor women consumers of both the North and the South, may actually be marginalised in the process and their access to fish as food reduced, since ecolabelling may fuel the exports of fish and fish products destined for affluent markets, especially of the North. This may also lead to overfishing. There is a very real danger then that the MSC will marginalise small consumers and producers while, at the same time, doing nothing to improve the management of fishery resources.
Articles and files
NEIS, Barbara, Cut adrift in. Samudra Report, 1996/11, 16