one green planet
one green planet

Each month, One Green Planet tracks legal developments that can improve (or, in some instances, threaten) the lives and well-being of animals. This month, we are highlighting two cases.  Unfortunately for Costco, it’s at the center of both.

1. Consumers Sue Costco Over “Dolphin-Safe” Tuna Marketing

In 2023, many people have heard of “greenwashing.”  It’s the idea that companies mislead consumers by promising to be sustainable, biodegradable, or environmentally conscious—when, in fact, the claims are largely a marketing ploy.  As the world starts to care more about animals, a similar concept, “humane washing,” is becoming more prevalent.  Companies market animal products to consumers, often at higher prices, by making claims about animal welfare.  The classic example is “cage-free eggs,” which mislead consumers every day into thinking they can purchase eggs without harming animals.

Recently, a class of consumers has sued Costco for humane washing its tuna fish products.  Costco claims that its tuna is sustainably sourced in a manner than does not harm or kill dolphins.  Among other representations, it has a unique “dolphin safe” logo on the product label and packaging.  But the consumers allege that these representations are false and deceptive because “the manufacturing of the products involves unsustainable fishing practices that are known to kill and harm dolphins and other marine life.”

Earlier this month, the Court denied Costco’s motion to dismiss the case.

Source: The Humane League/YouTube

Consumer lawsuits, like this case against Costco, are important legal tools for advancing animal rights.  If companies can lie to consumers about animal welfare, without repercussions, consumers will always feel validated in their decisions to eat animals.  They’ll be less inclined to switch to plant-based diets.  But if we hold companies accountable for their humane washing, consumers will have more truthful information to make ethical decisions.

Of course, lawsuits can’t eliminate all humane washing, and the “Dolphin-Safe” tuna case is a perfect example.  To succeed in suing Costco, consumers must demonstrate that Costco’s products, contrary to the company’s claims, are unsafe for dolphins.  But true or false, “dolphin safe” advertising diverts attention from the fact that Costco is killing millions of fish each year, all of which are sentient animals.  Even if Costco’s products are “dolphin safe,” they aren’t “tuna safe.”  Killing fish for human consumption will always be cruel, and ultimately, that’s what consumers need to understand.

2. Costco Shareholders File Complaint Over Cruelty to Chickens

The second lawsuit involving Costco takes on a very different—and less conventional—posture.   It’s called a shareholder derivative action, and its use in animal law is the brainchild of a new and exciting litigation nonprofit, Legal Impact for Chickens (LIC).

What is a shareholder derivative action?  It’s a lawsuit that allows shareholders of a corporation—as its owners—to bring a lawsuit on the corporation’s behalf.  Under normal circumstances, the executives who run a corporation decide whether to bring such a lawsuit.  But, when the executives can’t be trusted to represent the company’s interests—such as when they are the alleged wrongdoers—shareholders can intercede.  For example, shareholders can sue corporate executives for violating their duties to the corporation.

In this case, LIC alleges—on behalf of two Costco shareholders—that Costco’s executives have violated their duties to Costco.  Why?  Because the executives are deciding, on Costco’s behalf, to violate animal cruelty laws in Nebraska and Iowa.  As Alene Anello, LIC’s founder, explained on the Animal Law Podcast:

“[W]hat Costco is choosing to do, knowingly, is just breed [chickens] to be so big they can’t move, and then let them slowly die of dehydration. That, if you just read the statute, seems to be a clear violation of Iowa law.”

And when corporate executives violate the law on a corporation’s behalf, they also violate their duties to the corporation.

In bringing the action, LIC hopes to demonstrate that Costco’s practices violate animal cruelty laws—and ultimately force Costco to treat its animals more humanely.

Check in for monthly legal updates on OGP to learn how these, and other cases, can change the world for animals.  For previous Animal Law Updates on One Green Planet, be sure to read:

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