In a 2015 PLOS One paper, the concept of ‘keystone actors’ was introduced within the seafood industry. Inspired by the ‘keystone species’ term in ecology, Österblom et al. use the concept to illustrate that the largest companies in a given industry can operate similarly to keystone species in ecological communities. This means that they can have a disproportionate effect on the structure and function of the system in which they operate. The researchers ascribed the following characteristics to those keystone actors:

  1. They dominate global production revenues and volumes within a particular sector;
  2. They control globally relevant segments of production;
  3. They connect ecosystems globally through subsidiaries;
  4. They influence global governance processes and institutions.

Building on the supposition that through engagement with keystone actors it is simultaneously possible to raise the bar for global companies that have significant influence within their industries, as well as provide incentives for smaller companies to catch up with their peers, the Seafood Business for Ocean Stewardship (SeaBOS) initiative was founded. This initiative is an ambitious effort that aims to contribute to SDG 14 (conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources) and provides a platform for some of the world’s largest seafood businesses to come together to chart a new course for their sector.

There is a strong case for focusing on these keystone actors within specific industries for the corporate SDG benchmarks that the WBA intends to develop. These companies are often at the forefront of developments and investments within their sector and set a model for other firms to follow. Most of these large companies work with thousands of business partners throughout their value chains. By setting sustainability standards, creating incentives, and providing support, these keystone actors have substantial leveraged impact in driving the transition towards more sustainable, responsible and inclusive value chains. The important role of these keystone actors in shaping industries and value chains means they can make significant, actionable and unique contributions to achieving particular SDGs and corresponding targets.

Jessica Spijkers

PhD Candidate, Stockholm Resilience Centre

Robert Blasiak

Postdoctoral Researcher, Stockholm Resilience Centre