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Marketing Forum - NGOs move sustainability fight closer to consumers

Pat Shanahan
Pat Shanahan
December 01, 2005


A significant shift in the global sustainable-seafood movement should cause seafood retailers and foodservice operators in the United States to sit up and take notice. Greenpeace has taken the largest retailers in the United Kingdom to task over sourcing seafood from what the environmental group considers unsustainable sources.

The Marine Conservation Society, another U.K. environmental group, recently launched a similar program focused on retailers.

These groups chose to target retailers because the large majority of consumer seafood sales in the U.K. are at the largest retail stores. The Greenpeace campaign rates each retailer on sustainable-seafood-sourcing policies, support for sustainability initiatives, labeling and promotion of sustainable seafood and selling fish species harvested by methods deemed destructive by the Marine Conservation Society, such as bottom trawling. Only Marks & Spencer and Waitrose received high marks for their sustainability programs. All other retailers scored quite low, with Wal-Mart subsidiary ASDA singled out for having the worst sustainable-seafood program.

There are many problems with the Greenpeace campaign. The first is that it creates yet another list recommending good and bad seafood choices for the consumer. There is already a confusing number of similar lists from different environmental groups, and Greenpeace’s advice on choosing which fish to eat requires that the consumer know the species, catch method and harvest location of each fish — information that isn’t always readily available. Greenpeace also refuses to support the Marine Stewardship Council’s very rigorous third-party, independent certification program — now the global standard in certifying sustainable fisheries.

Digging deeper into the Greenpeace campaign, you get a clearer picture of the primary motivation — that we all should protect the oceans by eating less fish. If the group can confuse the consumer enough, that is exactly what will happen.

What is most interesting about this campaign is that it has shifted the focus from bashing seafood harvesters and processors and moved down the distribution chain to attack retailers. The U.S. seafood industry in general, and U.S. retailers and foodservice operators in particular, should be watching how this all plays out. Moving the fight closer to the consumer and to companies with which consumers have daily contact is a strategy that is here to stay.

A review of major U.S. retailers’ Web sites reveals that sustainable seafood is not high on their list of worthwhile causes. However, chains emphasizing natural foods, like Whole Foods Market and Wild Oats, have clearly articulated policies and practices on sustainable seafood.

It is true that most U.S. consumers are not as concerned about sustainability as our friends in the U.K., so up until now it has been easy to ignore this issue. However, we have our own environmental groups, each with a different list advising which seafood to buy and making seafood one of the most complicated shopping choices for consumers today.

Sustainability programs cannot be built overnight, but if you believe, as I do, that sustainable seafood is a growing trend, the time to start is now. Consumers want nothing more than to trust their retailer or restaurant to make a wise sourcing choice for them.

 December 2005 - SeaFood Business 

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