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Confusion campaign

Retailers gauge effectiveness of Greenpeace's sustainable seafood crusade

By John Snyder
October 01, 2009

Well known for its environmental activism, Greenpeace is often regarded as a somewhat radical group. Its strategies and tactics in dealing with environmental issues internationally have often been seen as being polarizing and divisive, raising the question of whether the activist group has established any positive changes.

The third release earlier this year of Greenpeace USA's controversial report, "Carting Away the Oceans: How Grocery Stores are Emptying the Seas," has been met with mixed emotions by grocery retailers and other industry stakeholders. The report, which scored retailers on sustainable seafood sourcing, has been sharply criticized by the National Fisheries Institute and other industry groups for relying on an incomplete analysis of the National Marine Fisheries Service's stock assessment surveys, especially where Alaska pollock and other red-list species are concerned. But the jury is out as to whether the Greenpeace reports have changed the way large retail chains procure and market seafood.

While most Greenpeace campaigns worldwide seem geared toward garnering mainstream media attention and ultimately to sway consumer perceptions, the "Carting Away The Oceans" campaign is not, according to John Hocevar, oceans campaign director for Greenpeace USA.

"There are fewer retailers than consumers, so our focus is on the retailers selling the product," says Hocevar, who is careful to say that Greenpeace is contributing to raising awareness of overfishing and sustainability among supermarket chains.

When the first report was published in June 2008, all 20 retail chains reviewed failed Greenpeace's criteria. By the second report in December 2008 there was improvement, and by the third report this July, 50 percent of all retailers had improved their practices and their scores, with four earning passing grades.

"Especially in the early phases of our work with retailers, our emphasis has been on urging them to drop the least sustainable items," says Hocevar. 

Many retailers have stopped selling orange roughy over the last 18 months, such as Wal-Mart, Safeway, Whole Foods Market, Ahold and Wegmans. Other seafood species that retailers have dropped for sustainability reasons include Chilean sea bass, shark and Atlantic halibut, among others. 

SDLq Looking ahead, we have also been pressing retailers to adopt (or, in some cases, improve) sourcing policies that include comprehensive sustainability standards. Several retailers are working on policies now, and our hope is that these will serve as useful guidance 
for companies seeking to ensure that their seafood lines become - and remain - sustainable," says Hocevar. 

Ned Daly, North American director of Seafood Choices Alliance (SCA), a group that facilitates dialog between stakeholders and ocean conservation organizations, says Greenpeace has motivated retailers to change purchasing habits.

"The industry has taken notice [of Greenpeace's reports]," says Daly. "The problem is tricky here because the industry recognizes that changes [regarding sustainability] are needed and they are trying to implement them."

The SCA is working to bring NGOs and the industry to the table through alliances with groups like the Food Marketing Institute's (FMI) seafood working group. Daly adds that seafood suppliers and buyers are becoming more proactive on sustainability. The FMI seafood working group can help the industry develop workable plans that will not only further the goal of having sustainable fisheries and encourage best practices, but also educate consumers, says Daly.

"With the Greenpeace report and the retail scorecard the industry knows that it is on record and needs to respond to sustainability issues, but things were in the works with FMI even before the first Greenpeace report came out," says Daly. "Raising awareness of sustainability issues is very broad; the industry knows that it needs to be on the radar. But there is a need to do much more, not just through the NGOs but also through food legislation."

The National Fisheries Institute also recognizes the importance of sustainability issues, and like FMI sees the need to be proactive.

"Raising consciousness about sustainable seafood is important," says Gavin Gibbons, spokesman for NFI.

But Gibbons is critical of the Greenpeace report and challenges its science, guidelines and the group's tactics, which he describes as "bullying and not constructive." Among other things, he accuses the group of "moving the goal posts" when determining sustainability criteria. For example, an NFI communication to its members last month mentioned that as part of a fundraising campaign last year, Greenpeace announced Alaska pollock stocks had collapsed, which was untrue and publicly refuted by government scientists.

Aside from the misinformation campaigns, Gibbons says Greenpeace threatens stores with public ridicule, vandalizes property and does not behave responsibly. The Greenpeace report "has had no effect" on consumers or the retail industry, he adds.


Continuous retail improvement

Greenpeace's Hocevar maintains the report and affiliated red list have received mixed reviews. Some of the progress he sees occurs just before the reports are released, suggesting that some retailers find the reports to be motivating and/or useful avenues to help publicize their initiatives.

Greenpeace's scoring criteria, which includes more than just fishery statistics, has come under criticism from NFI and others. In response, Hocevar says that all the groups involved are working with the same scientific data, "…but the question is what does sustainability really mean? It's not simple; there are lots of other factors and environmental consequences.

"Greenpeace works with groups like the Monterey Bay Aquarium on a number of issues, and agrees with the vast majority of their seafood recommendations. When our recommendations are not in line, it is due to differences in criteria and emphasis rather than data," he says.

There is still considerable improvement happening among what Hocevar considers the better-performing supermarkets. He cites Whole Foods, in particular, as likely to improve its score once the retailer finishes working on wild seafood standards.

"I'm also expecting big things from Target in the near future," says Hocevar. "One of the biggest wild cards is probably the FMI's seafood working group. They have the right people in the room, and are discussing the right issues, so there's some real potential there. Ultimately, it will partly come down to a question of whether or not the best practices and sustainability approaches they identify will actually be adopted by the member companies. And as with any group like that, there's always the danger that the laggards will be allowed to water down the group's commitments."

Of the supermarkets on the Greenpeace list, only Wegmans Markets (scoring No. 1) and SuperValu (scoring No. 13) would directly comment on the report.

Wegmans spokesperson Jeanne Colleluori says that when "Carting Away the Oceans" first came out, only a handful of customers asked about it. But she says that Wegmans had sustainability on its mind even before the reports and scorecards were published. Wegmans has launched a strict farmed shrimp purchasing policy and regularly updates its own list of seafood species its buyers are not permitted to source. And Colleluori says that the 
 FMI seafood working group's 
process in dealing with sustainability issues had helped retailers focus. She adds that Wegmans' 
dealings with Greenpeace have 
been amicable.

Susie Bell, corporate public affairs manager for SuperValu, a major grocery retailer with more than 2,500 stores nationwide, says that the company's goal is to provide customers with the widest variety and freshest selection of products possible. While she would not comment on the Greenpeace report directly, she says that seafood sustainability is an important issue and that SuperValu would "…continue to monitor and ensure compliance of the vendor community with government regulations, support programs that are adopted as industry standards and stay attuned to new technologies that support the seafood industry."

Retailers are less than forthcoming when it comes to discussing sustainable seafood on the record. However, it is clear that everyone is thinking about sustainability regardless of the Greenpeace report.

"The chains are all interested in supplying seafood from sustainable fisheries," says one East Coast importer/distributor who requested anonymity. "It's not just a response to the Greenpeace report. As consumers become more educated on sustainability issues and shop more conscientiously they will drive the market - retailers will respond by educating their customers and offering responsible and hopefully profitable options."

Jennifer Levin, sustainable 
seafood program manager for the Gulf of Maine Research Institute (GMRI) in Portland, Maine, helped Hannaford Bros. Co. develop its sustainable seafood strategy. Despite the fact that the East Coast supermarket chain scored an 8, a failing grade according to Greenpeace criteria, the chain's work with GMRI is a step in the right direction.

"From our observations here in the Northeast, retailers clearly 
understand the importance of sustainable seafood, and they are taking proactive steps to source responsibly and to achieve full traceability of seafood products. The collective efforts of NGOs around the globe over the past decade are to be credited for this consciousness," Levin says. "They have worked diligently to raise awareness of marine resource issues among consumers and the seafood industry."


Consumer appeal

Consumers, most of whom have never even heard of the Greenpeace report, are also thinking about seafood sustainability.

"Consumers have become increasingly astute regarding the social and environmental impacts of their food, due largely to this collective effort of conservation organizations. The resulting increase in consumer inquiries regarding sourcing has been a big motivator to retailers," says Levin. "Early leaders like Whole Foods and Wegmans adopted sustainability practices while Wal-Mart's commitment to Marine Stewardship Council-certified fish was the likely tipping point for this healthy competition."

Most consumer-related messages about seafood sustainability come from the mainstream media. New York Times food columnist Mark Bittman, once a vocal supporter of fish consumption and author of the 1994 cookbook "Fish: The Complete Guide to Buying and Cooking," has recently sworn off most fish because he claims it's unsustainable, and advises his readers to do the same.

"Well, some of my readers care [about sustainability] and they're vocal. Some complain whenever I write about anything that's theoretically endangered. Some, on the other hand, complain because, 'You've told me I can't eat cod and I miss it.' I tell them they can eat cod, but maybe McDonald's shouldn't be buying it by the megaton," says Bittman. "Anyway, I doubt any of this is the direct result of the Greenpeace report but on the cumulative evidence of the reality of overfishing. Even if reports of declining populations were untrue that's not what people believe."

While the seafood guides and affiliated red-lists of species to avoid were developed to simplify complex information for consumers, some maintain this is not the ultimate solution to sustainable seafood stocks. Daly, of the Seafood Choices Alliance, stresses the need for the industry to encourage involvement in "best practices."

"Simply saying that all salmon farming is 'unsustainable' is simply untrue. The retail industry needs to differentiate itself in the marketplace," says Daly. "Rather than just ask people to avoid certain species, ask how to improve the situation. A simple red or green listing does not help you decide what to buy and simply avoiding a species without knowing all the facts does not always solve the problem."

However the impact of the Greenpeace report is measured, one thing is for certain - sustainability is one of the new purchasing criteria for retailers. It will only be through education and constructive dialog between buyers and other stakeholders that realistic and effective seafood sustainability strategies are put in place. Overall, seafood retailers recognize that their long-term viability is directly linked to the health of the world's fisheries.


John Snyder is a writer and photographer in Fryeburg, Maine


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