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Going Green: Talking points

Sustainability should be discussed with consumers - just don't use the 'S' word

By Lisa Duchene
December 01, 2009

Chris Lane will tell you exactly what Xanterra has accomplished around its sustainable seafood goals - and where it's falling short.

Lane, VP of environmental affairs for the Denver restaurant operator, would like Xanterra to extend its ban on red-list fish to include wild shrimp.

"We are not there yet with our research and we are not there yet with regard to the internal economic implications and potential mitigation required to move on this issue," says Lane. "People want their shrimp cocktails."

Xanterra has 65 restaurants at resorts such as Silverado Resort in Napa Valley, Calif., and national and state parks such as Mount Rushmore. The company has worked on sustainable seafood purchasing for 10 years, and follows advice from the Monterey Bay Aquarium. Company-wide, Xanterra promotes wild Alaska salmon and bans its chefs from serving shark, bluefin tuna, Atlantic swordfish, Chilean sea bass or farmed salmon. The rest of the species selection is at the chef's discretion.

Xanterra explains this policy to customers via its menu, an annual environmental responsibility report and posters at its restaurants.

Whatever decisions your company makes around the environmental responsibility of its seafood supply, talk to your customers about your effort.

"We strongly encourage people to talk about [sustainability]," says Laurie Demeritt, president and COO of The Hartman Group, a Bellevue, Wash., environmental products consulting firm.

Don't wait to be perfectly squeaky green before sharing the information, she says. The Hartman Group's studies indicate 80 percent of consumers take sustainability claims at face value, leaving a small percentage who challenge companies.

Consumers see their own reach toward environmental responsibility as a journey and want to purchase products from companies on the same journey, says Demeritt.

"They want to see that same change in values and beliefs that they're going through from the companies they purchase from," she says.

What's the best way to talk to consumers about sustainability?

For one, don't use the "S" word, advises Demeritt, as consumers have trouble connecting with it. Better words are "responsibility," "community," "local" and "caring for the family." Convey how a sustainable-seafood product directly benefits a consumer, whether that's better flavor, quality, health or value - those attributes trump environmental responsibility.

"Food still has to be fun and indulgent and about love and if you get too serious, it's not going to resonate with mainstream people," she says.

Xanterra's menus use the Marine Stewardship Council logo, and an in-house logo that is a green planet set with leaves that evokes an image of an apple and key words to an indicate an environmentally responsible choice. "Fresh, wild and certified" describes an Alaska salmon menu item. Hartman's consumer research indicates 40 percent of consumers view sustainability certification as important and prefer a non-profit certifier over a government body or the company making the claim. The MSC logo resonates with about 15 to 20 percent of U.S. 
consumers, according to the Hartman research.

Most folks, says Xanterra's Lane, aren't thinking sustainable-seafood when they sit down at a restaurant.

"Joe Six-Pack and Joe Plumber do not know what Monterey Bay is," he says. "But all of California does and that's a lot of people."

Andronico's eight specialty supermarkets in San Francisco are a stone's throw from Monterey Bay. Half of its stores are in Berkeley, a hot-bed of conversation and activism over the environmental impact of conventional food.

"These customers are tough," says Reid Pomerantz, the store's director of meat and seafood operations. "They know what they're talking about. They're as conscientious as any consumers you're going to find anywhere."

Andronico's seafood departments use the aquarium's Seafood Watch color systems on seafood product labels. For the past few years Andronico's has contracted with Santa Cruz-based group FishWise for help sourcing, labeling and training and uses its logo on signage. Andronico's also explains the program with POS brochures, Seafood Watch wallet cards and places the FishWise logo and Monterey Bay colors alongside seafood products featured in its weekly ads.

All that signage prompts customers to ask questions.

"You can do everything I've done," Pomerantz says. "You can have the pretty colored signs, have the POS materials for them to digest. You can hang up whatever you want to. When it comes down to it, it's how the people in the department interact with the customers and educate them."

The counter staff explains that Andronico's has partnered with an environmental group to ensure it's proactive and responsible and believes the all-encompassing program goes farther than any other local seafood merchant, says Pomerantz. "We have to keep it simple. We're not scientists."

Andronico's also - quite wisely, according to Demeritt - puts itself in the same boat as its customers. "We try to strike up a conversation that can lead to a position of us being as concerned as they are," says Pomerantz.

The biggest mistake when it comes to talking to consumers about sustainable seafood is 
to "greenwash."

"Whatever you're claiming," says Demeritt, "you have to be absolutely doing and it must have teeth behind it."

FishWise audits Andronico's seafood departments quarterly and sends Pomerantz a report from each store.

Xanterra reports data - like 15.7 percent of all its food purchases in 2008 were "sustainable cuisine" - in its annual sustainability report.

"If anyone challenges me I'll give them the data," says Lane. "I can tell you exactly how green we are."


Contributing Editor Lisa Duchene lives in Bellefonte, Pa.


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