« November 2009 Table of Contents
Buyer-NGO partnerships propel sustainable seafood
By James Wright
November 01, 2009
Because Boston is steeped in tradition and time-honored
estab-lishments, Phil Walsh believed that an affiliation with a
respected local institution would resonate with Stop & Shop
seafood customers across the region. In 1999, when Walsh was an
executive with Ahold USA, parent company of the supermarket
chain, he was conducting a third-party audit of all the
retailer's suppliers to determine if its seafood departments
were contributing to the global overfishing problem.
Hoping to promote this initiative, Walsh asked a New England
Aquarium (NEA) researcher to review the completed audits and
help the chain meet its sustainability goals. A partnership was
"Stop & Shop is iconic in New England. It has a market
share that's second to none; so does the aquarium. I thought it
would really impress our customers if they saw the aquarium
logo on the back [seafood department] wall," says Walsh, who's
now the director of business development with Alfa Gamma
Seafood Group of Miami. "We knew that none of our vendors were
raping the seas, but customers were hearing differently [about
Ahold USA's partnership with the New England Aquarium,
forged officially in 2000, remains intact today. At the
aquarium's request, the company made a commitment to change its
seafood-procurement practices over time with the guidance and
knowledge of its research staff, which has broad fishery
management and aquaculture expertise.
"They gave us valuable information we couldn't find
elsewhere," says Chuck Anderson, another former Ahold executive
who explains that it was important to convey to customers the
full story about a species like Atlantic cod, a fishery that
just several years prior had virtually collapsed. Telling the
"we're-doing-the-right-thing" tale would've sounded hollow
without a credible group like the aquar-ium to substantiate its
"[NEA was] the most business friendly at the time," adds
Anderson. "What we looked for early on was someone who wasn't
going to just tell us what to do. Buyers are independent and
objective information. Our job is to sell products and
satisfy customers. If we're saying 'no' to them all the time,
it's going against the grain."
Several buyer-NGO (non governmental organizations)
partnerships exist today as some of the nation's largest
retailers and restaurant companies lean on environmental groups
and their access to scientific data to guide their purchasing
decisions - even some suppliers have become peas in the same
pod. It's a union that the seafood industry might not have
believed possible as recently as the 1990s, when the
relationship between the two factions was much more
antagonistic. And it only works, say most parties involved,
with an all-in commitment that allows time for the necessary
changes to be made.
"We recognize they're running a business and we certainly
support that," says Heather Tausig, the aquarium's associate VP
of conservation who oversees its sustainable seafood
initiative. Its seafood partners also include supplier Gorton's
of Gloucester, Mass., and Darden Restaurants, parent
of Red Lobster, the world's biggest seafood restaurant company
based in Orlando, Fla. "We need partners that are successful at
what they do," she adds.
California's Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA), which publishes
the well-known Seafood Watch consumer seafood pocket guides,
and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF) are two of several
environmental groups taking a new tact with seafood companies -
active engagement instead of protest activism.
"Once these things start they snowball and pretty soon we're
going to see a situation in which the companies that don't
engage will be the laggards," says Michael Sutton, VP of the
MBA. "It's an exciting time."
Information and credibility are the two biggest reasons why
a seafood buyer or supplier would want to partner with an NGO,
says Sutton, who's been on the ground floor of the sustainable
seafood movement since he worked with the David and Lucille
Packard Foundation and WWF in the mid-1990s. In 1997,
London-based branded-goods company Unilever and WWF partnered
to form the Marine Stewardship Council, which for the last
decade has assessed and certified fisheries around the world as
sustainable and well managed.
"What [Unilever] wanted was the green publicity, but above
all to get rid of the business risks associated with
overfishing," says Sutton. The MBA, NEA, WWF and 11 other
groups last year formed the Conservation Alliance for Seafood
Solutions and released guidelines called the "Common Vision for
Environmentally Sustainable Seafood" to help more buyers join
the quest and develop sustainable purchasing policies.
"We're all working toward a common goal of abundant
fisheries, healthy ecosystems
and safe and healthy seafood,"
MBA's partners include foodservice companies Compass Group
and Aramark, which have committed to sourcing species
recommended by Seafood Watch (a wallet-size guide and iPhone
application) and avoiding
"We don't expect a big
company to change overnight, but
there are things they can do right away, like taking red-list
species off the shelves," says Sutton.
One company seeking to repair its image is Trader Joe's,
which operates 324 grocery stores across the United States.
Greenpeace has pummeled the Monrovia, Calif.-based retailer in
its "Carting Away the Oceans" rankings and its orange roughy
costume-wearing activists have protested outside its stores.
Greenpeace has flunked Trader Joe's all three times it has
issued its report cards, and even launched a Web site,
www.traitorjoe.com, to denounce the company's slow progress
toward sustainability and mock its claims of environmental
stewardship. The chain is now seeking the Monterey Bay
Aquarium's help that may result in a partnership, says
"They are serious about doing better with their choices,"
says Sutton. "It doesn't matter why they are seeking [our
advice]. Motivation is less important than what these companies
are prepared to do. Sometimes it just takes an electric
Sutton adds that seafood corporate responsibility programs
should deal with not only procurement, but also waste and
energy use. A full-blown partnership with the MBA, a free union
that can be pulled by the aquarium if it feels the commitment
isn't being fulfilled, says a lot about a company's direction,
"These companies shouldn't feel they have to negotiate this
by themselves," says Sutton, adding that industry groups like
the National Restaurant Association and the National Fisheries
Institute (NFI) are helping by embracing green directives.
"They once acted like alcoholics: Ignore then get angry. Now
they've come to accept that they have an important role to
play. These things are an evolution and a very welcome
Deciding how to get started on a sustainability program and
whether a partnership is viable is a company's journey, not a
destination, says the Food Marketing Institute. The association
offers a detailed question-and-answer document on its Web site
for members to guide them through the early phases of creating
sustainability plan and beyond.
Industry groups also offer assistance and advice on
to members, and even which NGO they might turn
to. Gavin Gibbons, spokesperson for McLean, Va.-based NFI,
lauds the "responsible" work of the NEA and the International
Sustainable Seafood Foundation, a partnership created in March
between WWF and the top U.S. tuna canners: Bumble Bee, StarKist
and Chicken of the Sea.
"That's clearly a responsible partnership that isn't about
making money off of sustainability labels or fundraising," says
Gibbons, adding there's no one-size-fits-all approach for
seafood buyers. "There are groups out there that champion
sustainability or just appear to do so, like Greenpeace, an
organization that raises money by raising the
flag. It's disingenuous and unconstructive."
While few retailers would ever credit Greenpeace for pushing
them to greener pastures, none would want to be in the
bad-publicity position that Trader Joe's is in. Many are
turning to FishWise, a sustainability-consulting group in Santa
Cruz, Calif. Its partnerships with buyers, distributors and
producers manifest in a variety of ways, depending on the
business model, says Tobias Aguirre, executive director. The
seven-person outfit focuses mainly on independent retail chains
and regional suppliers.
"We're one of the few NGOs that is dedicated solely to
sustainable seafood," says Aguirre. "This is what we do, full
time. We're firmly committed to realizing both conservation and
financial results for our partners."
Part of FishWise's message is to not altogether abandon a
divisive product like farmed salmon, for which there are many
sources and should not necessarily be lumped together as a
whole, notes Aguirre. This fact galvanizes critics of Seafood
Watch, which advises consumers to avoid farmed salmon. Instead,
a buyer should use their leverage to demand improvements,
"Companies should work to improve the fisheries they're
sourcing from," says Aguirre. "But if those fisheries simply
don't make progress or attempt to improve, then eventually
buyers should discontinue those products. The first effort is
to work with them to improve."
In terms of buyer influence, size does matter. Wal-Mart, the
nation's largest food retailer, has set lofty goals for its
seafood procurement, including sourcing only MSC-certified wild
seafood products by 2011 and only imported farmed shrimp that
has earned the Global Aquaculture Alliance's Best Aquaculture
Meredith Lopuch, deputy director of WWF's sustainable
seafood initiative, says Wal-Mart's commitment was essential
in moving sustainable seafood to the forefront, as other
companies now follow its lead.
"I'm hopeful and optimistic with the pace. We still have an
awful lot of issues to deal with," says Lopuch. "As time goes
on and more companies come to the
table the greater that
momentum will become."
There is an underlying fear, however, that not all companies
joining the movement have honorable intentions, says Sutton of
the MBA. Because allying with an NGO can be good for business,
he is concerned that some retailers and restaurant operators
are engaging in "forum shopping," or looking for the
least-demanding green partner. Other sources interviewed share
Sutton's concerns, but wouldn't point to any concrete
"I do think it's a valid concern, but I disagree with the
rigid bar MBA has set on certain species - to wit, farmed
salmon," says Walsh of Alfa Gamma. "You can't tell me the
Norwegians are doing something wrong."
From the top down
Implementing and adhering to a sustainable seafood
procurement policy often requires
sacrifice. Taking farmed
salmon or imported shrimp, for example, off store shelves or
off the menu may appease segments of a
customer base that
frown upon the species' production methods or alleged
social-rights violations. But it may also create difficulties
in sourcing a replacement for popular, profitable options.
Seafood suppliers are in the same boat. That's why some of
them are also joining forces with environmental groups.
David Weber, VP of operations for Gorton's of Gloucester,
Mass., says the company's partnership with NEA and the
knowledge its staff provides puts them in a better position to
come up with new product ideas. Weber says Gorton's shares all
of its purchasing activities with the aquarium, a paid
"They position themselves as a fair and neutral
science-based advisory service. They're not looking to have
their logo plastered on packages or to drum up revenue through
certification," says Weber. "Some fisheries have gone through
certification processes, some haven't. But the ones without
logos could be well managed. We don't need the consumer
confusion that results from that.
"If your intent is to remain in the seafood business for a
long time, you have to be concerned about sustainability,"
Weber adds. "Few companies have the internal resources to
develop a particular approach. A partnership is probably the
best way to shape your sustainability policy."
Other companies are altering their corporate structure to
include a sustainability officer to oversee conservation
and participate in discussions with advisors. In
mid-August, High Liner Foods of Danvers, Mass., named longtime
executive Bill DiMento as its new director of corporate
responsibility, a position that will require him to explore
packaging materials and usage, logistics and transportation
efficiencies and product innovations in addition to seafood
"What it comes down to is businesses doing business
responsibly from environmental, economic and social
standpoints," says DiMento. "I realize that times have changed,
business has changed and our planet has changed. Sustainability
must take a lead role for any organization that wants to do
business responsibly. It has to start at the top down and be
embraced from the bottom up."
For DiMento, who spent many years working for Canadian
groundfish supplier Fishery Products International (purchased
by High Liner in 2007), the sustainability movement is
personal. The recovery of Atlantic Canada's cod and haddock
fisheries, while gradual, is proof that responsible fishing and
adherence to scientific recommendations can ensure abundant
fish stocks for future generations, he says.
Corporate responsibility is fueling the sustainable seafood
movement, and the partnerships being forged between suppliers,
buyers and environmental groups is more than window dressing.
And positive change is accelerated when the biggest players
come to the table.
"I'm in awe and very impressed with the pace at which
sustainability is now moving," says DiMento. "Wal-Mart led the
pack and set the pace. They should get a lot of credit for
recognizing themselves as a large user of resources. Many of
their suppliers, and we are one of them, have followed
Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at