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Collaborative conservation

Buyer-NGO partnerships propel sustainable seafood movement

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 born.

"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 overfishing]."

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 claims.

"[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 want 
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 
company 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."

Trading up

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," says Sutton.

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 
red-list species.

"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 Sutton.

"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 shock."

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, he adds.

"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 one."

Shopping around

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 a 
sustainability plan and beyond.

Industry groups also offer assistance and advice on sustainability 
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 
sustainability 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, Aguirre says.

"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 Practices seal.

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 examples.

"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 consultant.

"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 measures 
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 sourcing.

"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 suit."

Associate Editor James Wright can be e-mailed at jwright@divcom.com

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