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Editor's Note: Redefining sustainability

Property of SeaFood Business magazine
By Fiona Robinson, Editor in Chief
June 01, 2008

I didn't realize until I attended last month's Cooking for Solutions seminar at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, Calif., that I had a pretty narrow definition of sustainability. Up until now my take on it has been if you take too much fish from the sea, that's unsustainable. But after listening to several seminars at the aquarium, I discovered how unrealistic that definition is.

Gene Kahn's keynote, In Search of Sustainability, put several things into perspective. Kahn, global sustainability officer at General Mills, said sustainability is not a specific goal, but a work in progress. Kahn doesn't deem any product sustainable - he sees everything as "more sustainable," or less so.

This certainly rings true for seafood companies, where sustainability is not black or white, but a shade of gray. For example, farmed salmon, or any other carnivorous farmed species relying on fishmeal, may never be deemed sustainable by environmentalists or receive an eco-label. But buyers do have the option of changing how farmed salmon is shipped to them, or whether or not it's stored in a recyclable box. As Kahn mentioned, there's no cookie-cutter method for developing sustainability programs.

I used to be wary of sustainability claims that weren't supported by a certification program, but Kahn changed my view of this somewhat. Companies shouldn't be overlooked for not having an eco-label: Starting the path to accountability should be rewarded, not chastised. You don't need certification from an agency to tell your customers the sustainability story.

But as a buyer, you need to beware of greenwashing, a topic Kahn also addressed. Greenwashing is misleading the public with propaganda designed to present an image of environmental responsibility.

"It's misleading to lead consumers to believe a product is carbon-neutral or to purchase carbon offsets. Sustainability has to be a systemwide approach," said Kahn. That system is not just the way a fish is harvested, but the way a company produces seafood or any other product. "You need to own what you own and take accountability for your impacts - develop appropriate goals and metrics," he added.

Sustainable seafood really comes down to trusting not just a product, but the company behind it. It feels contradictory to use "trust" and "seafood" in the same sentence. But if the industry is going to move forward on the sustainable seafood front, trust is exactly what is needed.



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