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Blue oceans, green future

From political cause to corporate ethic, sustainability is becoming ingrained in seafood purchasing policies

By Steven Hedlund
November 01, 2008

Merely a buzzword just a few years ago, sustainability has crossed into the mainstream, evolving from political cause to corporate ethic. Seafood buyers are just beginning to implement seafood purchasing policies to ensure the products they source come from a renewable resource and are harvested or raised in a responsible manner. Developing such policies is no longer an option - it's a necessity.

Though it has progressed considerably over the past few years, the sustainable seafood movement is still in its infancy. The concept of sustainability is complex, encompassing all facets of human activity and business, from energy and water use to store and plant design to dematerialization and waste management.

Just defining sustainability, let alone mastering it, is overwhelming. However, the seafood and conservation communities are working together toward a common goal. Seafood buyers are beginning to incorporate conservation expertise into sustainable seafood purchasing policies, and environmentalists are starting to understand the social and economic requirements of such policies. Their collaboration alone represents an enormous step forward for the sustainable seafood movement.

The near future, however, is even more critical.

"Within the next five years, we're going to know whether this sort of new model - a more cooperative model - is going to work or not," says George Leonard, director of the Ocean Conservancy's aquaculture program in Santa Cruz, Calif.

"It's going to be very exciting both to see the work seafood buyers do and then measure their progress," he explains. "I hope in five years there's a really nice story to tell about how the seafood industry has embraced this concept and really worked to improve the seafood supply for the long term."

However, "there's some probability this won't be true," Leonard warns. "If it turns out to be a big greenwashing exercise by the industry, then we may return to the days of antagonism."

Sustainability's roots

Rachel Carson's 1962 book "Silent Spring," which facilitated the 1972 U.S. ban of the pesticide DDT, is often credited with launching the modern sustainability movement.

In 1987, the United Nations' World Commission on Environment and Development, now called the Brundtland Commission, popularized the term "sustainable development" when it released "Our Common Future." The report defined sustainable development as seeking "to meet the needs and aspirations of the present without compromising the ability to meet those of the future." Today, it is perhaps the most widely recognized definition of sustainability.

The roots of the sustainable seafood movement can be traced to the early 1990s, though it's difficult to credit any one individual, organization or initiative with launching it.

Carl Safina's 1993 book "Song for the Blue Ocean" spawned the National Audubon Society's Living Oceans program. After that came the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Fishing for Solutions exhibit, which ran from 1997 to 1999 and initiated its Sea Watch program and popular color-coded seafood-purchasing guide for consumers. Now close to 3 million copies of the wallet-sized guide are distributed annually.

Also in 1997, the World Wildlife Fund and Unilever formed the Marine Stewardship Council, a sustainability certification holding body, to promote well-managed and sustainable fisheries. Now more than 130 fisheries worldwide are engaged in the MSC program - 35 are certified, 77 are in assessment and 20 to 30 are in pre-assessment, representing more than 5 million metric tons of seafood - and more than 1,700 products bear the MSC eco-label.

The conservation community may have thrust the sustainable-seafood movement into the spotlight in the past decade, but many fisheries have been quietly operating on a sustainable basis for decades. For example, since attaining statehood in 1959, Alaska has mandated in its constitution that its fish and shellfish "be utilized, developed and maintained on the sustained yield principle." Today, Alaska's fisheries are widely regarded among the world's best managed, and its salmon, pollock, halibut and sablefish fisheries are MSC-certified.

"Sustainability is ingrained in global seafood markets," says Rupert Howes, CEO of the London-based MSC. "This is an issue major seafood buyers around the world have to take seriously. It's attributable to a collective consciousness changing. It's about groups working together better, in all honesty. This is one reason why the MSC has been successful - we are premised on partnership.

"The interest [in sustainability] is increasing," adds Howes, "and it's moving from pure corporate social responsibility to business strategy."

Engaging buyers

While seafood buyers are beginning to grasp the concept of sustainability, the bulk of consumers are still grappling with what it means to them.

A May 2007 report by the Hartman Group found that only 54 percent of consumers claim any familiarity with the term "sustainability," and a measly 5 percent say they can identify companies that support sustainability. A June 2008 report by the Bellevue, Wash., consulting and market research firm discovered that while 93 percent of Americans desire to live sustainably, the majority struggle with how to do so.

Part of the reason consumers continue to wrestle with sustainability is that they're inundated with information, and the information isn't always accurate (greenwashing is the term often used to characterize this misinformation).

The conservation community has realized over the past few years that to push more seafood species toward sustainability it had to engage directly with buyers, because properly educating consumers is a gargantuan task.

"There's been a bit of a sea change, if you will," says Ocean Conservancy's Leonard. "When I started with [the Sea Watch program] in 2002, it was entirely about consumer education. It was about raising awareness. Buyers really had nothing to do with it. The business community was viewed as the enemy. It was kind of an us-versus-them mentality. In fact, that's how many in the seafood community viewed us.

"Now it's moved into a much more collaborative discussion, one in which the power of seafood buyers is recognized as being a big part of the solution rather than an example of the problem," adds Leonard. "Work with the major buyers is still very much in its infancy, and as a consequence the jury is still out about whether [seafood buyers] are part of the solution or part of the problem."

In an effort to streamline their approach and increase their influence, 14 environmental groups partnered in May to form the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions and release a set of guidelines, dubbed "Common Vision for Environmentally Sustainable Seafood," to help seafood buyers develop and implement sustainable seafood purchasing policies.

Ocean Conservancy, Monterey Bay Aquarium, New England Aquarium, World Wildlife Fund- U.S., Environmental Defense Fund and FishWise are among the alliance participants, and nearly 20 businesses have pledged their support for the Common Vision.

"Industry players have been challenged by how best to incorporate sustainable seafood practices into the supply chain," said Rand Waddoups, senior director of strategy/sustainability for Wal-Mart, the world's largest retailer, in a May 6 letter to the alliance. "Wal-Mart has found significant value in collaborating with a number of NGOs [non-governmental organizations] on this issue. The Common Vision guides industry on a clear path to a sustainable future for seafood."

Tobias Aguirre, executive director of FishWise in Santa Cruz, Calif., works directly with seafood buyers to help them assess the sustainability of their products, educate their staff and market their commitment to sustainability. "These guys are already so busy," says Aguirre. "The companies we work with get a lot of questions from their customers about sustainability, and they found that they weren't equipped to give their customers quality information."

The conservation community is beginning to recognize that the bottom line is integral to any sustainable seafood purchasing policy, notes Aguirre.

"If a commitment to sustainability doesn't make financial sense," he says, "then it's probably not going to work."

One size doesn't fit all

Though the Common Vision may serve as a guide, there's no one-size-fits-all sustainable seafood purchasing policy. Every seafood supplier, retailer and foodservice operator is different, and each policy must be tailored to meet a company's individual needs.

What's more, each policy must comprise the three tenets of sustainability - environmental, social and economic.

"It doesn't work unless all three are there," says Ed Rhodes, director of Phillips Foods' new aquaculture and sustainability division. "When most people give you the definition of sustainability, they say you need to leave the Earth the way it is now. It tends to be environmental. From a business standpoint, we have to be economically viable and socially acceptable as well."

Phillips' origins date to the early 1900s, when the Baltimore company opened its first blue crab processing plant on Hoopers Island in Chesapeake Bay. In 1956, Phillips opened its first restaurant in Ocean City, Md. But by the late 1980s the company couldn't find enough domestic crab to supply its several restaurants year-round. So it turned to Asia and South America for crab, opening numerous processing plants overseas in the past two decades.

To ensure the crab resource and the communities that rely on it are there for decades to come, Phillips last year adopted a Corporate Responsibility Initiative encompassing the three tenets of sustainability and established an aquaculture and sustainability division, hiring Rhodes and Garrison Phillips to head it.

"It's increasingly important for us to preserve our livelihood, which is crab, and now to invest in more control of our future," says Honey Konicoff, Phillips' VP of marketing. "Our initiative brought together multiple sustainability efforts that were already happening throughout our company."

"I look at [Phillips] as leaders. I think our approach is as broad - or broader - than anyone else," says Rhodes. "It's one thing to talk about sustainability, but when you're a company with a 100-year family history in the seafood business, sustainability if pretty heartfelt. [President and CEO Steve Phillips] wants this company to be around another 100 years, and that was not going to occur if this company didn't act responsibly.

"We're in this for the long haul," he adds. "Not only do our customers demand it, but we need to ensure that the product will be there."

While Phillips is approaching its centennial, Australis Aquaculture, which raises barramundi in Massachusetts and Vietnam, is only five years old.

In fact, the Turners Falls, Mass., company was founded on the concept of sustainability. Josh Goldman, its co-founder and managing director, pioneered closed-containment aquaculture and developed one of the country's first tilapia farms in western Massachusetts.

"When I co-founded Australis, I was convinced that sustainability would increasingly drive the economics of business, as well as influence consumer behavior," says Goldman. "We see ourselves as one of the leaders driving the sustainable seafood movement.

"Many of our customers have sustainable sourcing programs in place or under development, and a growing number of wholesalers, retailers and foodservice operators purchase our products to improve the sustainability profile of their offerings," he adds. "The challenge now is that everybody has to remain committed to a long-term goal of reshaping the seafood supply while building consumer awareness for the products that will drive the industry's growth."

For Sea Watch International, the sustainability of the Atlantic surf clam resource lies with three-plus decades of sound federal fishery management, thanks to the enactment of the Magnuson Fishery Conservation and Management Act in 1976 (now the Magnuson-Stevens Act) and 31 years of survey data on which to confidently set harvest levels, explains Guy Simmons, the Easton, Md., company's VP of marketing and product development.

"That has made us one of the country's best managed fisheries," he says. "Sustainability is not equal to abundance. It means there's a management plan in place to ensure the long-term existence of the [resource]. The Northeast Science Center sends [the survey results] to be peer reviewed, and then it goes to the National Marine Fisheries Service. It's the mechanism itself that guarantees sustainability. We haven't had a decline in our quota since we started the Individual Transferable Quota system in 1990."

"The next step for us is communicating the sustainability of our resource to our customers," adds Simmons. "We do that primarily through education from salespeople to buyers and advertising."

'No easy answers'

Education is the basis of the sustainability initiatives the Food Marketing Institute and National Restaurant Association launched two years ago.

In 2006, FMI's board of directors chartered a Sustainability Task Force to help retailers integrate sustainability into their operations. Target, Kroger, Safeway, Publix and Wegmans are among the retailers represented on the task force, which has an array of resources, including "The Sustainability Starter Kit," on its Web site, fmi.org/sustainability.

"Interest [in sustainability] is escalating, and I can tell because we get many, many calls and e-mails asking for guidance," says Jeanne von Zastrow, the task force's senior director.

"Words cannot describe the lack of consistent guidelines within the NGO, government and retail communities," she explains. "Sustainability is extremely complex because it touches every single part of our business. It's everything from energy use to store design to the products we purchase. Many retailers are beginning to designate a lead person whose specific title and role is sustainability - that's an emerging trend. It's a challenging job, because that person has to be the visionary and able to juggle a lot of issues."

The concept of sustainability is so intricate, says von Zastrow, that the task force has formed several working groups to address each issue. The seafood working group, which convenes via conference call once a month and will meet at the Seafood Choices Alliance Seafood Summit 2009 in San Diego in February, is currently assembling a vision statement.

"The seafood working group is just trying to make sense of all the confusing, conflicting information that's out there [before it] develops guidelines and policies," says von Zastrow.

NRA also launched its sustainability initiative in 2006, which led to the formation of a Green Task Force last year. The effort is funded by a grant from the Turner Foundation and headed by Niki Leondakis, COO of Kimpton Hotels & Restaurants. In May, NRA debuted "Conserve: Solutions for Sustainability" to help the $558 billion foodservice industry minimize its environmental footprint while remaining economically viable. The initiative features a Web site, conserve.restaurant.org, with several examples of restaurant operators "going green."

"We want to provide a comprehensive look at what's going on in our industry," says Sue Hensley, NRA's senior VP of communications. "Sustainability is constantly evolving. We want to use this site as a way to keep up in real time as practices change so we can communicate that to our members."

Perhaps no foodservice operator has embraced sustainability more than Bon Appétit Management Co. Since 2002, the Palo Alto, Calif., company, which operates more than 400 cafés at corporate offices, universities and specialty venues nationwide, has required its chefs to purchase seafood on the Sea Watch guide's "best choices" and "good alternatives" lists. This year, Bon Appétit pledged to stop purchasing air-freighted seafood as part of its Low Carbon Diet initiative.

"It's very complex, and there are no easy answers," says Helene York, director of the Bon Appétit Management Co. Foundation. "But anything that's complex has no quick fixes or easy answers."

Adopting a policy as rigorous as Bon Appétit's may not be the answer for everyone. But the need to implement a sustainable seafood purchasing policy is becoming increasingly evident. Suppliers or buyers who haven't already initiated such a policy risk losing customers in the future. It's clear that in today's world, sustainability is just good business.

Associate Editor Steven Hedlund can be 
e-mailed at shedlund@divcom.com

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