« November 2008 Table of Contents
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
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
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
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
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
"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."
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
"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
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
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
"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
"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
"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
"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
"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
'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
"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
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
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