SEATTLE (FNS) - New Leaf Community Markets completely eliminated non-sustainable seafood items, and, in the process, educated consumers about fishing methods and their environmental impact.
"We wanted our customers to know our commitment to fisheries and that we supported sustainable seafood and that we support small fishers," said Sarah Miles, marketing director for New Leaf, a chain of five stores based here.
The company overhauled its approach to seafood in 2003, and at that time, launched a major campaign to educate shoppers about sustainability. The retailer uses the Monterey Bay Aquarium's Seafood Watch Guide, which lists fish and seafood that are "best choices," those abundant and captured in environmentally friendly ways; those that are "good alternatives" having some concerns; and those to "avoid" because they are overfished or their capture harms other marine life or the environment. The guide also identifies finfish and shellfish that may contain mercury.
"Third-party voices have integrity," Miles explained. "This integrity we can't have on our own through communications. This has helped us create a category in the case so that consumers come in looking for sustainable seafood."
Stores posted signs and put out literature that explain how items are caught, the impact on the environment and how sustainable the fishery is. Managers passed along the information to associates as well.
"It is clear when they walk up to the case that something is new," Miles said. "We inform them where the fish is from, what catch method was used. A taste is worth a thousand words, so we do have seafood tastings and the staff has to be trained."
The chain gradually stopped selling non-sustainable items, those designated "red," according to Fish Wise, a program sponsored by Sustainable Fisheries Associates. According to the Fish Wise system, fish are grouped into three color-coded categories to indicate sustainability of the fisheryers should consider other alternatives. Red means the fish populations are in trouble and the fishing method is not sustainable.
The chain didn't completely phase out red-flagged items until last year, so prior to that time, New Leaf faced some criticism from shoppers for carrying a few products on the "avoid" list. Officials did not want to take the position of telling customers what to do, Miles said.
"We wanted to tell the truth, and let the customer make the choice," she said. "We felt we gained more respect. I couldn't imagine a seafood case without shrimp but the industry is creating more options to source from.
"We worked hard to get information when customers needed it where they needed it and can use it."
This hard work has paid off, Miles said. Seafood sales have increased since the educational initiative took hold, though she declined to comment specifically on the extent of the lift. The boost occurred even though the chain eliminated about 10 red-flagged items, including red snapper, swordfish, sea bass and non-sustainable shrimp and prawns, she said.
"Customers have also gotten used to the fact that we offer seafood seasonally," Miles said. "They have gotten used to items disappearing from our seafood selection from time to time. They have come to expect they will learn something new when they come into the stores and the seasonal aspect has added authenticity."
The approach to seafood complements the retailer's emphasis on natural and organic food. New Leaf offers a selection of organic produce and fair trade coffee.