Like a school of endangered orange roughy, supermarkets in North America have discovered there’s strength in numbers when it comes to swimming towards a goal of seafood sustainability.
This year has seen more retailers than ever — Hannaford, Hy-Vee, BJ’s, Supervalu, United and Meijer, among others — announce their commitment to protecting fisheries as part of their corporate social responsibility initiatives.
“We’ve come a long way as an industry in developing a more collaborative spirit with environmental organizations,” said Tracy Taylor, seafood procurement manager for Ahold USA , Carlisle, Pa.
“It’s one of the reasons why retailers feel more comfortable talking publicly about their commitment.”
The growing comfort zone between the food industry and advocacy groups is only one reason why supermarkets are speaking with greater transparency about their sustainability efforts. Retailers are realizing that preserving healthy fish populations is no longer optional. Sustainability — in all its forms — is increasingly becoming part of the value equation.
“We need to help our leadership in the industry understand the real business case for sustainability in terms of efficiency, innovation, increased sales, reduced risk and reduced waste,” said Jeanne von Zastrow, senior director of sustainability at the Food Marketing Institute.
Key to that understanding is the knowledge that there are plenty of third-party certification agents that can help supermarkets create and implement sustainable seafood programs.
“There are more stakeholders in the conservation community today,” said Heather Tausig, associate vice president of conservation at the New England Aquarium, which began working with Ahold to develop its sustainability plan in 2000. “They now have the expertise and the staff to support the commitments that companies want to make.”
Just this past spring, the entire movement got a big boost when FMI published a Sustainable Seafood Retailer Toolkit, a free resource guide created by the trade organization’s Sustainable Seafood Committee.
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“Our mission is to move the industry forward in a pre-competitive way,” said von Zastrow, “because we all sense the urgency of the work that we have before us to create a more sustainable supply chain.”
Then, there’s the customer. Shoppers are becoming more interested in the sources of their food, and their curiosity is moving the issue of sustainability to the forefront. Education is yet another part of the sustainability challenge that retailers, suppliers and certification agents have had to collaborate on.
“Customers expect their retailers to be looking out for the environment, so the expectation is there whether or not they’re actually asking the questions,” noted Taylor. “They’re relying on their retailers to have the appropriate expertise.”
Employees 'Tell the Story to Customers'
Like many supermarket chains, all of Ahold’s banners make information available on their websites, and place brochures in stores; some divisions have in-store signs. There’s also a playbook for associates that addresses specifics.
“Probably the most effective thing we can do is to get our employees engaged so that they can tell the story to customers,” said von Zastrow.
Consistency throughout the supply chain has been crucial to success. On the supply side, standards and certification requirements gained a degree of uniformity when the Conservation Alliance for Seafood Solutions was formed in 2008. This umbrella group of 16 organizations, including the New England Aquarium, created a six-part Common Vision that seeks to integrate the most important components of seafood sustainability.
“We were looking for ways to move the movement together and not drag each other down,” said Tausig, adding that the retail food industry is an important stakeholder in the process.
“Supermarkets have made a really huge impact because of their volume,” she said. “And they’re making a really big difference in communicating a consistent message down the supply chain. When a supplier starts hearing from Ahold and Safeway and Loblaw and Kroger, it has a tremendous impact on their operations.”
In addressing consumer needs, retailers need to focus on the tangible goals that have been met by the sustainability program, said Ahold’s Taylor.
“[You’re] trying to find that happy medium of making it simple, but not making it so simple that you end up greenwashing,” she said. “Including the appropriate amount of information without inundating the customer so that they get confused or lose interest — that is a fine line to walk.”
Unfortunately, there are no firm statistics — no concrete numbers — that the industry can point to to verify the level of success their programs have. Again, it comes down to the very nature of the food stock involved, as well as the vast number of ways in which progress can be measured.
Read more: Hannaford Broadens Seafood Policy 
“Time has allowed us to try some different methods of engagement with the industry to see what works and what doesn’t,” said Tausig. “But it’s really difficult to quantify. I think we’ve tried to look at it a number of ways, with one of the biggest challenges being all the variables involved.”
Still, having tackled one of the most complicated categories in the store, the industry is already looking ahead to see how sustainability applies to other proteins. How long could it be until there are standards for produce fields or grasslands?
“If we can get seafood right, it’s going to be a wonderful model for us when it comes to all of our perishables,” said von Zastrow.
Sidebar: What About Farmed Seafood?
Most seafood sustainability efforts to date have focused on wild species. Yet, the impact of farms cannot be underestimated. With most of the world’s seafood coming from aquaculture, the industry is being forced to confront issues of pollution, food safety and environmental impact that affect the farming side of the business.
The Aquaculture Stewardship Council was founded in 2009 by the World Wildlife Fund and IDH (Dutch Sustainable Trade Initiative) to address such issues. After three years of work, the organization announced last month the launch of its global, independent trademark for responsibly farmed seafood. The first farmed fish to meet the ASC’s standards is tilapia from Indonesia. The fish and products made with it will now be able to use an on-pack ASC logo. Officials say more farms, which raise tilapia and pangasius (catfish) are expected to be certified in the coming months.
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