Seafood traffic light labels — which designate fish as red, yellow or green based on its level of sustainability — push consumers towards the more sustainable purchases and may even boost sales in the department, retailers that use such programs said.
New Leaf Community Markets pioneered a traffic light system with the nonprofit FishWise in 2002. The eight-store, Santa Cruz, Calif.-based chain now only stocks seafood that is labeled green or yellow.
“And slowly but surely our customers stopped buying the red. And it was a combination of them actually not buying the red and us being able to work with FishWise to source alternatives to the red products that we were carrying,” said co-owner Rex Stewart.
Similarly, New Seasons Market, Portland, Ore., gradually phased out red items based on customer preferences.
“And over time, through education, they chose to go with alternatives, which was kind of our ultimate goal, to be able to eliminate some of those items just through the education process,” said Alan Hummel, meat and seafood director. The 12-store independent relies mainly on the Monterey Bay Aquarium Seafood Watch for determining its traffic light labels.
Retailers agreed education was important in helping customers understand the available seafood choices.
“Basically everybody wants to do something if they can, but they just don’t know how, and seafood sustainability is so complex, so the traffic light version relies on experts to sift out the complex information and give it to stores and consumers in a very easy to process way,” said Leah Caplan, chief food officer at Metcalfe’s, Madison, Wis. Caplan oversees the quality and direction of the three-store chain’s perishable departments.
At BriarPatch Co-op, Grass Valley, Calif., customers have come to expect that seafood sustainability information will be readily available and employees will be able to answer any questions, said Johnny Micco, meat and seafood manager. “They want to know everything. They want to know the nitty gritty. So we’re definitely very transparent because of that, because of them.”
Retailers that have adopted seafood traffic light labels are mainly small, independent chains or co-ops, many of them clustered in northern California, where FishWise is headquartered, although the nonprofit has partners as far away as New England. Large chains have partnered with FishWise, but most do not use the traffic light labels.
Nationally, Whole Foods Market uses traffic light labels based on recommendations from the Monterey Bay Aquarium and Blue Ocean Institute for wild-caught seafood that has not been certified by the Marine Stewardship Council; the chain no longer stocks red-labeled fish.
Not all retailers have eliminated red-labeled fish.
New Frontiers Natural Marketplace, a Solvang, Calif.-based independent with five stores in California and Arizona, can’t always find a sustainable alternative for all the items it wants to carry.
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“The coordinator of our meat and seafood departments continues to work with our suppliers to get that, but not everything is available,” said Ron Colone, marketing coordinator. The retailer started using the FishWise system about five years ago.
To increase its sustainability credentials, New Frontiers chose to discontinue some of its best-selling fish. “And instead [we] started offering customers information like, instead of this, try this,” said Colone.
Others acknowledged that sourcing only fish that meet the FishWise green and yellow label standards is no easy task.
“It’s really hard to find fish that we can carry. It’s tough,” said BriarPatch’s Micco.
Moreover, the lists can change, so retailers must remain diligent on keeping up to date with the latest rankings. The positive side of that variability is sometimes it means retailers are able to bring back a previously discontinued item.
'Fluid' Flow Charts
“The flow charts of what’s green, what’s red, what’s yellow, it’s very fluid, fortunately. Some things do turn from red to yellow or red to green and vice versa,” said Caplan.
Some retailers experienced a boost in seafood sales following the implementation of a traffic light system. New Leaf’s fish sales increased in the double digits each year for multiple years in a row, Stewart said.
“And I have to admit, that wasn’t my projection. I projected either flat or somewhat negative based on our lack of selection,” said Stewart. He credits positive media attention for drawing in interested customers.
Metcalfe’s, which signed on with FishWise’s traffic light system two years ago, noticed a similar sales bump.
“All I can tell you is our sales have gone up,” said Caplan. “First of all, people will shop here over other places because our staff is more educated and the labels reflect that.”
However, other retailers saw the opposite, with the decrease in seafood selection hurting the department’s bottom line.
“We’ve actually seen a loss in market share by taking a stance on it. Not a very smart choice for profitability, but for sustainability and just to support the industry in that way it was the right thing to do,” said New Seasons’ Hummel.
Even when sales improved, retailers stressed that the traffic light system was about company values, rather than making money.
For New Frontiers, the emphasis was on making a positive impact on the environment and educating customers, said Colone. “And whether or not it’s the most obvious, best thing for the bottom line or not, in this case was not the primary consideration.”
The use of traffic light systems by retailers often impacts community seafood preferences outside of the grocery store.
“One restaurant discontinued skate wing, which was one of their signature dishes, after we discontinued carrying skate here,” said Metcalfe’s Caplan. “And it was just, they weren’t aware that it wasn’t sustainable. And then the same customers dine there and shop here and I think brought it to their attention.”
More broadly, a retailer’s shifting seafood purchases can influence suppliers to promote sustainable options to other buyers.
New Leaf and FishWise met with wholesalers during the early years of the program to educate them on alternative seafood choices. Additionally, the retailer and nonprofit advocated for area restaurants to sign on to the high seafood sustainability standards.
“I think FishWise and New Leaf and a lot of the local restaurants were instrumental in creating a market for the alternative product,” said Stewart.
New Seasons worked on finding acceptable seafood options with its main supplier, which in turn reached out to other partners to let them know about the program.
“By what we’ve done, we’ve actually altered some of the buying habits amongst other — I would say more restaurateurs than retailers — in our area,” said Hummel.
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