Fish tale: Walmart’s sustainable seafood pledge has a long way to go

walmartWhen big corporations make pledges to improve their sourcing practices, it's important to hold them accountable. After all, it's easy to hold a press conference pledging a new green policy; it's not so easy to fulfill the pledge.

This was one of the action points in an article in the journal Oryx that I reviewed for the Ethicurean a few months ago. As an example, the authors noted that in a 2006 press release "Wal-Mart pledged to source all its capture fish from the MSC [Marine Stewardship Council] by 2010 ... a goal Wal-Mart is not likely to meet."

So how is Walmart (which dropped the hyphen) doing?

Its latest Global Sustainability Report says that it's just over halfway there, with 55% of the total weight of wild-caught fish sold at U.S. Walmart and Sam's Club stores coming from MSC certified fisheries. It's a long way to 100%, but it has over a year still to get there — note that Walmart's self-imposed deadline is the end of 2011, as the phrase "by 2011" in company documents means "by the end of 2011," according to a Walmart representative.

Neither the report nor the website explains why the giant retailer is barely halfway to their goal at this late date. Is it finding certain top-selling fish hard to obtain from certified sources? Is the supply-chain bureaucracy slowing things down? Is MSC taking too long to do their work?

I put these questions to the Walmart's media relations department, but a rep said only that the company is working with their suppliers and is committed to meeting the goal.

Certification uncertainty

The potential benefits for the oceans are significant when companies as large as Walmart improve their fish sourcing. With great size comes the ability to drive changes. For example, Walmart is the nation's leading buyer of imported shrimp, which mostly comes from farms in Asia. As a Wall Street Journal article (via Mangrove Action Project) reported, when Walmart asks for a change in practice, suppliers leap to attention. But the standards need to be strong, not just a glitzy PR stunt: the Mangrove Action Project objected strenuously to the claims of sustainability, claiming that one of the certifiers (the Aquaculture Certification Council) is using standards developed by the shrimp industry itself. As we've seen time and time again, letting industries regulate themselves can lead to trouble.

iStockPhoto

Walmart isn't alone in its quest for sustainable seafood, of course. In recent days, the Wall Street Journal reported (via the Atlantic) that McDonald's and Darden Restaurants, Inc. (the parent of Red Lobster) are trying to improve their sourcing. McDonald's, which buys about 50,000 metric tons of whitefish annually, is following a sustainability plan that tries to insure that its suppliers don't cheat on their quotas, that catches are low enough to allow for stock replenishment, and that fishing methods don't do too much damage to marine environments. Darden, purchaser of almost 50,000 metric tons of seafood each year, has tried to convince suppliers to improve their practices, but has been unsuccessful for the most part, possibly because they purchase such a wide variety of products that their leverage is diluted.

GreenBiz.com reported that Delhaize America, owner of Food Lion, Sweetbay, Hannaford and other grocery chains, recently updated its seafood supply policy to require better behavior by suppliers, such as verification that wild-caught seafood comes from well-managed and well-policed fisheries.

Relying on MSC certification or setting a sustainability policy — and making it publicly available — is a definite improvement over a seafood policy that is solely based on price and availability, but it raises a number of important questions:

Will MSC be able to say no when pressured by giants like Walmart to certify a fishery over the objections of outside scientists*?

Or, if scientists say that catches of whitefish need to drop significantly to maintain the health of the fishery, will McDonald's management and shareholders be able to tolerate reduced revenue from lower sales of Filet-O-Fish, or find another fish for their sandwiches? (There's lots of Asian carp near McDonald's headquarters in Oak Brook, Illinois.)

Although MSC is a nonprofit that receives funding from a variety of sources (governments, foundations and private industry), one can easily imagine it being "captured" by its certification agencies, leading to weaker standards or unwarranted certifications. And so much of the responsibility falls on companies that rely on MSC certification to let the MSC and independent scientists do their work without interference or financial intimidation. And on us as consumers, to remind companies that we expect them to keep their press-release promises.

Notes

* The council's certification process itself has been criticized by quite a few people: see Politics of the Plate, fish2fork, Good Magazine, Food and Water Watch, The Tyee and Blogfish for coverage.

Image credit:  Stack of fish sticks from iStockPhoto

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