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Does only selling sustainable seafood work? A Q&A with Whole Foods

Posted On June 26, 2012 by

This past Earth Day, Whole Foods Market announced it was doing something good for the ocean: eliminating “red-rated” wild seafood from their fish counter. While some criticism of the methodologies commonly used to define “sustainable seafood” exists, increased awareness of the impacts our choices have on other species is undoubtedly a good thing.

Two months into the program, we were curious how customers had reacted, as well as how Whole Foods management arrived at their decision. Seafood Quality Standards Coordinator Carrie Brownstein took a moment to answer our questions.

How did you arrive at choosing which guidelines to use?

We’ve actually been working on seafood sustainability for a long time and are quite familiar with the landscape of which guidelines are strong are which are not. For wild-caught seafood, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) certification is the company’s gold standard for seafood sustainability and we’ve been collaborating with the MSC since 1999.  To be certified, suppliers must obtain MSC Chain of Custody certification, which ensures that fish can be traced from the boat from which it was caught to the store where it’s sold.

Currently, there aren’t enough fisheries certified by the MSC to meet the diverse seafood options our customers are seeking. So, we also display the color-coded sustainability rankings of the Monterey Bay Aquarium (MBA) and Blue Ocean Institute (BOI). These highly reputable organizations provide science-based sustainability status information for the fisheries that are not MSC-certified.

Both MBA and BOI have transparent ranking methods for rating species and fisheries; they post their ratings online so anyone can see how it was done.  Each organization evaluates the species and fishery that catches it on similar criteria: the species’ life history and population abundance, the habitat impacts of fishing, effectiveness of the management system, and bycatch.

What concerns did you have about limiting your seafood selection?

There’s always a worry that customers will just go elsewhere for their seafood. But actually, even though we stopped selling fish from a few fisheries, we have great alternatives for each one that we’ve discontinued.

How have customers reacted?

Our customers like and expect us to be a leader in seafood sustainability, and they appreciate the bold steps we are taking. We’ve had great feedback from our customers. Our sales reflect this as well. Sometimes one of our fishmongers might have to explain why a certain species is no longer available to a shopper, but they mostly understand. It’s an opportunity to educate our shoppers around responsibly-caught seafood and turn them on to something more sustainable. Beyond shoppers, our team members are also VERY proud to be a part of this!

What’s surprised you the most since Whole Foods made the commitment to sell only sustainable seafood?

What was most surprising is that we were able to pull the whole program together ahead of our deadline. How often does that kind of thing happen?! Making it work really was a collaborative process between our partnering organizations, our buyers, our standards team,  our team members in the stores…everyone. It was certainly a challenge to have to  seek out new sources of seafood, but with everyone on board, we were able to make it happen. Our suppliers worldwide really helped us find good sources of fisheries that are doing well. And in some cases we are now forging longer term commitments with some of our smaller, more niche suppliers that we had worked with periodically in the past.

How does this fit into Whole Foods’ greater marketing plans, now and in the future?

Our marketing and PR teams do a great job helping to get the word out about our seafood standards and our sourcing policies. Other than that, this commitment to responsibly-caught seafood is not a marketing or PR initiative. We do this because it’s part of our company’s core values to take care of our environment. Our long-term goal is to help the seafood industry as a whole move toward greater sustainability. We’re trying to create a model of how that can be done.