When it comes to engaging on seafood policy issues, some retail partners are actively involved in topics beyond the limits of their own supply chains. The Fortune-100 company Safeway is a leading example of this trend. In 2009, the company initiated a partnership with FishWise to develop a tailored seafood procurement policy and one year later, it announced its commitment to source 100 percent of its fresh and frozen seafood from responsible and traceable sources by the end of 2015. The company reported that by the end of 2013, it had achieved more than 50 percent progress toward its goal.
In addition to Safeway’s efforts on its ambitious procurement policy, the company’s sustainable seafood program has also taken a public position on a wide range of issues, from habitat conservation in key commercial fisheries to human rights challenges in the imported shrimp supply chain. According to FishWise Executive Director Tobias Aguirre, the comprehensiveness of Safeway’s engagement is a hallmark of the company’s seafood sustainability program.
In recent years, Safeway has engaged on the following policy issues surrounding seafood sustainability:
- Support for the Alliance’s Common Vision: In 2010, Safeway was one of the first companies to sign a letter of support for the Alliance’s “Common Vision for Environmentally Sustainable Seafood.” The Common Vision is a call to action that invites business to source environmentally responsible products and to provide direct support for policies and practices that ensure the long-term viability of the seafood supply
- Ross Sea Pledge: In 2011, the company pledged not to buy or sell seafood harvested from Antarctica’s Ross Sea, one of the last pristine marine areas on earth. Safeway joined other retailers, including Wegmans and Harris Teeter, in signing the “Ross Sea Pledge,” which is aimed at encouraging member countries of the Conservation of Antarctic Marine Living Resources to designate the entire Ross Sea as a Marine Protected Area. According to Aguirre, “This pledge was unique in that the company made a statement that it’s not necessary to fish everywhere in the world that fishing is possible. There are some places that are simply too important scientifically, they should be set aside for study.”
- Letter to the British Columbia trawl industry: In cooperation with the David Suzuki Foundation and Living Oceans Society, Safeway sent a letter in 2012 to leaders in British Columbia’s groundfish bottom trawl industry to encourage improved sustainability practices. In 2013, the industry agreed to significant conservation measures, including setting aside 20 percent of fishing grounds for conservation and establishing innovative bycatch limits to protect sensitive species of deep-water corals and sponges. This demonstration of market demand was a key influence that ultimately led to the fishery reforms.
- Launch of responsibly-caught canned tuna: Skipjack tuna is often caught using Fish Aggregation Devices (FADs), which attract a diversity of sea life—including juvenile tuna, sharks, sea turtles, and rays—and result in a high incidence of bycatch. In 2012, Safeway was the first major retailer to launch a private label of responsibly-caught canned tuna. The new line is now providing millions of cans of FAD-free tuna per year for American consumers at an affordable price and has prevented over 175,000 pounds of unintended bycatch. In the absence of policies that mandate more sustainable gear, Safeway decided to use its market leverage to convince a supplier to abandon FADs and commit to changing some of its practices in order to meet the Safeway volume.
- Letter on human rights in Thai shrimp industry: Following media and government reports of mounting evidence of human trafficking, forced labor, and other human rights abuses in the Thai shrimp industry, Safeway submitted a letter to all of its shrimp suppliers to learn what steps they are taking to ensure forced labor and human trafficking are not taking place in their supply chain.
- Protection for the Bering Sea Canyons: As a source for over half of the seafood caught in the U.S., the Bering Sea is known as “America’s Fish Basket.” Safeway joined other retailers such as Trader Joe’s, Ahold USA, and Hy-Vee in support of protecting a portion of the canyons as a precautionary, science-based measure. The motion to set aside a portion of the vital habitat provides a protective buffer that makes sense from both an ecological and economic perspective.
Gains for conservation and company reputation
For Safeway and other retailers, taking an active stance on certain issues, such as the Ross Sea Pledge, can occasionally lead to criticism by industry opponents. But according to Aguirre, the company remains resolute in its policy efforts. “Safeway is taking a leadership position and is focused on taking the right steps to achieve its goal,” Aguirre remarked.
Aside from isolated critiques, however, engagement on policy issues results in a range of benefits, both for the broader conservation community and for the company’s public reputation. Some of these benefits include:
- Increased issue salience: When a leading retailer draws attention to an issue such as harmful fishing practices by the British Columbia trawl industry, the issue assumes higher prominence in media headlines and public consciousness. Additionally, the pressure of market demand can shift industry players to adopt more sustainable business practices, as in the case of the British Columbia groundfish fishery, resulting in a collaborative effort and success.
- Underlying support for sustainability movement: In addition to reaffirming its commitment to its own seafood sustainability procurement policy, a retailer’s engagement on external policy issues demonstrates its concern and interest in the broader strength of the sustainable seafood movement. The influence of industry demand can carry weight both in corporate boardrooms and in policymaking circles alike.
- Public recognition for conservation leadership: Companies typically receive positive public attention for their sustainable business practices, which can yield returns for the company’s image and bottom line. For its leading role on policy issues and other practices, Safeway was ranked second overall on Greenpeace’s sustainable seafood retail scorecard in 2014 and 2013 (and first in 2012). The company has also received praise from the DOW Jones Sustainability Index, Seafood Choices Alliance, Newsweek Green Rankings, Carbon Disclosure Project, the Cal Academy of Sciences, and Ethisphere Institute.
How can other NGOs and retailers replicate Safeway’s success? According to Aguirre, there are two key ingredients: it requires the identification of issues of high conservation concern that are relevant to the company, and a willingness on the NGO’s part to do the due diligence necessary to assist the company in taking an informed position. “The NGO needs to be discerning in its analysis of the many issues out there, and be willing to make an ask of its retail partner. FishWise has a strong relationship with Safeway, grounded in trust and mutual commitment towards the company’s 2015 Responsible Sourcing Commitment,” Aguirre said.