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The Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) is proud of the work it’s been doing with grocers both in the United States and globally, and sees further retail partnerships in the offing. “It’s really exciting,” noted Kerry J. Coughlin, regional director, Americas at the organization’s Seattle office, in an interview with Progressive Grocer during the recent 2012 International Boston Seafood Show. “We’re starting to see more and more supermarket chains come into the program. One of the reasons they’re doing that is they’re seeing their fresh case as a place to really market sustainability.” She added that carrying MSC-certified items provides “a boost and a benefit” to supermarkets’ sustainability efforts.
Among those North American grocers already on board with the council to one extent or another, through sourcing policies or commitments to sell only MSC-certified seafood, are Walmart, Canada’s Loblaws chain, Kroger, Supervalu, Big Y, Target, Whole Foods Market and Costco.
Forming a partnership with the MSC can mean “various things” for retailers, explained Coughlin. “It really can be what works for them and their seafood sourcing and sustainability policies. They can work with the MSC program in a lot of different ways. It a retailer wants to only stock packaging with a label that comes to them as a finished product, already comes into their store as a sealed, consumer-ready package, then they don’t need to have Chain of Custody in order to have those products. But if they want to start making claims about the sustainability -- and certainly if they have any fish in their fresh case about which they want to make claims -- then they need Chain of Custody certification. … The whole traceability program is to ensure there are no commingling and no substitution, and [companies] demonstrate to auditors that they have systems in place without any mixing of non-certified and certified, so that any product carrying the MSC logo can be traced back through the chain to a certified sustainable fishery.” In all, more than 2,000 companies worldwide are certified for MSC Chain of Custody, and more than 13,500 product lines bear the MSC ecolabel.
The main reason grocers join up isn’t because of consumer demand, said Coughlin, who characterized the driving impulse as “corporate social responsibility at its best. They understand that they have to protect the resource that they’re trading in.” However, she points out, supermarket operators “also know that this is coming. All their market research and data show consumer interest in sustainability in their products is way up here.”
To that end, partners such as Loblaws have undertaken joint marketing campaigns with the MSC to get the word out to their shoppers. The Brampton, Ontario-based chain is “really making the most of this,” asserted Coughlin. “They want … help educate their consumers about choices and the impact their choices have. If you choose sustainable food, you, the consumer, are having a real impact.” At the time of the Boston show, Supervalu-owned Shaw’s was running a major educational campaign to coincide, naturally enough, with Lent, a top seafood-consumption occasion.
The effect of such campaigns at retail has been increased consumer interest in seafood, which Coughlin witnessed first-hand when Shaw’s launched its sustainable-seafood program in the Boston area last year. This type of “three-way” promotion involving the MSC, a retailer and suppliers has proved successful to all participants, she affirmed: “More seafood was sold as a result of that; sales went up.”
According to Coughlin, the MSC’s theory of change is “fishery by fishery.” As an example, she told the story of how a Chilean sea bass fishery, in response to warnings of overfishing by conservation groups, sought and achieved certification after making “really concrete environmental changes,” which led to its fish being carried by Whole Foods and other grocers, and eventually the certification of additional Chilean sea bass fisheries. “That’s the way change is motivated.”
When asked whether consumers are liable to be confused by the labels of various sustainable-seafood organizations, Coughlin responded: “What adds to consumer confusion is when labels are portrayed as interchangeable. MSC certification is the goal. MSC certification is what you want, because it is the most detailed and credible. And the watch guides are there to fill that space that isn’t MSC-certified yet.”
All told, the MSC program works particularly well in supermarkets, because of the special ability of grocers to connect with their customers. “It’s really exciting to work with the retail grocery industry on this, because it can have such an immediate impact on this environmental issue,” said Couglin, “It raises awareness of the issue, but it also raises awareness of that retailer’s commitment to the issue.”
For more information on the 2012 International Boston Seafood Show, see the article in PG's April 2012 issue.