Today Greenpeace released its 2013 Carting Away the Oceans (CATO) report, and Trader Joe’s earned unexpected accolades instead of insults from the non-governmental environmental organization. CATO is Greenpeace’s sustainable seafood ranking initiative, which it launched in 2008. Since its launch, only two supermarkets–Safeway and Whole Foods–have earned a “green rating.” Last year Trader Joe’s ranked 15 out of 20 on the CATO scorecard despite a 2010 commitment from the Monrovia, California-based retailer to source all its seafood sustainably by the end of 2012. Greenpeace has had Trader Joe’s in its sites for sometime, even going so far as to create the “Traitor Joe’s” campaign aimed at educating consumers about the chain’s “ocean-unfriendly” policies.
A Monumental Leap Despite Lingering Concerns
The news of Trader Joe’s monumental leap to near the top of this year’s CATO scorecard comes on the heals of a somewhat controversial announcement earlier this spring by Trader Joe’s regarding their seafood. On 27 March, Trader Joe’s released “A Note to Our Customers about Trader Joe’s Seafood” in which they provided specific examples of how they are moving toward their stated seafood goal of “shifting to sustainable sources.” Examples included changes in how the store sources swordfish (Xiphias gladius), canned tuna (yellowfin [Thunnus albacares] and albacore [Thunnus alalunga]), farmed shrimp, and farmed salmon. While this is certainly progress, critics are concerned Trader Joe’s has failed to do as it promised and source 100 percent of its seafood from sustainable sources by 1 January 2013. Many observers were hoping to see confirmation from Trader Joe’s that it is doing as it promised, but almost five months after the deadline came and went confirmation was still not forthcoming as part of the update or in responses to direct questiong. As Evelyn Iritani wrote in the Huffington Post earlier this month,
When asked whether Trader Joe’s had met its December deadline, company spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki was mum. “Beyond the statement, there is nothing else we can say at this time,” she says.
Why Greenpeace’s Change of Heart with Trader Joe’ s?
So if a definitive public statement about whether or not Trader Joe’s has followed through on its commitment is not available, what is the justification for Greenpeace’s newfound love of the trendy supermarket chain for thrifty foodies? Looking at Greenpeace’s press release issued today about the new CATO scorecard–and the emphasis placed on tuna (tuna was mentioned seven times in the short release)–it appears Trader Joe’s recently announced position on tuna may have something to do with it.
In the aforementioned March update from Trader Joe’s, the company announced it had switched its sourcing of “canned yellowfin tuna in olive oil” from long-line catch methods to pole and line catch methods. They also announced their canned albacore tuna items “are transitioning to sources using a circle-hook and nylon lead catch method…to help reduce bycatch.”
“It’s great news that Walmart, Safeway and Trader Joe’s are all introducing responsibly caught canned tuna options, at a similar price to the environmentally devastating tuna available from Chicken of the Sea, Starkist, and Bumble Bee,” says Greenpeace Senior Markets Campaigner Casson Trenor in today’s release. “This means there’s now a more sustainable seafood option available to almost every consumer in the country, so people don’t have to choose between their bank account and the planet.”
Still, what about Trader Joe’s 2010 commitment to source all of its seafood from sustainable sources? “While it does indeed seem that Trader Joe’s has failed to make good on its 2010 promise to its customers,” Trenor tells me today, “we try to evaluate the performance of each retailer as objectively as possible within the CATO report methodology. The final score for Trader Joe’s reflects the progress that the company has made, including the discontinuation of numerous red list species… That said, it’s important to note that the company did indeed fail to live up to its word. Greenpeace encourages Trader Joe’s customers and all concerned consumers to communicate their opinions on the company’s inaction directly to Trader Joe’s leadership.”
Bigger Fish to Fry
The bigger issue here, of course, is the health of fisheries themselves and whether or not it is even possible for the leading supermarkets to all provide sustainably-sourced seafood to an increasingly green consumer base. As the demands on certification and assurance schemes increase, how do the entities which provide certifications and assurances keep up with that demand without compromising their standards? This is exactly some of the criticism levied on the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) as of late, as critics fear the industry-leading fishery certification program has “watered-down” its standards as it tries to keep-up with, for example, a mega-store like Walmart and its stated commitment to sell only MSC certified seafood (this is, by the way, an accusation MSC vehemently denies). This begs two very important questions: 1) Is there enough trusted third-party certification capacity to accurately assess the fisheries in question? and 2) Is there enough sustainably-harvested seafood to meet exponentially-growing demand?
Of course the real elephant in the room is that we are talking about a term–sustainability–about which there is widespread disagreement. What does sustainable really mean? How do we know when it has been achieved? Once a fishery is certified sustainable, what’s next? Moving forward, perhaps the biggest challenge we will face insofar as sustainability and seafood is concerned is addressing the widespread mischaracterization that sustainability has migrated from an ideal for which to strive to something we can achieve (or, worse yet, something we have already achieved). Sustainability must be seen as a process, and a continual one. Otherwise, achieving a top slot on Greenpeace’s CATO scorecard or gaining a blue MSC ecolabel in the fish monger’s case could become an endpoint that ultimately (albeit unintentionally) surpresses the continued improvement that is so essential.