Customers wise up to sustainability red herrings

I think most retailers ask themselves at some point: “Do consumers really care about sustainability?” Well, Greenpeace recently proved that we do, successfully petitioning Waitrose and Tesco to drop John West tuna unless they ‘cleaned up their act’. More than 45,000 people signed that appeal, but they’re not done yet. Apparently, “now it’s Sainsbury’s turn to do the right thing” and as a proactive retailer in the move towards a sustainable tuna market in the UK, Greenpeace want them to extend this commitment past their own brand tuna.

I must admit, the subject of sustainably sourced fish, and in particular tuna, worms its way into my life on pretty much a daily basis. For the most part this isn’t through work. No, it’s the countless hours spent following my girlfriend around supermarkets. And I don’t mean just following her around the aisles of one particular supermarket, either. I’m talking trailing from one supermarket to another.

Why? You ask. Maybe she knows that the cheapest and best way to shop is to shop around, take advantage of the offers across multiple supermarkets as they attempt to compete with each other. (You can have that advice. Free of charge. You’re welcome.) But it isn’t that, she isn’t motivated by price. It’s that she is adamant we will not be purchasing unsustainably sourced tuna.

“Oh look, this one is dolphin friendly.” I’ll declare, holding up a can of tuna proudly, expecting a round of applause - and the medal that I have been promised so many times (I’m starting to think she was joking about the medal).

Good! But, not good enough.

She is educated on this subject, she lives and breathes for animal welfare. She knows the brands, the supermarkets and labelling to watch out for. I should know by now, silly Alex. Memories come flooding back of that long car journey. That long, long journey where she described to me in great detail why ‘dolphin friendly’ is actually a red herring.

I place the tuna sheepishly back on the shelf. You see, in the UK over 95% of tuna on sale is actually skipjack (a species from the west or central pacific). But, skipjack don’t swim with dolphins and, as such, are naturally ‘dolphin safe’. It is the way that skipjack is caught that is the most important piece of information we’re looking out for.

Long-line fishing? No, thank you. Long-line fishing isn’t selective. As the name suggests it involves long fishing lines, to which shorter lines are attached. This can result in catching seabirds, sharks, turtles or even drift away, entangling wildlife as it goes.

Pole and line caught is what we’re after. Pole and line caught skipjack, to be precise. The only method and species to be recommended by Greenpeace and, more importantly, get the official seal of approval from my girlfriend.

Deloitte recently reported that sustainability and social impact are becoming an increasingly important factor in the purchasing habits of consumers. And not simply those millennial types, but all ages. So how should retailers face this challenge? The answer is simple, listen to your customers. Listen to what your customers want and how they want it. My girlfriend isn’t alone in her determination to buy only sustainably sourced seafood, and so retailers need to recognise that an ever growing proportion of their consumer base is conscious about where their food comes from. And in this case, how it is caught.

The key to successfully managing this is transparency and unifying the brand experience. There is already EU legislation requiring a certain amount of disclosure in terms of labelling tuna, however – as I found out – some of this can perhaps be misleading or a ‘red herring’. What if the retailer was able to work more closely with the supplier and be clearer about where and how the fish were caught?

Even then, the labelling can be confusing. With so many organisations out there certifying sustainability, which is the consumer supposed to look out for? MSC, RSPCA, SSC?

Linking together suppliers, retail teams and the consumers as a single community would provide greater supply chain transparency and faster responses to consumer needs. More importantly, it will allow the retailer to uphold their brand values or sustainability commitments, giving the consumer an increased sense of confidence that they are being listened to.

Tags: Supplier engagement, Sustainability, Consumer trust

Alex Fitchett

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