Seafood supplier shift shows sustainability’s significance

If you’ll excuse my excessive alliteration in the title of this post, and read on, you may find this of interest.

In recent years we’ve seen companies outside of the traditional western brand leaders adopt serious sustainability strategies (OK, I’ll stop now with the alliterations) which have had significant ramifications for their business.

More serious, in fact, in many ways, than some of the brands and retailers who have often passed on responsibility down the supply chain.

This is becauthai-fishing-boatsse it has meant, in some cases, reworking how they might produce timber, pulp and paper, palm oil, cocoa, cotton, clothing, or myriad other commodities or products.

In timber look to Asia Pulp & Paper and most recently, APRIL. In palm oil look at, well, almost all the big players, from Golden Agri Resources to Wilmar or Sime Darby. In soy we’ve seen McDonald’s and Cargill help drive soy moratoriums with big Brazilian soy companies and in areas like viscose, Aditya Birla pushed by campaigners such as Canopy to become more sustainable.

Now this trend is being reflected in seafood and aquaculture. I need to be careful what I write here, as I and my colleagues at Innovation Forum have just started working in this space. So my expertise and knowledge is limited.

But it seems to me when you see headlines like this: “Thai Union dropping suppliers in bid to create ‘clean, transparent’ chain” and look at the substance of changes, it’s pretty significant.

Sectors are changing too. APP has retail brands, and Thai Union has plenty, some through big acquisitions, such as John West tuna.

This story on Undercurrentnews.com talks about the drivers and changes in seafood. Here’s a few selected quotes: chicken+of+the+sea+products

“On July 27, the same day it emerged Thailand will spend another year on Tier 3 of the US Trafficking in Persons (TIP) list, the New York Times published a story alleging Thai Union had been the ultimate buyer of fish caught on vessels using slave crews.”

“Thai Union’s ownership of international brands, such as Chicken of the Sea in the US and John West in the UK, means the company has a strong vested interest in sorting the issues.”

“Thai Union Frozen Products is dramatically cutting down the amount of vessels, ports and fishmeal factories it buys from, in a bid to get its shrimp feed supply chain audited by third parties, with the next step to apply the same process to fish for human consumption.”

“For the shrimp feed supply chain, this process has seen the company dramatically cut the amount of suppliers it is working with.

“We have cut down to dealing with 51 ships and five ports. Then, we now have five fishmeal factories we are dealing with,” said (an executive from the company quoted in the article) Solar. “This has come down from over 200 vessels. The number of fishmeal factories was 22.”

“On the fish for human consumption side, Thai Union has already dropped down from buying from around 2,000 boats to around 800, he said.”

The company is also involved with Project Issara, “a public-private sector platform to tackle human trafficking in Southeast Asia”.

Governments, even that of Thailand, is apparently now taking steps: “reaction from the industry in Thailand has been getting more and more positive. “At first, it was very hard to get traction on this. Now we are getting calls from people saying, ‘Can we be part of this? Or can you help us?’”

“On the shrimp feed supply chain side, Thai Union is working with rivals Charoen Pokphand Foods and Thai Royal Frozen Food in the “shrimp supply task force”. The three companies have 75% of the market.”

This seems like a pretty significant set of changes and initiatives from one of the major players in the seafood supply chain.

The website Mongabay recently suggested that “13 ‘keystone’ corporations hold sway over sustainability of global fisheries”, (useful graphic here) and Thai Union is one of them. That article is really worth reading.

It’s probably too early to say something hubristic about ‘waves’, ‘transformation’ and ‘revolution’ but it does seem big sustainability related changes are taking hold across the supply chain in seafood as elsewhere.

This will leave the problem of the illegal supply chains not able to sell to big brands of course, the ‘China and India’ problem we hear about in palm oil and timber.

But those countries are slowing getting to grips with some aspects of sustainability. How quickly, is the emerging and sizeable problem.

Further coverage from Innovation Forum: Ocean governance and regulation – Fish fight

At Innovation Forum we’ll be publishing more on this topic in the next few months in the lead up to our conference “Sustainable seafood sourcing: How business can manage global risk and and collaborate for sustainable improvements” in London on November 25-26. Many of the key players and the 13 keystone companies will be there. Full details about the conference will be available next week.