Woolworths supports Seafood Sustainability standards, consumer communication challenge!

After writing about Woolworths confusing labelling of its seafood packs, and its in-store SASSI posters, we were invited to meet with Justin Smith, head of the retailer’s ‘Good Business Journey‘ sustainability programme, and Michael Basson, their Seafood Technologist, on Thursday, to explain and clarify Woolworths’ seafood sustainability commitment and programme ahead.

What the retailer had communicated in one of its e-mails to us, but what was not clarified despite our request, is that the Southern African Sustainable Seafood Initiative (SASSI) has requested all retailers, including Woolworths, as well as restaurants which have aligned themselves to the principles of sustainable seafood practices, to remove any SASSI colour rating on packaging of their fish offering, due to the misleading ‘greenwashing’ practiced by some retailers and restaurants. The term was explained as the use of the colour green on a pack of fish to imply a ‘green’ SASSI rating, without the content in fact being a SASSI ‘green‘ rated fish.

One would have thought that SASSI would be grateful for all consumer education and communication about its sustainable seafood initiative, but the organisation must have picked up so many problems that it has taken this radical step. From this month onwards no new packaging with the SASSI rating may be printed by any retailer, but existing packaging material may be used until it runs out. This explains why we found packs of fish with and without the SASSI rating at Woolworths.

In response to the SASSI directive, Woolworths has launched its ‘Fishing for the Future‘ campaign, which declares its commitment to sustainability. A new logo and colour scheme (currently blue, but likely to be used in white and black) will go onto all fish packs sold at Woolworths.  The retailer still endorses SASSI, but will be more focused on communicating the international Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) rating of its fish (currently only hake) through the blue MSC logo.   The MSC evaluation is not based on a colour rating – either a fish supplier has the rating or it does not, so a fish pack bearing the logo will be proof that the fish was caught, processed and sold according to sustainable seafood standards.  Woolworths has had a You Tube video prepared to explain its seafood sustainability. Oddly, the description below the video states that ‘Woolworths offers the widest range of MSC certified fish’. However, currently the MSC only certifies ‘trawled hake’, we were told.  All MSC certified fish automatically is rated as ‘green’ by SASSI. In MasterChef SA’s episode 15 Woolworths first flighted a TV commercial to declare its seafood sustainability, and featured the MSC ‘eco label’, but did not refer to SASSI.  In-store (i.e. in the St John Piazza store in Woolworths and in Canal Walk) there is no MSC information, and only SASSI information.

The company realises that it needs to be far sharper at communicating what the different seafood assessment companies and their systems stand for, and what it means for the quality of the seafood it sells.  We talked about the ‘blue’ rating which Woolworths has used on its in-store poster, not an official SASSI colour rating, but which it uses to denote ‘imported or farmed fish’ with the blessing of SASSI. We asked why hake is ‘green’ rated by SASSI but that the pickled fish sold at Woolworths, which its label says is made from hake, is rated ‘orange’.  Michael explained that the hake for the pickled fish comes from Namibia, and therefore carries this rating.

The retailer acknowledged that it must work far harder with its staff to educate it about sustainability generally, and about seafood specifically, through its internal ‘Champions’ programme.

Kingklip cannot be caught as such, but is a by-catch with hake.  To preserve the kingklip stocks, a number of fishing actions are implemented, including the reduction of ‘bird bycatch‘, as sea birds caught in fishing nets drown.  Torry lines are used as ‘bird-scaring devices‘ on the boats and nets to scare birds away from the boats. It was explained that kingklip does not have to be thrown back when caught in a net with other fish varieties, and that the torry lines ensure that the stock of kingklip and other endangered fish varieties will grow. When we challenged the Woolworths representatives as to why they are selling an ‘orange‘-rated kingklip, they said that it was better to sell and control it, than to have no influence over it at all. Woolworths does not sell Cape salmon, but sells a substantial amount of Norwegian salmon. It is a large and well-managed industry in Norway, prestigious, and of high quality standards.  Its catch and export to South Africa meets sustainability standards.  Trout is now rated ‘green’, having previously been rated ‘orange‘, as stocks have improved.

The value of the SASSI education campaign is that it has enhanced the awareness of the consumer and the restaurant client in choosing ‘green’ rated fish, which means that the supply of green rated fish will grow.  It was heartening to hear that SASSI is adding more and more imported fish species sold locally to its rating list.

Woolworths is known to be a tough taskmaster to its suppliers in setting quality standards.  The Woolworths Seafood and Fish Sustainability questionnaire which suppliers have to complete checks the fishing companies’ sustainability policies, their environmental policies, the fish varieties that are targeted, the fish varieties that are by-catch, where the fish is caught, the method of catching which is used, the use of torry lines, methods used to prevent bird, turtle and mammal (i.e. dolphin) catch, and the sustainability status.  In addition to the paperwork, the retailer has random ‘traceability‘ (i.e. checking the origin of the fish via a paper trail) and DNA tests conducted on its fish supplies via a third party.

In October consumers can expect to see a co-ordinated in-store and marketing awareness campaign to explain the source of Woolworths’ farmed fish; to educate the shopper about SASSI, MSC and the benefit of eating ‘green‘ fish; the retailer’s policy on selling ‘orange’ fish; and the goals Woolworths has for its continuous improvement in its sustainable seafood programme.  It is anticipated that SASSI and the MSC will also run a joint communication programme to educate consumers about sustainable seafood.

From a consumer perspective it seems a shame that SASSI has decided to disallow retailers to label their fish ratings in future, given that it currently causes confusion as packaging stock runs out, and it undoes the good work that a leading retailer like Woolworths has done in making the SASSI, and to a lesser extent the MSC, sustainable seafood standards, the basis on which South Africans should buy and eat fish, better known.

POSTSCRIPT 18/7: SASSI’s John Duncan wrote a detailed response to this blogpost, to support the information provided by Woolworths about the withdrawal of the SASSI coding on retailers’ packaging.  It contains valuable detail, and therefore we have copied it into the blogpost. “It’s great to see that Woolworths took the time to meet with you to explain the current challenges with regards to their seafood labelling programme. Just to clarify some of the background to SASSI’s decision to ask Woolworths and other retailers to remove any SASSI related prodcut labelling, please find some more information below: Over the last few years, as awareness of SASSI’s traffic light system of colour-coding has grown, a number of seafood-related companies, have begun to add green, orange, red and blue labels to seafood products both on packaging and on menus. Although WWF recognizes that the majority of these companies have adopted these strategies in order to communicate about sustainability with their clients, it is important to point out that globally, WWF does not support 1st party ecolabelling schemes (i.e. self-regulated). In line with the FAO’s Guidelines on Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries (FAO, 2005), we believe that the most credible ecolabelling schemes accepted in international forums such as WTO, ISO, FAO and ISEAL are voluntary, third party and operated independently of those with interests in the issue in question. Third party schemes such as the MSC and the developing ASC are generally considered to offer buyers of labelled products the greatest confidence and levels of credibility because compliance with criteria is usually based on verifiable, impartial and transparent certification procedures and standards. It is important for retailers and consumers to understand why WWF cannot support 1st party eco-labelling processes such as colour-coding of seafood with SASSI colours. Although SASSI has some level of oversight on labeling processes with SASSI Retail participants such as Woolworths, it seems clear that there are now a number of companies that are adding unaudited colour-coded logos to their products, which poses significant risks to sustainability as these companies can and do add the incorrect colour coding to their products either because of a lack of understanding or, intentionally in order to greenwash unsustainable products. A similar risk is that companies employing unaudited colour-coding systems can be developing their own definitions of what each colour means, which would be misleading to consumers who assume that all colour-codes relate to SASSI colour categories. These are clearly significant threats to WWF’s work and in order to mitigate these risks, SASSI requested that retailers remove any colour-coded labeling associated with seafood products. Ultimately, SASSI is not an eco-labelling organization and WWF strongly encourages companies wanting to communicate with consumers about sustainability through on-product labeling to investigate the options of independent 3rd party eco-labelling schemes such as the MSC. Woolworths have done an amazing job over the last few years of raising awareness of our work and we are greatly encouraged by the work Woolworths has done to develop its range of MSC certified products (which include SA’s trawled hake as well as imported products such as Alaskan salmon, Portuguese sardines and others). I hope this helps to clear up any confusion around this topic, for more information on all of these issues, please have a look at our website (www.wwf.org.za/sassi). Many thanks John”

POSTSCRIPT 26/7: At Woolworths’ Willowbridge branch they had a new information banner (‘We’re hooked on sustainable fishing’) next to the smallish fish department today, focused on the Marine Stewardship Council, which they will use in their seafood sustainability communication, as reflected in the interview reported above.  It simply communicates: ‘By buying MSC-certified seafood, you’re helping to make sure there will always be plenty of fish in the sea’.

Chris von Ulmenstein, Whale Cottage Portfolio: www.whalecottage.com Twitter: @WhaleCottage

2 replies on “Woolworths supports Seafood Sustainability standards, consumer communication challenge!”

  1. John Duncan says:

    Hi Chris

    It’s great to see that Woolworths took the time to meet with you to explain the current challenges with regards to their seafood labelling programme. Just to clarify some of the background to SASSI’s decision to ask Woolworths and other retailers to remove any SASSI related prodcut labelling, please find some more information below:

    Over the last few years, as awareness of SASSI’s traffic light system of colour-coding has grown, a number of seafood-related companies, have begun to add green, orange, red and blue labels to seafood products both on packaging and on menus. Although WWF recognizes that the majority of these companies have adopted these strategies in order to communicate about sustainability with their clients, it is important to point out that globally, WWF does not support 1st party ecolabelling schemes (i.e. self-regulated). In line with the FAO’s Guidelines on Ecolabelling of Fish and Fishery Products from Marine Capture Fisheries (FAO, 2005), we believe that the most credible ecolabelling schemes accepted in international forums such as WTO, ISO, FAO and ISEAL are voluntary, third party and operated independently of those with interests in the issue in question. Third party schemes such as the MSC and the developing ASC are generally considered to offer buyers of labelled products the greatest confidence and levels of credibility because compliance with criteria is usually based on verifiable, impartial and transparent certification procedures and standards.

    It is important for retailers and consumers to understand why WWF cannot support 1st party eco-labelling processes such as colour-coding of seafood with SASSI colours. Although SASSI has some level of oversight on labeling processes with SASSI Retail participants such as Woolworths, it seems clear that there are now a number of companies that are adding unaudited colour-coded logos to their products, which poses significant risks to sustainability as these companies can and do add the incorrect colour coding to their products either because of a lack of understanding or, intentionally in order to greenwash unsustainable products. A similar risk is that companies employing unaudited colour-coding systems can be developing their own definitions of what each colour means, which would be misleading to consumers who assume that all colour-codes relate to SASSI colour categories.

    These are clearly significant threats to WWF’s work and in order to mitigate these risks, SASSI requested that retailers remove any colour-coded labeling associated with seafood products. Ultimately, SASSI is not an eco-labelling organization and WWF strongly encourages companies wanting to communicate with consumers about sustainability through on-product labeling to investigate the options of independent 3rd party eco-labelling schemes such as the MSC. Woolworths have done an amazing job over the last few years of raising awareness of our work and we are greatly encouraged by the work Woolworths has done to develop its range of MSC certified products (which include SA’s trawled hake as well as imported products such as Alaskan salmon, Portuguese sardines and others).

    I hope this helps to clear up any confusion around this topic, for more information on all of these issues, please have a look at our website (www.wwf.org.za/sassi).
    Many thanks
    John

  2. Thank you for your very detailed explanation of your organisation’s decision to request retailers to no longer carry the SASSI ‘traffic light’ colour coding on their packaging.

    Chris

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