Seafood is having its Portlandia moment

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Cooking for Solutions is a delightful annual conference, fund-raiser and celebration of seafood sustainability produced every spring by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m just back from the 2013 event, and there is reason to feel good about the progress the seafood industry is making.

Consumers, chefs and, most importantly, major retailers in the US and Europe are more aware than ever that the choices we make about what kinds of fish to eat–and not to eat–have an impact on the health and sustainability of global fisheries.

The result is that, in the last decade or so, virtually every major retailer and food service company in the US and EU has adopted a seafood sustainability policy. Some are stronger than others, but the issue is on the agenda and not going away.

“Large corporations may very well turn out to be our angels of salvation,” said Matt Elliott, an oceans expert at California Environmental Associates, which last year published a landmark report on global fishing practices.

You could say that seafood is having its Portlandia moment. I’m referring, of course, to the hilarious scene on the cable TV show in which a couple interrogate a waitress about the chicken on the menu. (“How much room did the chicken have to roam?”) Chefs who gathered last week in Monterey told me that they are asked by diners if their salmon is wild or farm-raised, and whether their shrimp is local or imported from Asia.

By themselves, consumers can’t drive changes in fishing practices. But when consumers make themselves heard, and emerge as part of a larger ecosystem that includes activist NGOs such as Greenpeace, business-friendly environmental groups such as the World Wildlife Fund, certifying bodies like the flawed but important Marine Stewardship Council and brands like Whole Foods Market and Darden, change happens. Regulation of the oceans–a public commons if ever there was one–is important, but markets, too, can drive sustainability. [click to continue...]

Can shopping save the world? Maybe not, but it can help.

The activist and filmmaker Annie Leonard, who created an Internet sensation back in 2007 with her 20-minute animated movie The Story of Stuff — it’s been viewed more than 15 million times — is back with the new video called The Story of Change.

In the video, she urges “viewers to put down their credit cards and start exercising their citizen muscles” to build a more just, sustainable and fulfilling world.

Turning for inspiration to Gandhi and the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr., she argues that buying “green” is no substitute for the hard work of political organizing.

“The solutions we really need are not for sale at the supermarket,” she says.

The movie runs for about six minutes. Take a look:

The idea that we need to take political action to deal with big environmental and social problem is both inarguable and unremarkable. It should be obvious that we can’t shop our way to the regulation of carbon pollution or to a more equitable tax system.

But I think Leonard has it exactly backwards when it comes to the power of consumers. Like many on the left, she seems to see the economy into “people” (good because we pursue health, happiness, well-being) and “corporations” (bad because they pursue profits, exploit and pollute). But, for the most part, we get the corporates that we deserve. Those that meet the needs of people thrive. Those that fail to satisfy will wither away. Put simply, the power of consumers is formidable.

That’s why I think that environmental and social activists ought to devote more, not less time, to changing consumer behavior. The food we eat, the cars we drive, the size of the houses we build and buy and other choices we make have significant global environmental consequences–particularly because Americans are, on a per capita basis, among the biggest polluters on the planet. [See my 2010 blogpost,  Can behavioral economics help save the planet?] [click to continue...]

McDonald’s: Mainstreaming sustainability?

About 64 million people visit McDonald’s every day. That’s a stunning number. They’ll see changes in the year ahead, some driven by a renewed sustainability push at the $24-billion fast-food giant.

LED lights in new and renovated stores. “Greener” packaging. Eco-labels on fish sold in Europe.

None of this is earth-shattering or, more importantly, earth-saving, but it’s the start of something big, says Bob Langert, McDonald’s v.p. for sustainability.

“We’re on a path to mainstream sustainability,” Bob told me by phone the other day. “This is transformational for us. We want to be bolder, and we want to make a bigger impact.” Most important, he said, the company wants to embed sustainability into its operations and, eventually, into its brand.

Business-friendly environmentalists who work with McDonald’s–groups like the World Wildlife Fund, Conservation International and Environmental Defense Fund–will applaud any sign that the company is ready to integrate sustainability into its core business and dig deeper into its supply chain to find ways to raise beef and chicken that are better for the planet. Skeptics, and there are many, will call this greenwashing, or perhaps “farmwashing,” a term I hadn’t heard until yesterday when I saw this anti-McDonald’s posting in Grist.

In a way, McDonald’s is like Walmart–it’s never going to be beloved in the Whole Foods-shopping, arugula-eating, tony precincts of Berkeley, Brooklyn or Bethesda. But the company is much too big to ignore or wish away.

Today, McDonald’s released its 2011 Sustainability Scorecard. Under the umbrella of sustainability, the company includes environmental responsibility, its supply chain, nutrition and well-being, employees and community grants and programs, albeit in a way that highlights accomplishments and isn’t easily transparent. (Please let me know if you can find an accounting of the company’s carbon footprint or a greenhouse gas reduction goal, because I couldn’t.)  But McDonald’s can feel good about a couple of big initiatives in the year just past. [click to continue...]

Sustainable sushi is not an oxymoron

Environmentalist and UC Berkeley grad Kristofor Lofgren moved to Portland, Oregon, in 2006 to go to law school. Today, he owns Bamboo Sushi, a cozy, stylish eatery that’s been rated as the most sustainable seafood restaurant in the U.S.

Bamboo Sushi’s bona fides are overwhelming: Powered by wind energy, certified by the Marine Stewardship Council and legally constituted as a B Corp., Bamboo Sushi has partnerships with the Monterey Bay Aquarium, the Blue Ocean Institute and Salmon Nation. Then there’s the paper on which the 23-page menu is printed, the reusable chopsticks made of teal, the wood tables….

“Every aspect of the restaurant is certified by an independent third party,” declares Kristofor, sounding like the lawyer he didn’t become.

But what about the food? Well, Bamboo Sushi catered a reception (sponsored by FMYI) at last week’s Net Impact conference in Portland, winning raves from out-of-town visitors like me.

More important, reviewers praise the food, as do diners on sites like Yelp. GQ’s well-known food critic Alan Richman named the restaurant’s Alaska Black Cod with Smoked Soy and Roasted Garlic Glaze one of his five best dishes of 2010, writing: [click to continue...]

Unilever’s big, broad, bold sustainability plan

Unilever unveiled its 2020 sustainability plan today, and no one can accuse the company of playing small ball.

The global consumer products giant ($57 billion in revenues in 2009) intends to improve the health of 1 billion people, to buy 100% of its agricultural raw materials from sustainable sources, and to reduce the environmental impact of everything it sells by one-half, while doubling its revenues.

Those are big hairy audacious goals (to borrow a phrase from Jim Collins), befitting a company that touches 2 billion consumers a day. Unilever’s brands include Lipton, Dove, All, Hellman’s and Ben & Jerry’s.

The biggest idea here–and the one that will probably prove hardest to achieve–is that a company can grow its sales without growing its environmental footprint. As Dave Lewis, president of Unilever Americas, put it:  “We cannot choose between growth and sustainability. We have to do both.

This is what U.S. consumer-products giant Procter & Gamble implicitly said it could not do when it announced its sustainability goals back in September. (See P&G: A bold green vision but…) Unilever is also hedging its bets some–it is promising a 50% reduction “per consumer use”–and it acknowledges that it can only grow sustainably by changing consumer behavior. That’s no small matter and one that is largely beyond its control.

Still, Unilever’s Sustainable Living Plan, as it’s called, breaks new ground for a number of reasons.

It is comprehensive, setting more than 50 social, economic and environmental targets.

It is rigorous; the company says its has measured the carbon, water and waste footprints of 1,600 products, representing 70% of its volume.

It’s far-reaching, taking into account the full lifecyle impact of its product–from “seed to disposal,” as one executive put it.

It builds on an impressive past history when it comes to sustainability.

And it goes well beyond green, including efforts to improve nutrition–

By 2020 we will double the proportion of our portfolio that meets the highest nutritional standards, based on globally recognized dietary guidelines.

and global health–

By 2020, we will help more than a billion people to improve their hygiene habits and we will bring safe drinking water to 500 million people.

and poverty–

Our goal is to link 500.000 smallholder farmers into our supply network. We will help to improve their agricultural practices and thus enable them to supply into global markets at competitive prices. By doing so we will improve the quality of their livelihoods. [click to continue...]