Why we can’t shop our way to sustainability

Can we shop our way to sustainability in the supermarket aisle?

Eco labels are cluttered, confusing and unreliable.

Organic food gets a tiny slice of the market.

Most shoppers don’t pay much attention to environmental factors. Perhaps understandably so. They’re busy, or  ignorant. Or they don’t care.

Which makes me believe that we can’t count on consumers to bring about a sustainable food system.

So, like it or not, that it’s going to be up to business to fix the food system.

That’s my takeaway from today’s discussions at the Sustainable Food Institute, part of Cooking for Solutions, a great event on food/ag/sustainability organized by the Monterey Bay Aquarium. I’m here for a couple of days of good talk, good food, good wine, shared by reporters, chefs, people in the food business, scientists, activists and a farmer or two.

In several panel discussions–one on eco-labels, another about the popular but nevertheless limited Seafood Watch program run by the aquarium, and also during my own interview with Louise Nicholls, a sustainability executive from the British food and department store Marks & Spencer–it became clear to me that the dizzying complexity of food and agriculture systems, including as they do health, environmental and economic concerns, will make it very difficult to communicate simply to shoppers what’s “good” and what is not, even assuming scientists can reach consensus on that.

Persuading shoppers to then change their habits is even tougher.

Consider Seafood Watch, known best for the wallet-sized pocket guides that rank popular seafood choices as green (recommended), yellow (good alternatives) and red (avoid). By most measures, Seafood Watch, whose recommendations are science-based and peer reviewed, has been a big hit. The aquarium has given away nearly 40 million guides, and millions more have been accessed on smartphones and the web.

Here’s the thing, though: Only about 500,000 consumers regularly use the guide, the aquarium’s market research has found. What’s more, the guide is limited in its scope–it focuses on healthy oceans, but doesn’t take into account social issues, workers rights or carbon emissions. A fresh Alaskan salmon that travels by air to a New York City restaurant can get the green light.

The good news? Chefs and retailers are paying more attention to Seafood Watch. “We didn’t have the ear of business ten years ago,” said Sheila Bowman, senior outreach manager at Seafood Watch. “Things have changed.” What’s more, they are getting recommendations on 2,000 kinds of fish, not just the 70 in the pocket guide.

Similarly, the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC), which has a consumer-facing label, has been gaining ground with big companies. Just last week, the MSC said, Kroger, Costco, Supervalu and Walmart announced new seafood commitments around MSC standards. Kroger, for example, which has about 2,500 stores in 31 states, has set a 2015 goal of sourcing 100% of its top 20 wild-caught species from “sources that are certified by MSC, in full assessment, or involved in a Fishery Improvement Project with the World Wildlife Fund (WWF).” Big retailers, in other words, are increasingly making sustainable choices on behalf of consumers.

Other ecolabels almost inevitably capture only one or two attributes of a food product. This poses dilemmas for even the most conscientious consumers.

Are organic grapes from Chile better than conventional local grapes? Should you favor Fair Trade or Rainforest Alliance-certified coffee? Industry-backed labels like the food industry’s Smart Choice initiative are not just confusing but misleading, as we learned a couple of years ago when Froot Loops and Cocoa Krispies were deemed Smart Choices.

Jon Johnson of the University of Arkansas and The Sustainability Consortium made a great point–that no label can be universal (applicable to many product categories), accurate and simple. You can have two of those three, but not all three–and in particular there are tensions between accurate and simple. For its part, the Sustainability Consortium is engaging, with numerous partners, in science-based life cycle analyses that will be hard to translate into a simple, consumer-facing label.

Again, the good news is that while the Sustainability Consortium was started by Walmart, its partners now include Best Buy, Kroger, Safeway and Marks & Spenser as well. Provide those retailers with actionable data about sustainability, and they can then be persuaded to make smart choices on behalf of consumers. It’s easier to change a few hundred big brands than it is to change a few hundred million consumers.

As Jon put it: “It’s not going to be the consumers who drive market change. They’re going to rely on retailers and others, government agencies and NGOs, who are going to force change.”

To an impressive degree, this is what Marks & Spencer is doing with its sustainability program, Plan A. Why Plan A? Because there’s no Plan B. The retail chain is being pushed by consumers but it’s pulling them as well–for example, the stores stopping giving away plastic bags, instead charging 5p per bag, and dropped its plastic bad use by 83%. M & S used to give away more than 460 million carrier bags a year. In M&S’s cafes, consumers need not worry about the coffee–every blend is Fair Trade, organic and Rainforest Alliance Certified.

Still, in the end, the consumer is king. M&S sources as much food as possible — including all of its fresh beef, pork, chicken, turkey, duck, goose, farmed salmon and trout, shell eggs and milk — from the UK and the Republic of Ireland. The store has even worked with farmers to extend the UK growing season for asparagus.

Still, there are limits to what a company can do. Paula Crossfield of Civil Eats asked Louise Nicholls about reports that asparagus farming in Peru is causing severe water problems there. (See How Peru’s wells are being sucked dry by British love of asparagus.) That sure doesn’t sound sustainable.

So why not stop selling asparagus in the winter? That, evidently, is a step too far, even for M&S. Business is business. And so the dance continues,



  1. says

    I just wrote a term paper on sustainable food systems. In researching that paper I was shocked to learn how unsustainable some of our practices are. I agree that business needs to take the lead, but I think the opportunity for personal responsibility is growing. Smartphone apps, like the one from Monterey Bay (http://t.co/2hXZtDo), make it easy for consumers to have the information they need to make informed decisions at the point of purchase. I believe that the proliferation of these apps will help us indirectly partner with business through voting with our wallets.
    Thanks for the thoughtful article. This is a important subject that deserves serious attention.

  2. Lewis E. Ward says

    Impressed that you addressed these issues. Holistic thinking is challenging and there are few shortcuts for businesses or consumers. When my local coop started offering organic kale and collards from California in small market packs (3/4#) when local organic was still available and Southern larger sized conventional I was appalled at the arrogance. I’ve been buying my own greens in ethnic markets since 1971 when I lived in Lexington, KY. One purchased a mess of greens that fed a family with a little left over. I would need two 3/4# packs the new INDUSTRY STANDARD) to feed my family of four. The carbon footprint is significant on these imported foods as is the breakdown of regional food systems that will become more essential in the future.

  3. says

    Great info even if a little disconcerting to realize the challenge. All the more reason to shop LESS, and to grow your own or source your food locally from people you know (or can get to know). And something tells me asparagus from Peru will no longer be an issue when oil is $200/barrel.

    Dave Gardner
    Producing the upcoming documentary
    GrowthBusters: Hooked on Growth

  4. Dave says

    “Sustainability” is a big word that still needs interpretation, not just big brand labels. Organics may be “tiny” in shelf space but the Organic Trade Association says certified organic has grown from $1B in 1990 to roughly $30B in 2010 and now commands more than 10% of the fresh fruit and vegetable market in the US. A well-known specialty coffee retailer recently told me that 60% of their composite growth is now in Organic-FairTrade cross-certified. Rainforest Alliance’s Frog has earned its way onto about everything and MSC has had an extraordinary impact simply by having Whole Foods wrap its fish in it. While many of these labels have different perspectives on “sustainability” many of them have all been invaluable in increasing consummer awareness and arguably bringing the food industry back to the table. I doubt The Sustainability Consortium would have been created without them.


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