Changing the Definition of Sustainability

By

Fiona Robinson, SeaFood Business associate publisher and editor

Published on
May 16, 2008

I didn't realize until yesterday that I had a pretty narrow definition of sustainability. Up until now my take on it has been, if you take too much fish from the sea, that's unsustainable. But after listening to several seminars at the Cooking for Solutions seminar at the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey, California, I discovered how unrealistic that definition is.

Gene Kahn's keynote, In Search of Sustainability, put several things into perspective. Kahn, global sustainability officer at General Mills, said sustainability is not a specific goal, but a work in progress. Kahn doesn't deem any product sustainable - he sees everything as "more sustainable," or less so.

He also mentioned that there's no cookie-cutter method for sustainability programs. "There's no real single approach to developing a more sustainable approach," said Kahn.

I wish I'd had Kahn's insight last week when I wrote in this space that buyers should beware of all seafood that claims to be sustainable. Kahn changed my view of this somewhat. I no longer believe certification is the only avenue to sustainability. Companies shouldn't be overlooked for not having an eco-label: Starting the path to accountability should be rewarded, not chastised: You don't need certification from an agency to tell your customers the sustainability story. But as a buyer, you need to beware of greenwashing, a topic Kahn also addressed yesterday.

Greenwashing is misleading the public with propaganda designed to present an image of environmental responsibility. Kahn offers a training course for buyers that studies the ways companies make sustainability claims, including showing them how to determine if a company has made a wide or narrow definition of sustainability and how to detect greenwashing. Kahn mentioned the six sins of greenwashing that buyers need to look out for, which can be found at www.terrachoice.com.

"It's misleading to lead consumers to believe a product is carbon-neutral or to purchase carbon offsets. Sustainability has to be a systemwide approach," said Kahn.

That system is not just the way a fish is harvested, but the way a company produces seafood or any other product. "You need to own what you own and take accountability for your impacts - develop appropriate goals and metrics," he added.

Sustainable seafood really comes down to trusting not just a product, but the company behind it. It feels contradictory to use "trust" and "seafood" in the same sentence. But if the industry is going to move forward on the sustainable seafood front, this is exactly what is needed.

Best regards,
Fiona Robinson
Editor in Chief
SeaFood Business

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