Do consumers care about sustainability?

Published on
November 8, 2009

 At the end of October, when the Sunday Times slated the UK's top chefs for serving "endangered" fish species in their Michelin-starred restaurants, new government research showed that sustainable fishing was the least of consumers' environmental concerns.

Commissioned by the UK's Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), the study showed consumers thought less about sustainable fishing than they did about wasting food, composting, buying seasonal food and even growing their own fruit and vegetables.

The study said many consumers "had either never heard about sustainable fishing, or that they had not given it any thought." And if this is what UK shoppers think, then their European counterparts care even less — another study shows that British consumers are the most ethical in Europe.

All this must be worrying the many environmental non-government organisations (NGOs) that spend huge amounts of money trying to persuade consumers to buy only sustainably sourced seafood. Is their constant barrage of publicity about endangered species really working? It would appear not, although they have managed to persuade retailers to embrace their message.

In the UK, upmarket chains such as Waitrose and Marks & Spencer are wholeheartedly behind sustainable sourcing and make every effort to tell their customers this. Waitrose labels its fish packs with the words "responsibly fished" and "responsibly farmed," and Marks & Spencer paints big statements on the walls of its stores to emphasise that it endorses responsible fishing "Hook, Line and Sinker."

And Marks & Spencer has just announced that earlier this year it became the first major UK food retailer to source only pole-and-line or line-caught tuna for the products it sells, ranging from sandwiches and ready meals to fresh tuna steaks.

However, the sustainable seafood message is obviously not getting across to customers. The WWF, which claims to be the world's biggest independent conservation organization, admits that shoppers may be suffering from "logo fatigue" because of the plethora of sustainability statements and logos now appearing on seafood packs. And the WWF is one of the founders of the Marine Stewardship Council, whose sole concern is to conserve threatened fish stocks.

Although the big retailers would not publicly admit it, they are probably not at all surprised to learn the results of the Defra research. Their own focus groups will have told them the same thing.

It suits the likes of Waitrose and Marks & Spencer to make a song and dance about sustainable sourcing because there are some shoppers who do care and these customers will belong to the higher income groups that patronize their stores.

However, the other more mainstream retail chains may stock some MSC-certified products, but that will probably be it as far as their outward commitment to sustainable sourcing is concerned. This may sound cynical, but supermarkets care more about the value of sales per square foot of shelf space than anything else.

What about the restaurants that were pilloried in the Sunday Times? They are serving customers with the dishes that they — the customers — want. And like the retailers they are trying to maximize sales. Change will come when consumers demand it. If they stop buying unsustainable seafood species, restaurants and supermarkets will stop selling them.

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