Upping seafood's "feel good" factor

A recent workshop hosted by Seafish, the United Kingdom’s industry authority on seafood, introduced the concept of a social license to operate in the seafood industry; what it means, why individuals and organizations should embrace it, and how it can help to boost sales.

A social license to operate (SLO) grew out of, and has become an extension of, the corporate social responsibility (CSR) movement, which is actively embraced by many, if not all, major seafood companies, retailers and wholesalers.

Embracing issues including legitimacy, accountability, responsible practice, transparency, compliance, ethical behaviour, respect for human rights and reputation, SLO first became an important tool in the mining, oil and gas extraction business, where operators needed to gain support in order to operate in and around local communities and through tracts of disputed land.

TransCanada’s controversial Keystone XL pipeline project is one example where a SLO became imperative, and brought the acronym and its concept into the public eye. It also brought SLO sharply into focus for the Canadian government, which has now embraced SLO within its food sector strategy, with a strong emphasis on the seafood sector.

So what is a social license to operate?

It is not a piece of paper; nor is it something that can be bought. It is generally accepted as local community acceptance or approval of a company's project or ongoing presence in an area. This means that it is directed at the values that an organization or industry has in common with its direct and indirect communities of stakeholders, which can include everyone from consumers to powerful, global NGOs. In short, it is the “feel good” factor of a business.

As such, a SLO is increasingly becoming a prerequisite to development and is particularly pertinent to the aquaculture and fish feed industries, but is equally applicable to the wider seafood industry, from seafood processors to fishing operations.

A company’s values are very important in the context of a SLO, making it essential to be clear about what your organization does, how it does it, and why. It’s also vital to ensure that stakeholders, consumers and media can identify with those values and that they match up with your brand.

A major value might, for instance, be becoming carbon neutral, and this has been used to good effect by the Australian fishing company Austral Fisheries.

Issues such as seafood produced using child labor and modern slavery are very relevant here. They may be included in a company’s CSR policy and covered by environmental/responsible fishing certification schemes, but also need to be flagged up to stakeholders in order to gain a SLO. In today’s business world, it is important to prove the negative.

For seafood businesses, gaining a SLO may mean doing things differently by overtly organizing communications around commonly held values with stakeholders and articulating them in a positive way at every opportunity. It may mean engaging in change management, redefining common values, or strengthening and developing new relationships.

And because SLO is a fluid concept, it needs constant attention, as stakeholder values can and do shift in focus over time.

So why should you care about a SLO?

For a start, businesses are starting to be rated for investment on the basis of social and environmental responsibility, and proactively managing situations and being open and transparent, can make the difference between success and failure.

Secondly, seafood companies, particularly those acting in the global market, are coming under increasing media scrutiny, often fuelled by NGO campaigns. An inability to prove that a company’s shrimp/tuna/caviar/salmon/etc. does not have all the expected environmental and social credentials can swiftly remove consumer confidence and see an end to an SLO.

Recent independent research carried out for the Marine Stewardship Council found that sustainability is now a key driver for seafood purchase. Across 21 countries, sustainability was rated more highly than price and brand, with nearly three-quarters (72 percent) of seafood consumers agreeing that in order to save the oceans, shoppers should only consume seafood from sustainable sources. Such research adds weight to the need to demonstrate sustainable credentials in order to achieve and maintain an SLO.

Thirdly, a 2015 report from Oxford University and Arabesque Partners, “From the Stockholder to the Stakeholder, How Sustainability Can Drive Financial Performance,” found that "88 percent of reviewed sources find that companies with robust sustainability practices demonstrate better operational performance, which ultimately translates into cash flow." This means that it is good for business and can result in ongoing, if not increased sales.

SLO may be a relatively new concept in the seafood industry, but it is one that is predicted to play an increasingly important part in authenticating business credentials and helping to secure future markets.


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