Cocoa industry offers seafood a crash course in pre-competitive collaboration

The seafood industry can learn a great deal about the collaborations and connections needed to become a more sustainable industry from those who have traveled down similar roads, according to Tobias Aguirre, executive director for FishWise.

“As we envision the future that we’re trying to work towards, we have the opportunity to also take stock of some of the best approaches and strategies to help get us there,” Aguirre said during the 2017 SeaWeb Seafood Summit’s pre-conference workshop on 4 June in Seattle, Washington, U.S.A. “We can look at fields of responsible timber, mining, electronics, the organic movement – there’s a whole rich community of practice out there that we can draw from.”   

One source of potential inspiration for the seafood industry in this regard is the cocoa industry, according to Nira Desai, the director of strategy and learning for the World Cocoa Foundation.

Much of what the cocoa industry has done to construct CocoaAction – its voluntary, industry-wide strategic effort between the world’s leading cocoa and chocolate companies, origin governments and key stakeholders in cocoa sustainability – could be adapted to suit the seafood industry, Desai said during the pre-conference discussion. 

CocoaAction membership includes some of the biggest players in the cocoa sphere: Barry Callebaut, Blommer, Cargill, Ferroro, Hershey, Mars Incorporated, Mondelez International, Nestle and Olam Cocoa. The group was created following a series of callouts from a journalist in 2012, who posited one primary query to the companies: “’You’re all talking about the same problems – why aren’t you working together on these same problems?"

Labor issues, particularly child labor, had and have been a problem for cocoa, said Desai, and while work had been done to address such challenges before the inception of CocoaAction, the formation of the collective allowed for the entities involved to establish a more comprehensive view of their trade that had been previously missing.

The collective was able to look at both the social and economic aspects of their business in a pre-competitive fashion, which played into the establishment of its overarching vision, Desai said. The goal became “a transformed cocoa sector that offers a profitable way of life for professionalized and economically empowered cocoa farmers and their families, while providing a significantly improved quality of life for cocoa-growing communities,” she said.  

The road to creating and running cocoa’s sustainability alliance wasn’t a smooth one, and the seafood industry can also expect difficultires and occassional failures that come with any similar initiative. 

“It was a deep, deep labor of love, and very time-intensive, very political,” Desai said. “We worked with governments, we worked with stakeholders, we worked with technical experts to build this. And it was hard to get here. I think that’s the really important acknowledgement of pre-competitive collaboration: It’s not easy to get people aligned and on the same page, and this required a lot of heavy input from people we were not used to working with.”

The gain, however, is worth the pain, especially when considering the results and effects a collective like CocoaAction can have on policy-making.  

“We conduct heavy, heavy policy influencing through the power of our collective. If you go as one company to the origin government, you may make limited progress, [but] when you bring nine of the largest companies that are working in that country together, you really, truly amplify your ability to have voice and to amplify the work that you’re doing,” she said.

There are five pillars that are important to consider when building a pre-competitive group in any industry, said Desai. First, it’s imperative to recognize the agendas present and address them, to help build a common goal. Relationships, and in-person discussion, are also a high priority.

“This work cannot be done virtually. It’s not enough. We really believe in the power of breaking bread together,” Desai said.

In the same vein, establishing working communication networks and channels is a continual process, and should be regarded as such. Stakeholder engagement, while scary, should not be ignored, either, she said. It can be difficult to approach companies and voices that have been critical in the past, but incorporating new and varied perspectives can bring worthwhile benefits, Desai explained.

“Don’t underestimate how much time is required on the communication side of things,” she said. 

Lastly, it’s important to take the time to celebrate progress, no matter how minute it may seem, Desai concluded – taking pause to consider progress and acknowledge it can help generate the right attitude amongst a collective to keep the group pushing forward, she said.


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