Q&A with Huw Thomas, leading Morrisons' charge for greater seafood sustainability
UPDATE: Thomas will be leaving Morrisons in October to join the Pew Charitable Trusts' Ending Illegal Fishing Project, he told SeafoodSource on 30 September.
Huw Thomas is the fisheries and aquaculture manager at Morrisons, the fourth-largest supermarket chain in the United Kingdom. In 2012, he led Morrisons’ engagement with the Sustainable Fisheries Partnership and its participation in SFP’s Ocean Disclosure Project, an effort to encourage retailers to voluntarily disclose sustainability performance data for all of their seafood products. Thomas discussed the project and Morrisons’ other sustainability efforts with SeafoodSource on 12 September.
SeafoodSource: First of all, what space does Morrisons occupy in the supermarket sector in the U.K.?
Thomas: Morrisons is number four in terms of scale for supermarkets in the U.K. market. We have approximately 500 locations – all with wetfish counters – and approximately 12 million customers per week. We are the third-largest seafood vendor in the U.K. retail sector in terms of volume. We have traditionally been recognized in U.K. market for having a good range of fish and seafood in our wetfish counters.
SeafoodSource: What led you into the decision to look more closely at the origins and sustainability of your seafood at Morrisons?
Thomas: In September 2012, we opened our own fish processing plant, which was a big change for us. We had been very vertically integrated in the fresh – or chilled category, as you might call it. We owned bakeries, abattoirs and meat processors but we didn’t have a factory for processing seafood. So we pursued that, and we eventually opened it in September 2012. We saw that as a good opportunity to do a full review of our policies as it came to seafood, to proactively engage as we stepped closer to many of our supply chains.
SeafoodSource: Why did Morrisons originally decide to partner with SFP?
Thomas: Our partnership with SFP began in 2012, when we launched a review and update of our seafood sourcing policy. As we first got our arms around the task ahead of us, SFP came to us explained their way of working and told us about their seafood metrics system. They told us how it summarized the status of the fisheries we were buying from, gave each one a rating and a summary of what the issues facing the fishery were. They told us we had an opportunity to learn what our suppliers were doing to address concerns and issues in the fishery. Our partnership with SFP was very much based on engagement for improvement, with the goal of changing what was going on in seafood. That process has continued for the past four-plus years. The natural evolution of the internal metrics system was public disclosure using their Ocean Disclosure Project.
SeafoodSource: How much work was it for you after Morrisons signed on to be a partner in the ODP?
Thomas: Joining the ODP two years ago was relatively simple because all the hard work had been done a couple years before, doing our assessments and creating a decision-tree process. Now, as part of our agreement, we use the ODP metric system, where every month our suppliers report the quantity of fish they’ve caught, which fishing method they’ve used, and a lot of other details, so we know much more than we used to about the process being used to catch the fish we sell. WE had started that data-collection effort years ago – it just had to be translated into metrics of Ocean Disclosure Project.
SeafoodSource: How did you tackle the effort of cataloguing and researching all of the seafood products you sell?
Thomas: Our first phase focused on our chilled sector and then we rolled it up to frozen seafood, then our ambient sector, and then everything else. All told, it took about 12 months to map out all our sources and supply chains. In some respects, that involved looking supply chain by supply chain to see what material they provided – usually it was three or four products. So when we sat down with our suppliers and looked at each one, we found that they often overlapped; our farmed salmon supply chain, for example was going into both our fresh and frozen categories. It was the same with cod.
SeafoodSource: Did Morrisons balk at all about the public disclosure aspect of your sourcing?
Thomas: Not at all. I don’t think it’s a competitive disadvantage for us to make that information public. Everyone in our sector is buying from the same source. We’re not disclosing what methods or handling or facility the fish we’re buying is going through, just what the original source of material is.
SeafoodSource: Did you run into any resistance from your suppliers in this process?
Thomas: In our early days in the process, it was harder. As we did education to our suppliers of what we were trying to achieve, it got easier. For most of the biggest branded seafood suppliers we worked with, we found they had knowledge of the principles that was guiding our process and they were by and large vested in the same effort. We had a bit more difficulty with some of the smaller, niche suppliers and with pet food. But I’ve found a majority of suppliers don’t want to do the wrong thing, they just don’t understand the problem or what they need to do. My job is to take that initiative to pursue that policy for our own ambitions and our customers’ desires and channel that into change in our suppliers.
For those who needed a bit more handholding, we found we had more success when we engaged with the fishery’s industry association. We also identified tools and insight that helped them to deliver some of the change we’re looking for. Sometimes we’re asking our supply chains to make big changes, but when we can come to them with smaller, incremental changes they can make to get to a change in the big picture, that makes it a much simpler process and much more manageable for our suppliers. That’s where our policy of not dropping any suppliers immediately has helped – if we were buying on a purely competitive basis, we would not be sitting down and talk with them about addressing problems together, as a team. And I believe very little change would occur in the sustainability of the fisheries we’re involved in.
SeafoodSource: Have these conversations changed in the four years you’ve been a part of the ODP?
Thomas: Definitely, the conversations are very different today than they were four years ago. By and large, our partners have a much better understanding of what prerequisites we expect as standard and what we are asking them to work towards. People are more engaged in those conversations, though it’s still one of the big parts of my job to take those opportunities to have conversations on ways to improve our processes.
SeafoodSource: Do you go beyond what SFP and the ODP require in any way in terms of your sustainability metrics or disclosure?
Thomas: Morrisons’ sales are pretty evenly split between wild-caught and farmed seafood, but the ODP is very much about wild-capture – it doesn’t really cover farmed elements. This year, we decided to include more information about the sources of marine ingredients used into the aquaculture feed, include our sourcing and supply chain information.
SeafoodSource: Has your study of your supply chain through the ODP resulted in changes or outright termination of any agreements or contracts you held with suppliers?
Thomas: We made the decision in October 2012 that if any supplier was already part of our supply chain, we would continue to work with them, but from that date on anything new that was proposed had to meet certain criteria before we accepted it into the business.
So far, we haven’t dropped any supplier on the basis of things we found in our supply chain, helped by that commitment that we would work with all our processors. However, we have had to walk away from two fisheries due to lack of scale. During our 2015 review, we realized were not going to be able to get any accountable progress from the fisheries regarding the state of their fish stocks, and we made the decision that we were best not buying those fish at all.
One of those fisheries was wild-caught sea bass in the U.K. They had issues with unaccounted takes and threatened overfishing that we felt undermined the fishery as a whole. We thought, if we can’t influence the fishery to improve it’s best not to buy from it. So we made the decision to take it off our counters.
SeafoodSource: Did you get any feedback – positive or negative –from customers who noticed the change?
Thomas: From customer insight we had, we didn’t expect too many questions. Our customers told us in surveys we conducted that they trusted us on issues concerning the sustainability of the seafood we sold them. We gave some suggested communication to our fishmongers so they could explain the decision to our customers, but we didn’t get that many questions. For sea bass, it probably helped that there is a readily available alternative in the form of farmed sea bass. It has also been helpful that we’ve been able to point our customers to the Ocean Disclosure Project for sourcing information they might be interested in. Actually, it’s helped us with communication across the board, from customers to shareholders and NGOs who are interested in what we’re doing.
SeafoodSource: Have social or labor issues come into your thinking or policies on sustainability at all?
Thomas: When we relaunched our policy in 2012, one thing said to all our partners was that we wouldn’t have a conversation with anything to do with seafood sources unless we talked about ethical issues surrounding labor. At the time, the conversation was entirely focused on environmental issues, and we wanted to talk social and ethical issues. We started looking at these issues onboard fishing boats in 2012 and we gave our support to Seafish’s Responsible Fishing Scheme in 2013. Initially, we thought our biggest challenge was going to be the health and safety issue while still maximizing the quality of the catch, but inevitably as is the case, as Seafish and others started looking and digging a bit deeper, we all realized there was a different side to it…
As to current labor issues in seafood, I don’t know if anybody has all the answers. It’s still a landscape that’s being discovered, but I do think as a business we have been proactive in finding the right solutions. Morrisons is relatively big in the U.K. market but on the global scale we’re not. So we aim to find partners we can work with to collectively address some of the problems that have been uncovered.
SeafoodSource: What is the biggest challenge you have in your work now that you’ve implemented the ODP?
Thomas: The biggest challenge we have is the number of companies involved in the supply chain…Morrisons has about 50 first-tier suppliers, but each top-tier supplier has six or seven processing plants. That’s also an opportunity, because if we have a productive conversation with a supplier, that positive effect can cascade down the supply chain. Another retailer may not be asking questions, and if their supplier gets into trouble, they’ll just buy from somewhere else. But that doesn’t solve the underlying issues. I would say it’s also important that we are clear, coherent and reasonable in what we ask for. And rather than compromise that a supplier does have of what we ask for, we need to find a harmonized compromise even before we go and have the conversation with them.
SeafoodSource: What is the level of cooperation you have with other retailers on issues of sustainability?
Thomas: From the U.K. viewpoint especially, all of us in the retail sector work closely together on a lot of the issues on fisheries. A large number of us signed up to become members of the Sustainable Seafood Coalition and we’ve made promises on sustainably sourcing our seafood. Moving forward, I think there has to be even more collaboration. Having conversations across different sectors, we can be much more effective at addressing issues. Everybody can’t do everything. If we work together, we can be much more equitable and get the job done much more quickly.
We have also had conversations with retailers and buyers in other countries, and that’s also part of that desire to collaborate and try not to duplicate the effort. We’ve been working very well recently with the Thai seafood industry. Seafish and the National Fisheries Institute have worked very well to broker some meetings with Thai business and government representatives and with different constituents in the supply chain of seafood coming from Thailand. We have had very productive discussions on what we saw as issues and how we needed to address them. With Thailand, there wasn’t a lot of duplication of effort and we think there are some very good initiatives going on. It could be a model of how to support industry improvements the right way, and if we can continue to achieve change, I think we can show we can achieve results much more quickly than if we worked on this individually. But that job is not finished yet, unfortunately.
SeafoodSource: Overall, are you happy with the results of your participation in SFP’s ODP and in your efforts in improving the sustainability of the seafood you sell?
Thomas: Absolutely. We’ve definitely seen improvements and that’s rewarding. We’ve been able to make tangible progress on many complex issues. We’ve been able to work on behalf of our customers who didn’t feel like they necessarily had the opportunity to influence the industry as a whole, but as a large retailer we had the opportunity to do that on their behalf and it has been gratifying to see the results.
But there’s still much work to be done. We’re dealing with living systems at the end of the day, and unfortunately, when you ask a question, you often get an answer and then you have to do something about it. It’s a journey.