Sustainable seafood purchasing boosted by younger generations, pandemic pressures

Younger consumers are becoming more interested in the sustainability credentials of the seafood they eat.

Consumers are becoming more interested in the sustainability credentials of the seafood they eat, a long-awaited trend the COVID-19 pandemic may have served to accelerate.

Data from GlobeScan found that in 2020, 38 percent of the consumers surveyed possessed a willingness to reward companies they perceived as responsible, a significant leap up from the roughly 20 percent the firm had historically tallied since 1999.

“There are very significant attitude shifts for consumers across the world,” GlobeScan CEO Chris Coulter said of the findings during the virtual event. “We’re teetering toward something significant when it comes to consumer reaction in the marketplace [related] to sustainability.”

In its “Power of Seafood 2021” report, FMI – The Food Industry Association also noted a rise in consumer conscientiousness around sustainability. Four in 10 consumers surveyed by FMI in 2020 said that sustainable seafood certification has a major impact on their seafood purchases, an increase over the 29 percent observed in 2019. Moreover, 71 percent of respondents insisted they wanted to be more knowledgeable about seafood sustainability, according to the report.

“The analysis suggests an urgency for food retailers to expand their seafood programs to help sustain consumer awareness of this protein that has emerged in popularity as a result of the pandemic,” FMI Vice President of Fresh Foods Rick Stein said. “The call to action among grocers is to focus on seafood nutrition, cooking guidance, meal ideas, and sustainability both in-store and online as ways to maintain shopper interest in seafood.”

Stein and FMI aren’t alone in detecting the catalytic properties of the COVID-19 crisis, which has triggered a sea change in consumer behavior. Over the course of 2020 and into 2021, Ocean Wise Conservation Association Fisheries and Seafood Director Sophika Kostyniuk said they noticed consumer curiosity intensifying around the topic of seafood sustainability.

“We have received an extraordinary amount of questions around sustainability and sustainability rankings. One of the lasting pieces from COVID is that nobody can argue that we are not inextricably linked from the environment around us. We are all interconnected with the health of the planet,” she said.

It was about six months into the pandemic when Joseph Chiaravalloti, the product director for Vaughan, Ontario, Canada-headquartered Seacore Seafood realized purchasing patterns were changing.

“It seemed that consumers were getting a bit more comfortable with what was going on, getting into the swing of things with all of these new regulations being imposed and our new reality. It seemed like they were being a bit more conscious of what was taking place and why it was happening. We just saw a complete shift to demand for sustainable product, for sustainably-ranked product,” Chiaravalloti said.

In the first quarter of 2020, Seacore's sales of seafood it deemed most-sustainable were down 11 percent, and in the second quarter, they had fallen 32 percent. By the fourth quarter, however, “we were up over 20 percent in sustainable seafood sales,” Chiaravalloti said.

Next Gen

The pandemic appears to be just one factor fueling this sustainability push. Another driver, according to analysts, seems to be enthusiasm from North America’s younger generations.

When GlobeScan surveyed more than 4,000 seafood consumers in North America for the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) last year, its senior director, Eric Whan, was struck by the unprecedented changes relating to seafood sustainability observed along generational lines.

“We are seeing this year, more than we ever have in a quarter-century of consumer research, that there are generational patterns and shifts,” Whan said in November 2020. “The younger folks, which really are a proxy for the future marketplace, are really worth paying attention to.”

Many retailers have been taking that advice to heart. Whole Foods Market, for instance, has been targeting younger consumers within the Gen Z and millennial demographics where they’re likely to congregate, particularly during the pandemic: online.

“The growing online marketplace, and pickup and delivery, that’s an area we’re trying to bring the same level of information and transparency and trust to,” Whole Foods Market Vice President of Seafood Merchandizing Wesley Rose said last year.

Younger shoppers seem eager to dig into the details of responsible sourcing, according to Walmart Senior Manager of Sustainability Marife Casem.

“There’s really a power in this generation, they look into your labeling, and they read not only the labels, but the story behind the packaging,” Casem said.

For Chicago, Illinois-based Conagra Brands, the heightened awareness that younger generations are having when it comes to seafood sustainability has been “the fuel for the fire for all the different things we’re doing for sustainability across the entire enterprise,” Logan Soraci, the firm’s brand manager for brand development in frozen prepared seafood, explained.

“It’s important for us to listen to these things and address the consumer intentions, because it’s ultimately us bringing these things to the consumer,” Soraci added.

When it comes to consumer consideration for sustainability labeling, recent survey results from GlobeScan found that just 25 percent of shoppers said they noticed eco-labels on products. Those aged 18 to 34 were the most likely to notice such labeling.

Buyer belief

For years, seafood suppliers and providers have been honing and implementing sets of standards that have prepared them for this moment, Mary Smith, director of sustainability for Atlanta, Georgia-based company Inland Seafood, said.

“It was those deep relationships with retailers across the country that allowed us to move that product successfully” during the pandemic, Smith said. As the pandemic wore on, so grew Inland’s appreciation for “those strong sustainability standards that most of the retailers that we all deal with already have in place,” she added.

Even among the company’s new retail and distribution connections, the emphasis on sustainable supply held strong, Smith said.

“We knew the rules and we worked within them to keep that sustainable supply of seafood coming, even if it was coming from new relationships,” she said.

Seafood buyers – who are dedicated to promoting and presenting high-quality, responsibly sourced products – play a special role in the industry’s sustainable future, Smith noted.

“A lot of customers that shop at retail chains really trust that those buyers are making good decisions for them in a sense, so that they’re sort of leaving their concerns about sustainability at the door, which I thought was heartening,” she said.

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