SWSS: Connecting the customer with the sustainable brand

Seafood businesses ahead of the curve on sustainability face specific challenges and difficult decisions when choosing how to market themselves, according to a panel of experts at the SeaWeb Seafood Summit on Wednesday, February 3 in Malta.

Pete Fraser, the owner of Harbor Lights, a fish and chips restaurant in Essex, U.K., said leading on sustainability involved extra effort on both the back end – making sourcing decisions, and the front end – educating customers.

“We’ve gotten a good reputation from making ethical buying decisions, which takes a lot of work,” Fraser said. “Then I took cod off my menu for a week and there was a bit of a riot by our town’s senior citizens.”

The path can be hard and lonely for restaurant owners brave enough to step outside of the restaurant’s nominal role of providing customers what they want and instead curating a more ecologically sustainable menu, said Katie Miller, the sustainable seafood coalition coordinator at ClientEarth and the NGO representative for the Seafish consumer and supply chain panel.

“Lots of consumers want sustainable but they don’t really know what that means and don’t really want to think about it,” Miller said.
Fraser agreed, saying that he took the cod off his menu to raise awareness among his customers that more sustainable alternatives than cod existed.

“To get the trust of our customers, we had to be controversial at times,” he said. “We couldn’t just toe the party line and do whatever they wanted.”

Sometimes, that stance isn’t always profitable, said Mark Palicki, vice president of marketing for Illinois-based Fortune Fish and Gourmet.

“You have to look at it as a donation,” he said. “Hopefully, you get a return on it, but if you don’t, you can still look at it as the right thing to do – a donation to the future of fisheries.”

Richard Stavis, the CEO of Stavis Seafoods in Boston, said having no competitors who aim for sustainability can be as much a burden as it is a possible advantage.

“You become the driver of change, and that puts a burden on you in terms of education,” he said.

Stavis praised the Sustainable Seafood Coalition for providing seafood buyers a universal platform to address the issue of sustainability in seafood. He divided the issue of sustainability from a seafood buyer’s perspective into six categories: certifications, fishery improvement projects, nutrition, social welfare, responsible aquaculture and additional beneficial actions.

“SSC has provided us a universal platform, where everybody is using the same rules and the same vocabulary,” Stavis said.
However, he warned that added knowledge of the sustainability issue in seafood can become a burden due to the complexity and nuance of the issue.

“Sustainability becomes an archetype, impossible to achieve,” he said. “I try to avoid the term altogether and instead aim for responsible.”


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