Tokyo Olympics' sustainability legacy outweighs actual sales

The Olympic Rings in front of the Tokyo skyline.

The Tokyo Paralympics wrapped up on 5 September, following the first-ever Olympic Games without spectators, and despite challenges related to COVID-19, the event was still a win for seafood sustainability – both the advocates and the organizations promoting it.

Exactly how much certified seafood was sold during the Olympics, and what percentage of that total was comprised of products certified as sustainable, will not be known until an external review of the procurement code and its operational performance is completed, which is expected by the end of 2021.

But the Tokyo Olympics followed the tradition set by the 2012 London and 2016 Rio de Janeiro Olympics and Paralympics, which gave huge exposure to the Marine Stewardship Council (MSC) and Aquaculture Stewardship Council (ASC) certification schemes, as the organizing committees of both games committed to serving and promoting products certified by both schemes.

In the U.K., many government bodies, schools, and companies – collectively serving more than 200 million meals a year – followed suit. The effect was smaller in Rio, but still, all of the seafood in the approximately 14 million meals served to athletes, officials, media, and at on-site restaurants was certified sustainable.

In Japan, the road was rockier due to COVID-19, but there were still some successes. Japan’s homegrown industry-sponsored eco-label upgraded its standards after NGOs complained about its inclusion in the sustainable purchasing code for the games. Seafood producers and retailers gave a new impetus to sustainability efforts, and consumer awareness of sustainable fisheries and aquaculture was increased.

As a result of the effort, Japan Fisheries Association, which operates the Marine Eco-label (MEL) and Aquaculture Eco-Label (AEL), made big strides in advancing the standards, largely due to their inclusion in the sustainable sourcing code drafted by the Tokyo Organizing Committee in 2017. Its inclusion drew the ire of some NGOs, which complained that MEL and AEL were not third-party certified and didn’t comply with the minimum guidelines of the U.N. Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO).

Shunji Murakami, who was then the Tokyo-based Japan program director of the NGO Ocean Outcomes (but now leads sustainable fishery consultancy Umito Partners), called for MEL and AEL to submit themselves for benchmarking by the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative (GSSI), an NGO that has developed its own global benchmarking tool to rate how well certification schemes meet the requirements of various seafood related guidelines from the FAO. 

The Japan Fisheries Association did so, and in December 2019, it was successful in revising the standards and obtaining GSSI recognition for Version 2 of MEL, with AEL merged into MEL. The recognition made the standard the ninth seafood certification worldwide to be benchmarked successfully against the GSSI Global Benchmark Tool. Though the amount of MEL seafood actually served was certainly reduced by the lack of spectators, the Olympics were the motivator for upgrading the standard.

Sustainable certification standards as a whole made rapid growth in Japan, partly on the expectations of demand from the Olympics. For MEL, seven fisheries and 41 aquaculture operations were certified by the end of 2020. Ten fisheries in Japan were MSC-certified, with 300 processors and distributors holding chain-of-custody (CoC) certifications. For the ASC, 13 operations at 68 locations held approval, and 151 CoC’s had been certified under the program.

Major Japanese companies have increasingly gotten on board with sustainability certifications. Maruha Nichiro, one of the largest fishing, aquaculture, and food processing companies in the world, obtained ASC certification for its Japanese amberjack (kanpachi) in 2019 and began sales in 2020 as the fish reached harvestable weight.

Supermarket chain Aeon launched a plan at the start of 2020 to feature eco-certified seafood in its stores to appeal to tourists during the Tokyo Olympics. In order to have the variety of products necessary to do that, the company aimed to increase its certified offerings from 15 percent to 20 percent of all seafood products. The company included in its sustainable procurement policy to have all stores obtain ADC and MSC CoC certification and to provide a sustainable private brand for all major fish species.

The Olympics-related tourism boom may not have ever arrived, but awareness of certifications in Japan increase nonetheless. The 2020 Fisheries White Paper noted an increase in consumer awareness of both food safety and sustainable fisheries and aquaculture. A research paper, titled “Has the consumers awareness of sustainable seafood been growing in Japan? Implications for promoting sustainable consumerism at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics and Paralympics,” (Hori et al., 2020) found in a web-based survey conducted in 2017 and 2019, “Japanese consumers are increasingly willing to pay more for eco-labeled products, especially when informed that such products are sustainable.”

According to the white paper, the success of the sustainable seafood movement borne out through year's Olympics can be seen as part of a synergy of contributing movements that reinforced each other. These would include the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and efforts to feature certified seafood on company cafeteria menus. Together, these have made strides to overcome a “chicken or the egg” problem: retailers can’t sell sustainable seafood until it is available from producers and distributors, and producers and distributors won’t supply it until a market exists.

Lloyd’s Register Japan Director Hidemi Tomita, who was involved in the establishment of the sustainable procurement code for the Tokyo Olympic Games, predicted such a result in 2019.

“As this subject is increasingly featured in the mass media, public awareness will also increase," Tomita said. "A higher number of purchasing consumers will lead to greater commercial confidence in these products.”  

Photo courtesy of StreetVJ/Shutterstock


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