Uncomplicating seafood sustainability: The Peninsula Hotels creates new sourcing tool for chefs, buyers

Published on
June 26, 2019

The Peninsula Hotels portfolio is comprised of just 10 locations so far, and still, the luxury franchise – which is owned and operated by The Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels Limited – holds considerable sway in the seafood sustainability space in Asia.

Janice Lao, the director of group corporate responsibility and sustainability at The Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels Limited, points to the Peninsula’s decision in 2011 to ban the use of shark fin in its establishments as an example, which the global hospitality industry swiftly sought to emulate. When the franchise made a commitment to ban single-use plastics in 2018, colleagues and competition from around the world followed suit again, Lao recalled. 

“When we made a decision in 2011 to ban shark fin, 1,800 hotels around the world followed our lead. When we made our single-use plastics commitment last year, a thousand other hotels followed our lead,” she said.

In terms of sustainability, The Peninsula Hotels has a pioneering, powerful brand, Lao said, one that the business is seeking to maximize in its latest endeavor to raise the baseline on responsible sourcing. The franchise has partnered with the Teng Hoi Conservation Organization, a non-government organization, to create a platform aimed at increasing transparency among chefs in Asia and seafood suppliers.

“We’re basically asking suppliers to come in and tell us if they can provide us with seafood, and they need to give us certain types of information: country of origin and catch method. And when they put that information on the tool, they need to ensure that they can be audited against it,” Lao explained of the tool’s basic function. “Buyers can see that information. What we’ve also done is ask our hotels to use the tool and ask their suppliers to put in their information into the tool."

The tool seeks to simplify a process that had been dogging chefs serving seafood across the Peninsula franchise for quite some time, Lao said. Roughly two years ago, when she first started with the business, Lao was approached by the Peninsula’s executive chef. He had a problem that he hoped Lao, who has a scientific background – she holds a master's of science degree in environmental change and management from St. Catherine’s College, University of Oxford – could help solve.

“When I joined the The Peninsula [Hotels] around two-and-a-half years ago, the executive chef of all of our operations basically sat me down and said, ‘We want to buy sustainable seafood, but why is it so complicated?’ Basically, what the chefs were telling me [was], ‘I want to be spending more time cooking food and spending more time in the kitchen rather than on my laptop being given this information by all of these scientists – you’re a scientist, make it simple for me,’” Lao said.

She was somewhat rattled by the revelation at first, but the chefs’ plight quickly began to resonate for Lao.

“That was pretty shocking to hear,” she said. “The reason I got into sustainability was because I wanted to make a difference, and what I found was we were making it complicated for the people who were actually making these decisions.”  

The executive chef issued a challenge for Lao and her team: “Come up with a tool that’s user-friendly, that can be easily understood by both procurement managers and our kitchen staff, that will give me high quality seafood without sacrificing on small-scale fishermen – I still want to know who is producing the seafood, who is catching the seafood. I don’t want mass-scale, I want artisanal, but I also want to know if I’m sourcing this sustainably.”

The tool that was born from that challenge is one Lao likens to a “LinkedIn for seafood” – allowing seafood buyers to search and peruse species and supplier profiles until they find the perfect fit for their needs and responsibility commitments.

“We don’t force buyers to make decisions based on certain types of criteria. Each buyer will make their own decision,” Lao said. “In our case, we’ll make our own decision based on the information that we see on the tool. I liken the tool as a LinkedIn for seafood, so if you click on a particular type of seafood, you’ll see whose selling it, you’ll see where it was caught, how it was caught, and all the other documentation.”

The platform opens up new channels toward sustainability for smaller artisanal fishermen, which chefs in Asia prefer, according to Lao.

“If you’re selling certified seafood, whether its MSC [Marine Stewardship Council-certified], ASC [Aquaculture Stewardship Council-certified], or BAP [Best Aquaculture Practice’s-certified], or tons of other seafood certifications, you’ll provide that information to us – we’ll happily accept that,” she said. “But if you are a small-scale, artisanal fisherman – which a lot of our chefs prefer – you don’t necessarily have to get certification, but we’ll help you get to step one or step two of that process. Because we still want you as part of our supply chain.” 

The Peninsula Hotels has high expectations for the tool, which is currently undergoing beta-testing. A large part of the platform coming about is thanks to a sense of “self-enlightenment” possessed by the Peninsula franchise, Lao said. 

“The development of the tool has basically been covered by us. Why are we doing it? Are we doing it out of the goodness of our hearts? No, we’re doing it from a level of self-enlightenment,” she said. “We understood the power of our brand and we thought, 'What if we leveraged our brand and bring everybody with us?’ We need to bring up the baseline so no longer are we just doing this for sustainability – we’re bringing it up,” she added.

Lao herself has lead an international career, serving world-renowned international think tanks and blue-chip multinational conglomerates in the transport, energy, extractive, fast-moving consumer goods, property, and hospitality sectors. She was most recently listed in Forbes as one of the world’s top female sustainability leaders and is the 2019 Edie Sustainability Leader of the Year Awardee. Her work has also been highlighted by global organizations, such as Fortune’s Change the World list in 2017.

Incorporated in 1866 and listed on The Stock Exchange of Hong Kong (00045), Hongkong & Shanghai Hotels Limited is the holding company of a group – including The Peninsula Hotels – which is engaged in the ownership, development, and management of prestigious hotel, commercial, and residential properties in Asia, the United States, and Europe. The Peninsula Hotels portfolio includes The Peninsula Hong Kong, The Peninsula Shanghai, The Peninsula Beijing, The Peninsula Tokyo, The Peninsula New York, The Peninsula Chicago, The Peninsula Beverly Hills, The Peninsula Paris, The Peninsula Bangkok, and The Peninsula Manila. The Peninsula London, The Peninsula Yangon, and The Peninsula Istanbul are all projects under development by the franchise.

Image courtesy of The Peninsula Hong Kong

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