There’s something deeply fishy about sustainability

As the human demand to consume fish keeps rising, supermarkets are struggling to find a sustainable way to keep up with the demand

Alan%20MitchellNot long ago during the heyday of marketing gurus such as Al Ries and Jack Trout, you had it made if your brand could “own” just one word in the consumer’s mind. Communication was all about simplicity, clarity, brevity and certainty.

Today, with new challenges in areas such as social and environmental responsibility, we are having to learn a very different approach. What is the secret of good communication when the issues are complex and uncertain, and we are in the middle of a messy and painful process of change?

This is the challenge now facing most big brands. Wal-Mart for example started down this road in October 2005 with an ambitious commitment: to be supplied with 100% renewable energy, to create zero waste, and to sell products that sustain our resources and our environment). As the biggest retailer in the world it is incredibly influential. What issues has it had to face so far?

Let’s focus on just one small example: fish. Global stocks of big fish such as tuna, swordfish, marlin, cod, halibut, skate and flounder are down 90% since 1950 when industrialised fishing was introduced. We’re careering towards the effective extinction of some species, even as human demand for fish rises inexorably. Each year, for example, Wal-Mart sells 25% more fish.

One apparent way forward is to farm more fish. Unfortunately however, this is not the neat solution many once hoped it to be. It turns out, for example, that farmed carnivorous fish deplete wild fish stocks even faster than non-farmed – because more wild fish have to be caught to feed the farmed fish. In addition, environmentalists warn that fish farms are creating environmental disasters: killing coastal eco-systems via the antibiotics, chemicals and feeds they use, plus the concentrated faeces they produce. Then there’s the fact that farmed fish (salmon, for example) contain up to ten times more toxins (dioxin, PCBs, and other potential carcinogens) than their wild cousins. Enter trip-up factor number one: as soon as you move past the headline slogan to practical realities, complexities can quickly overwhelm you.

Wal-martThese complexities, in turn, mean that different people have different points of view. The subject becomes a matter of debate, disagreement and controversy, when what marketers want most from their communication is unity and certainty. When Wal-Mart announced its decision to only buy shrimp certified by the Global Aquaculture Alliance (GAA), for example, many activist groups complained vociferously. The standards set by the GAA are far too low, they say. Far from helping the cause of sustainability, actions like this actually embed unsustainable practices even deeper. For Wal-Mart, what should have been “good news” quickly became “bad news” instead.

The next hurdle: announcing a goal is very different to demonstrating your progress towards it. How can you prove your fish come from sustainable sources? After all, a “sustainable” fish looks exactly the same as an unsustainable fish, and because sustainable fish generally cost more to catch, suppliers have strong economic incentives to fudge and lie. Every step of the process from boat to plate needs to be monitored and policed, which creates a strong need for transparency – once again, not something marketers are used to or comfortable with. After all, the history of branding is one of mask creation – hiding all the complexities of production, supply chains and so on behind carefully constructed brand identities.

Thankfully, in this particular area, the transparency problem has been tackled by the Marine Stewardship Council’s (MSC) certification programme, the product of a visionary partnership between Unilever and the World Wildlife Fund (WWF). But the transparency challenges don’t end there, as Wal-Mart discovered.

Two years ago, it made a bold promise to have all its fish MSC certified within three to five years. (M&S made a similar promise this year, giving itself a five year window to 2012). But how do you communicate progress towards this goal? By the end of last year, about 15% of the fish sold by Wal-Mart was MSC certified, with suppliers of another 35% of its total volume working towards certification. That’s great progress. But it also left another 50% of total supply coming from other sources such as Russia, where the fishing industry is unregulated and where many fishing practices are the opposite of sustainable. If you make a fuss about the glass being half-full (look at the progress we have made!) it leaves you wide open to critics on the half-empty side: “Why are you still buying so much fish from cowboys?” And if you try to sidestep this dilemma by staying silent, you risk being attacked on another front: lack of transparency.

Fish%20counterBack in October 2005 Wal-Mart promised to provide a comprehensive report on progress towards its environmental goals by the spring of this year. The report was eagerly awaited. Then it was delayed. It still hasn’t appeared – triggering a further barrage of criticism.

This episode highlights yet another complicating factor in this communication labyrinth. With good, old fashioned brand communications, at least the brand’s motives were never in doubt. Everyone knew that the brand wanted to sell more by offering a distinctive benefit. It was basically a win-win. But the starting point here is a legacy of deep distrust. As far as many activists are concerned, anything and everything big corporates like Wal-Mart or Tesco do or say is just “greenwashing” – and the media (which has its own headline grabbing agenda) is often very happy to run with these assumptions. So brands are struggling up hill without the assistance of any benefit of the doubt.

Finally, we need to add one more ingredient to the cauldron. Sustainable fishing is just one small piece of a much, much bigger picture. It’s just one of 14 initiatives made by Wal-Mart, including energy and carbon emissions, packaging, textiles, electronics, food and agriculture (including soil erosion and water), paper and timber products, chemical intensive products and so on. And that’s excluding the even murkier issues relating to human rights. Each area has its own complexities and controversies. But brands need to manage them all together, consistently and coherently.

It’s very difficult building trust in an atmosphere of uncertainty, doubt, disagreement and suspicion. Brands trying to do so quickly find themselves on a steep learning curve. But at least the starting point is now becoming clear. Communication for the purposes of selling a product is completely different to communication for the purposes of building trust in a process of change. Mixing the two can be tempting. But it is also explosively dangerous.

Alan Mitchell,


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