Trader Joes: How Not to Approach Sustainability

Traitor_Joes_greenpeace.jpgGreenpeace has never been known for being a prude when it comes to environmental activism. The only thing worse than being a Japanese whaling fleet in the sites of The Esperanza is being a company targeted by Greenpeace for un-sustainable practices. Greenpeace doesn’t just casually mention those companies who they feel are dropping the ball; they call them out, mock them, and attempt to shame them into action. And this is exactly the fate that has been brought upon the national grocer Trader Joe’s. Or as Greenpeace would say, “Traitor Joe’s“.

As Deborah Fleischer covered earlier this week, Trader Joe’s has been singled out among many of the grocers that Greenpeace covers in its report on the sustainable seafood policies of grocery stores, Carting Away the Oceans. Greenpeace has graded the grocery stores on four categories: Policy, Initiatives, Labeling, and Red list sales (fish that are deemed by Greenpeace to be over-fished).
In the introduction of the report, Greenpeace states:

The original purpose of this project was to inform retailers of the impacts their seafood sales are having on marine life. We also sought to use public awareness and objective science to reward retailers that were willing to incorporate the principles of sustainable business into their seafood operations.

And while some grocers like Wegmans, Ahold, Whole Foods, and Target get positive marks for their efforts, others, like Aldi, Costco, Giant Eagle, H. E. B., Meijer, Price Chopper, Publix, Trader Joe’s, and Winn-Dixie have drawn the ire of Greenpeace. And none more so than Trader Joe’s, whose scorecard can be seen here.

While there are three grocers with scores below Trader Joe’s, one reason for Greenpeace’s focus on them is probably found on the scorecard in which Greenpeace states: “Trader Joe’s remains the largest US grocer operating on a nation-wide scale that refuses to substantively respond to Greenpeace inquiries regarding its seafood sustainability policies and practices.”

The quote below also comes from Greenpeace’s sustainable grocer scorecard in regard to Trader Joe’s. I put the text in bold that speaks to the main point of this story.

In correspondence dated March 11, 2008 (the most recent and only time Trader Joe’s management deigned to discuss the issue of seafood sustainability with Greenpeace), Jon Basalone, Senior Vice President of Marketing, stated “We simply listen to our customers” when it comes to deciding how to do its business and determine what it sells. This view is antithetical to the basic tenets of Corporate Social Responsibility – to take social, environmental, and political concerns into account when doing business – and runs counter to consumer preference and marketing trends toward sustainable products.

If we are to believe Greenpeace and take what they say Mr. Basalone told them at face value, it appears that Trader Joe’s has decided it has no intentions of providing sustainable solutions to their customers.

You see, Sustainability (yes, with a capital “S”) is not a marketing gimmick. It is not a slogan a company adopts to attract more customers. It is not “Drinkability”. It is not something you do just to mark a check box on a company questionnaire.

Sustainability is a way a company does business. It is a value a company adopts – like Fairness, Service, Quality. No company says, “We decide to pollute because our customers haven’t asked us not to.” Sustainable companies don’t wait for their customers to ask them, they operate sustainably because it is the way they choose to do business. Interface Carpet did not become a leader in Corporate sustainability because their customers begged them to. They did it because it was the right way to do business.

To Trader Joe (yes, I’m speaking to you directly), Greenpeace is not singling you out because you sell Red Listed fish. Many of the other grocers on their list (including third ranked Whole Foods) also sell Red Listed fish. You are being singled out because you have shown zero effort and a complete and utter lack of leadership in addressing your sustainable seafood policy. It really isn’t that hard. Have a meeting, do some research, and make a little progress. Put up a blurb on your website. For heaven’s sake, at least act like you are trying to make an effort. Perception is reality, and the perception (which Greenpeace is playing no small part in spreading) is you don’t give a damn.

If you’re waiting for a customer to ask you do it, here you go: Please develop a Sustainable seafood policy or I will no longer buy seafood (or cheap wine) in your store.

To other Trader Joe’s customers, feel free to ask Trader Joe’s to develop a sustainable seafood policy in the comments section below or contact them directly. Some companies just need a little extra prodding in order to make the right decision.

Chris is a graduate of Georgia Tech with a degree in Mechanical Engineering. Chris has worked in many industrial settings including the only U.S. BMW manufacturing plant and a nuclear power plant. Since graduating in 2006, he has been selling industrial automation and electrical control products to manufacturers in Georgia. This has enabled him to see many manufacturing processes and witness how energy is used in industrial settings. Chris is a huge believer in active Energy Management and the power of Sustainable Manufacturing (although he is surprised at how few companies are doing either of these). In the Spring of 2009 Chris started Mapawatt Blog, which focuses on practical energy and water conservation techniques that the individual can utilize in their home and business. He believes that the only way Sustainable practices will take root in our society and reach a tipping point is if individuals take action and become "sustainability preachers" to their friends, family and co-workers.