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.

28 responses

  1. If indeed the response from Trader Joe’s is as Greenpeace presents, then I think Trader Joe’s is being disingenuous to say simply “they listen to the customer.” Of course they should, but don’t they have a responsibility beyond just that? I’m no expert, but it seems to me “corporate social responsibility” or “environmental stewardship” entails more than “listening to the customer”
    Good post Chris!

  2. I agree. Corporations need to listen to the customers in order to improve, but they also need to demonstrate leadership on their own as well. Sometimes you have to make a decision because it is the right decision. My whole point in the article is that corporations should not have to wait for their customers to tell them to make the right decision.

  3. I would like to think TJ’s did something specific to annoy Greenpeace. They’ve really laid it out this time and I wonder if there’s bad-blood here.

  4. I agree TJ’s needs a larger view than just responding to customers. That’s a too common cop out. But you wrote (to TJ’s) “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”.
    But could it be they were singled out because they snubbed Greenpeace? Or perhaps because Greenpeace calculated TJ’s may be a tipping point?

  5. Good points. I agree that with all the work Greenpeace has put into “Traitor Joe”, including a pretty impressive faux website, that there must be some bigger reason for their effort.
    Or it could just be that they really feel that they (being Greenpeace) or us (being customer) can actually cause Trader Joes to make a change.
    I’ve emailed Trader Joes for a response and I would love to give them a chance to state their position and counter what Greenpeace has to say. Hopefully they will respond!

  6. I like Trader Joes. I shop there when I can even though it is “out of the way” for me to shop there. My understanding of their marketing is to be a “less expensive version of Whole Foods.”
    I think someone in their marketing department made a miscalculation in not responding proactively to Greenpeace. I would love to know what percentage of their customers support Greenpeace or simply align their beliefs in favor of Greenpeace. To Trader Joes: I’m a customer and I want you to have a sustainable policy on how you choose the seafood you carry in your stores.

  7. I’m confused — I’ve purchased some of the “red listed” fish at Wegmans and Whole Foods. (Keep in mind, I didn’t know they were overfished…and I won’t buy them again.) But if they’re selling the same fish as Trader Joe’s, why are they not drawing the same ire?
    Shouldn’t it be about the fish, and not how the company treated Greenpeace?

  8. Carol,
    Take a glance at the scorecard in the link. The reason Trader Joe’s did so poorly is that even though they sell red-listed fish, like Whole Foods and Wegmans, they dont even have a sustainable seafood policy, like the other two. In reality, its hard to expect a grocery store (who makes money selling fish) to quit selling all red-listed fish. But what they can do is at least have a plan and goals on their sustainable seafood policy.
    That is pretty interesting! I linked to this on Twitter this A.M. and Trader Joes immediately followed me. Hopefully we can have an impact on them when they realize how much attention they’re getting.

  9. Additionally, I think it would be helpful for consumers to know that while Trader Joes isn’t big on creating policies (bureaucracy- they are not into that) they are very concerned with doing what is right for creation and customers. You won’t find pages and pages of mission statements detailing every aspect of how they acquire their fish. What you will find is simple, straightforward answers (see their website). If you still have questions, definitely leave feedback on the website (higher ups DO read those emails!) or just call a store and talk to a member of management.

  10. Great information Hayley, and to my knowledge, that link is the first time Trader Joe’s has mentioned sustainable seafood on their website.
    I honestly don’t know if Greenpeace is that upset with Trader Joe’s, or if they are just using Trader Joe’s as a whipping boy. While I’m sure Trader Joe’s does care about Sustainability and while they probably loathe bureaucracy (who doesnt, except for bureaucrats), I go back to what I said in the post. Perception IS Reality. Trader Joe’s really hasnt done anything (although apparently they are starting to) to change the perception that they care about sustainable seafood.

  11. Thank you so much for posting this. I was under the mistaken impression that Trader Joe’s was a company to be trusted (it’s simply the image they seem to project). Irresponsible fishing and the destroying the future of our marine life (and indeed that is what’s happening NOW) is unforgivable and I will absolutely cease shopping at Joe’s until they show some effort. Customers won’t be happy either when there is simply no seabass, tuna, salmon, etc to be had! Also, for acceptable fish purchases, I use

  12. I think the fact that “Trader Joe’s sells fewer items on that “Red List” than the #1 ranked grocery retailer in [the greenpeace] report” says a lot about Trader Joes. They’re not big on patting themselves on the back, but they definitely DO what is right. If this is really about the fish and sustainability, surely that is whats most important.
    Again, if you find this to be a huge concern, take your questions directly to management at your local store, or leave feedback on the website

  13. Hayley,
    I think your misunderstanding the point of the article. It’s not about “patting themselves on the back”. We’re not giving out brownie points here.
    It’s about promoting sustainability, specifically sustainable fishing. If it is indeed true that they sell less Red List fish than the number one store, then that is great, but that just might be out of chance (i.e. their customers dont buy that kind of fish) and not part of any policy.
    The fact is, because Trader Joes hasnt come out and said what their sustainble fishing policy is, we DONT KNOW.
    So I go back to the perception vs. reality question. You can say that they definitely DO what is right, but how do their customers know that when they dont tell people what they DO in regards to their sustainable seafood policy?
    And I did leave an inquiry on their website and never heard anything back.

  14. Despite the fact that Wegman’s (ranked #1 by Greenpeace) has a sustainable fish policy, is actively involved with the key initiatives and does an ok job at labeling, they still sell exactly the same amount of red listed fish as Trader Joe’s (15 of the 22 listed). That begs the question, what will it take to move the industry to actually take some real action? I think Trader Joe’s got targeted for two reasons: 1. They are a large national brand that can bring attention to this issue and 2. They have not actively participated in any of the key stakeholder initiatives, nor have they developed a formal policy and they do not do a good job at labeling their seafood, thus making them an ideal target.

  15. I’ve talked to people at Trader Joe’s about this, and here is the other side of the story…
    Trader Joe’s does not respond to surveys of any kind, and did not return the survey about the seafood they sell to greenpeace. As a result, greenpeace is acting on information that is sketchy at best.
    For example of the 15 fish on the “red list” that TJ’s allegedly sells, there are no less than 5 that I know for a fact they do not sell:
    Trader Joe’s DOES NOT carry
    Chilean Sea Bass
    Ocean Quahog
    Alaskan Pollock
    In fact, according to TJ’s, they carry fewer greenpeace “red list” fish than the #1 rated store in the “study”
    And finally from Horses mouth, this is straight off Trader Joe’s website:
    1. A Note to Our Customers About Trader Joe’s Seafood
    As we’ve often mentioned, we listen to our customers. Hearing recent feedback, our goal is to offer seafood options that fit customer needs ranging from food safety and taste, to concern over the environment.
    This is not a new development for us. For example, we stopped selling Chilean Sea Bass in 2005 because of customer feedback.
    To continue in our efforts to support this goal, we intend to use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s science-based and research-backed “Seafood Watch” recommendations to help with our seafood purchasing decisions.
    When we do offer seafood species on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch “red” or “avoid” list, we undertake additional steps to fully understand the ways in which those items come to market to be sure they fit with our customers’ needs and concerns. We’re also evaluating alternatives to those red list species.
    As with all the decisions we make about the products we offer, this is an ongoing process. We look forward to sharing our progress with our customers.

  16. Some Trader Joe’s fan,
    But here is the question:
    Would Trader Joe’s have made this statement:
    “To continue in our efforts to support this goal, we intend to use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s science-based and research-backed “Seafood Watch” recommendations to help with our seafood purchasing decisions.”
    Without all the focus of Greenpeace, would Trader Joe’s have made the effort?
    Again, I think the biggest failure on Trader Joe’s behalf is not that they were operating un-sustainably, but that they weren’t communicating to their customers what their sustainable seafood policy was.
    How long was the quote you pulled from their website on there? Did they put it up in response to Greenpeace?
    If so, I would say Greenpeace accomplished their mission of encouraging Trader Joe’s to establish and communicate their sustainable seafood policy to the public!

  17. Dan,
    Here is the latest from their website:
    “To continue in our efforts to support this goal, we intend to use the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s science-based and research-backed “Seafood Watch” recommendations to help with our seafood purchasing decisions.
    When we do offer seafood species on the Monterey Bay Aquarium’s Seafood Watch “red” or “avoid” list, we undertake additional steps to fully understand the ways in which those items come to market to be sure they fit with our customers’ needs and concerns. We’re also evaluating alternatives to those red list species.”
    So, they do sell some Red List fish, but I dont know which. But honestly, I dont think that is the point. The point is, I’m fairly certain they just put up that statement after Greenpeace’s campaign.
    To me, the bigger issue is not the validity of Greenpeace’s campaign, but the fact that Trader Joe’s only communicated their effort after they had so much negative attention.

  18. OK, so Trader Joe’s responded…what now? They apparently have a policy now. Will GreenPeace call off the witch hunt? Shouldn’t they be attacking the other major chains that don’t have a policy or scored lower on the card?
    I actually loved Moderate1’s comment.
    Trader Joe’s most likely ignored GreenPeace because they are – well, GreenPeace – and GreenPeace got their panties in a wad about it.
    All of this talk about Corporate Values, and no mention of the Corporate Values that Trader Joe’s actually DOES incorporate (which are the reasons that the company has been so successful).
    So, now that they have made their statement, what does GreenPeace have to cry about?

  19. There is no more environmentally protective store than Trader Joe’s. TJs was the first store to offer canvas bags to replace paper bags and no plastic bags. Check the product labels for the quality of their products versus other name brands. Preservative chemicals are at an absolute minimum or non-existent. Is Greenpeace addressing the fact that many farm raised fish are raised in putrid conditions. Is Greenpeace concerned about the health of people as well as sustaining wild fish?

  20. Trader Joe’s is the most environmentally responsible store as well as being the most health conscious. The encouragement of customers to use canvas bags instead of paper or plastic started with TJs. The elimination of the use of plastic bags has been a company policy for years. The elimination of chemical preservatives in their food has been a company policy. Seafood is a two-edged issue. Farm raised fish have for the most part been proved to have been raised in some pretty unhealthy situations. What has Greenpeace done to make sure that farm raised fish are raised in a clean environment? There is a reason why knowledgeable consumers want wild salmon versus farm raised salmon for instance. If Greenpeace were truly objective they would get their collective environmental egos out of the discussion and concentrate on what is actually occuring at Trader Joe’s and in other markets.

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