Trader Joe's most recent update to its sustainable seafood policy has left environmental groups largely skeptical of the grocery chain's commitment to preserve the planet's ocean wildlife.
In a statement posted on the company's website, Trader Joe's said it has ceased buying swordfish caught in Southeast Asia and is "evaluating sources from U.S. Pacific waters," which the company acknowledged may result in "gaps in supply before being able to offer swordfish fitting our goal."
The company also said it will buy its canned tuna from sources with more ethical catching methods and will no longer offer genetically engineered salmon or shrimp from dubious farms.
Its reputation for responsibility notwithstanding, Trader Joe's has long been the black sheep of the grocery industry for its failure to adopt sustainable sourcing policies for its seafood. In 2009, Greenpeace launched the bruising "Traitor Joe's" campaign to pressure the company into halting the sale of endangered species and seafood caught with environmentally destructive methods.
Bowing to pressure, Trader Joe's announced in March, 2010 that it would source all of its seafood from sustainable sources by the end of 2012, and pundits and policymakers alike heralded the grocery chain for its commitment to responsibility.
"We applaud Trader Joe's commitment to creating a strong sustainable seafood policy," Casson Trenor, a Greenpeace campaigner, said at the time. "After all, seafood consumers deserve access to transparent, accurate information about the products they choose."
The impact of unsustainable fishing practices on the world’s oceans is immense. The World Wildlife Fund estimates that the global fishing fleet is as much as three times larger than what the oceans can sustainably support. As a result, more than half of the world’s fisheries are fully exploited, while nearly one third are overexploited, depleted, or recovering from depletion.
Alarmingly, as many as nine in ten of all the ocean’s large fish have been fished out, and unless the current situation improves, stocks of all species currently fished for food are predicted to collapse by mid-century.
Since its 2010 commitment, Trader Joe's has made some improvements in its sustainable seafood policies, pledging not to sell genetically engineered seafood and buying from local, sustainable fisheries.
Nevertheless, last year Trader Joe's still ranked 15th of 20 companies on Greenpeace's Carting Away the Oceans scorecard, which ranks grocery stores on seafood sustainability. Several companies with shabbier sustainability reputations, including Walmart, Target, Wegmans, and Safeway, outperformed Trader Joe's.
Of greater concern is the fact that Trader Joe’s has refused to confirm or deny whether it has met its goal of sourcing 100 percent of its seafood from sustainable sources. After Trader Joe’s issued its most recent update, company spokeswoman Alison Mochizuki was asked whether the company had met its deadline.
“Beyond the statement, there is nothing else we can say at this time,” she said.
Greenpeace’s Trenor recently told Zester Daily that while Trader Joe’s has made “tremendous progress” toward preserving the oceans, the company has been obstinate in its refusal to disclose useful information about its sourcing policies. Trenor said that Trader Joe’s still stocks its shelves with goods such as farmed salmon and dredged scallops that Greenpeace and other environmental groups consider unsustainable.
Meanwhile, two companies – Safeway and Whole Foods – have distinguished themselves as clear-cut leaders in the sustainable seafood movement. In its most recent Carting Away the Oceans report, Greenpeace said that Safeway and Whole Foods “have transformed themselves into undeniable leaders within the industry… They have each found ways to excel in their promotion and adoption of sustainable seafood.”
“Greenpeace celebrates the achievements of these companies,” the report continued, “and eagerly awaits similar outcomes from other retailers that are poised to embrace sustainability to a greater degree.”
Harry Stevens is a freelance reporter covering climate change, corporate social responsibility, social enterprise, and sustainable finance. Harry has contributed to several media outlets, including Justmeans, GreenBiz, TriplePundit, and Sustainablog. You can follow Harry on Twitter: @Harry_Stevens