American grocers have vastly improved their sustainable seafood offerings over the past decade, according to a new report from Greenpeace.
The global NGO’s annual Carting Away the Oceans report evaluates seafood sustainability at 22 U.S. retailers based on things like sourcing policies, labeling and transparency practices, and inventory. When Greenpeace published its first report back in 2008, every single retailer failed. Fast forward 10 years later, and 90 percent of them received passing scores—a powerful indicator that change is brewing, the NGO said.
Mainstream grocers lead the way on sustainable seafood
Whole Foods remains the top ranked retailer after implementing “marked sourcing improvements” in the year since being acquired by Amazon, Greenpeace said.
While the NGO gave Whole Foods high marks, it noted the retailer still has a long way to go when it comes to labor standards—citing a recent Oxfam report detailing human rights abuses in supermarket supply chains. “As labor and human rights abuses persist in the seafood industry, Whole Foods has the opportunity to lead with the same tenacity as it has on sustainable seafood,” Greenpeace wrote in its report.
Hy-Vee, a family-owned chain of nearly 250 grocery stores located throughout the Midwest, received Greenpeace’s highest transparency score and placed second overall. The company also improved its policies on shelf-stable tuna, a key battleground issue for Greenpeace as it continues to pressure retailers to improve sourcing for canned as well as fresh fish.
German grocer Aldi, which operates nearly 2,000 stores in the U.S., moved into the top three for the first time, thanks in part to new policies that address problem practices like transshipment at sea. Transshipment—the practice of transferring catch from small fishing boats to larger vessels with refrigerated hulls—cuts fuel use and improves efficiency, but Greenpeace and other NGOs warn that it can make seafood harder to trace and can even mask human rights abuses within the supply chain.
“By enabling fishing vessels to remain on the fishing grounds, transshipment reduces fuel costs and ensures catch is delivered to port more quickly,” Global Fishing Watch said of the practice in a 2017 report. “It also leaves the door open for mixing illegal catch with legitimate catch, drug smuggling, forced labor, and human rights abuses aboard fishing vessels that remain at sea for months or years at a time.”
Wegmans, the northeastern grocery chain Giant Eagle and west coast health food favorite Sprouts joined Aldi in drafting public policies regarding the transshipment of tuna.
Meanwhile, Trader Joe’s stands out on the list for the wrong reasons. Though the popular retailer carries few overfished or farmed species—earning it the best score in the inventory category—it has failed to make good on its more ambitious sustainability promises, Greenpeace said: “More than eight years after Trader Joe’s committed to improve on seafood sustainability, the retailer does not have a robust, public sustainable seafood procurement policy.”
Check out how your favorite grocer fared in the full ranking below:
Grocers still have more work to do
Greenpeace Oceans Campaigner David Pinsky praised retailers’ progress while calling on them to do better.
“Supermarkets across the country have made significant progress on seafood sustainability,” he said in a statement. “It is time for major retailers to put the same energy into tackling the other issues facing our oceans and seafood workers, such as plastic pollution and labor and human rights abuses in seafood supply chains. It’s not truly sustainable seafood if it is produced by forced labor and then wrapped in throwaway plastic packaging.”
For the first time, Greenpeace’s seafood sustainability report assessed retailers based on their use of single-use packaging, and the findings are less than stellar: None of the profiled retailers have committed to reduce or ultimately phase out their reliance on single-use plastics, Greenpeace found.
“The equivalent of one garbage truck of plastic enters our oceans every minute, and with plastic production set to double in the next 20 years—largely for packaging— the threats to ocean biodiversity and seafood supply chains are increasing,” the NGO concluded in its report. “Single-use plastics are devastating our oceans, and retailers must take responsibility for their contribution to this global crisis.”
On the human rights front, Oxfam’s scathing June report—Behind the Barcodes—paints a disturbing picture of a global grocery industry that fails to advocate for its supply chain workers.
As part of its report on grocers from around the world, the anti-poverty organization assessed America’s six largest retailers based on their supply chain policies. “The overall results reveal that U.S. supermarkets are failing to do enough to protect the rights of the workers in their supply chain,” Oxfam concluded. “None of the six supermarkets we looked at in the U.S. scored any points for policies supporting the right for workers in their supply chain to earn a living wage, and just one scored at all on respecting the rights of women.”
At a time when human rights abuses continue to run rampant in the seafood sector—and pollution and overfishing threaten the industry’s very existence—Greenpeace appeared to congratulate companies for their work thus far, while driving home the need to keep up the momentum.
“Together we have achieved a great deal over the past 10 years,” the NGO said. “Nonetheless, the work over this next decade is critical to ensuring healthy oceans teeming with marine life, where seafood workers are treated fairly, and coastal fishers are able to provide for their families without suffering exploitation from industrial fishing fleets.”
Mary has reported on sustainability and social impact for over a decade and now serves as executive editor of TriplePundit. She is also the general manager of TriplePundit's Brand Studio, which has worked with dozens of organizations on sustainability storytelling, and VP of content for TriplePundit's parent company 3BL.