Walmart launches project to evaluate seafood sustainability

A secretive project aimed at developing “criteria to evaluate seafood sustainability programs” was scheduled to begin with an Oct. 9 working dinner workshop in Atlanta.

The project is being managed by “The Sustainability Consortium,” a think tank that describes itself as representing “100+ of the world’s largest organizations,” but appears to be an initiative of Wal-Mart Stores Inc., which was a founding member of TSC.

The project has State of Alaska support, according to an email from a Walmart spokeswoman, and the Alaska Seafood Marketing Institute will be participating.

“I saw the governor last night and he let me know he appreciates our collaboration on this issue. I let him know we feel we are on the right track and appreciate the two of you,” wrote Jennifer Spall, a senior public affairs director in Seattle for Walmart, in a Sept. 25 email to Susan Bell, commissioner of the Department of Commerce, and Stefanie Moreland, Gov. Sean Parnell’s special assistant for fisheries.

Sharon Leighow, Parnell’s press secretary, did not respond to a request for comment.

Beside ASMI, the three-hour Atlanta session will include ecolabelers Marine Stewardship Council and Friend of the Sea, non-governmental organizations World Wildlife Fund and the Environmental Defense Fund and the New England and Monterey Bay Aquariums, according to Spall.

The National Marine Fisheries Service, and several major seafood producers and retailers, including Kroger, Ahold, McDonalds, Darden, the National Fish & Seafood Co., Darden, Highliner, Seattle-based Aqua Star seafood company and others, according to Spall’s email.

She also wrote, “We anticipate this to be resolved by early next year and to flow similar to what we have seen with other standards that have been reviewed, such as forest products.”

Walmart spokesman Christopher Schraeder refused to answer any questions about the project on the record.

Speaking on background, a senior officer from a participating organization said of the project, “The goal is to develop criteria to evaluate seafood sustainability programs. Importantly, it is not to compare MSC or RFM, or to choose a single certification. Walmart has successfully used this same process to establish criteria for other products that have multiple programs. The goal is to conclude the process early in 2014.”

“MSC” is the Marine Stewardship Council. “RFM” refers to the ASMI “Responsible Fisheries Management” business-to-business certification program.

ASMI will be represented by Randy Rice, its seafood technology program director, who suggested that the project has not been well explained.

“They are going to use LCA (life cycle assessment) to evaluate product lines. Apparently, as a result of the Walmart conversation of late, are to also be used in some sort of evaluation capacity for RFM. This process and mechanism is not at all clear at this point,” Rice wrote Oct. 1 in response to questions for this report.

“It is very unclear exactly what the agenda is with regard to RFM or Alaska, and what if any, are the identified outcomes,” Rice added.

“The Walmart conversation” refers to ongoing efforts by ASMI, other state officials and industry representatives to convince Walmart to drop its demand for MSC-labeled fish products and accept the RFM certification as an equally legitimate scheme. That effort included a visit to Walmart’s Arkansas headquarters in September.

Of TSC Rice wrote, “There are a number of academics in the group and significant financial support from the Walton Foundation. It is not clear to me how the group operates as a decision making body.”

The Walton Foundation is a nonprofit charity of the family that established and owns the majority of Walmart shares.

The academic members of TSC include Arizona State University, the University of Arkansas, Nanjing University, which entered a partnership with TSC in August, and Wageningen University, in the Netherlands.

Both U.S. universities have received substantial financial support from Walmart entities. Both also were partners with Walmart on a project to develop a “sustainable product index” announced in 2009.

“The index will bring about a more transparent supply chain, drive product innovation and ultimately, provide consumers the information they need to assess the sustainability of products,” said Mike Duke, Walmart president and CEO at a 2008 “sustainability milestone meeting” with suppliers and nonprofits.

The index “has been rolled out across 200 product categories and to more than 1,000 suppliers. By the end of this year, we expect the index will expand to include more than 300 product categories and as man as 5,000 suppliers,” according to a Sept. 12, 2013, Walmart news release on its “Global Sustainable Milestone Meeting”

Kara Hurst, CEO of The Sustainability Consortium, said Walmart, with the Sustainability Index “is applying the science and research that we’ve developed to create a more sustainable supply chain globally.”

Much like Walmart, a TSC spokeswoman declined to provide any information on the new project.

“We’re not making any external comments about it at this point,” said Elizabeth Kessler, TSC marketing coordinator, Oct. 2.

She acknowledged the plan for the Oct. 9 meeting but refused to identify any TSC personnel, or others, who are involved or to provide any information on the new project.

“It’s not a policy of secrecy,” Kessler said.

Several of the participants in the TSC project are also involved in the Global Sustainable Seafood Initiative, a three-year project to create an internationally accepted “benchmarking tool” to rate the legitimacy of ecolabels and seafood certification programs like RFM.

Former Wageningen University researcher Herman Wisse, now director of the GSSI program, wrote in an Oct. 6 email that he was familiar with the TSC project but declined to say whether the two endeavors may be conflicting or cooperating with each other.

“At this point are not able to provide you with any further comments regarding GSSI on this,” Wisse wrote.

Walmart is not a participant in the GSSI project.

Bob Tkacz is a correspondent for the Journal based in Juneau. He can be reached at [email protected].

10/10/2013 - 9:27am